May 17, 2023
PHNOM PENH – Street 113 of the Boeung Keng Kang III area is lined with cafes, a convenience store and a nail salon. Just metres away on Street 131, there is a mobile phone repair shop and an electronics store.
The real attraction – albeit a macabre one – is sandwiched in between. Tuk tuks unload foreign visitors who flock to the Tuol Svay Prey High School, which on first sight comprises nondescript three-storey buildings in a spacious square dotted by frangipani trees.
But step inside and visitors will notice the barbed wires wrapped around the parapet and iron bars enclosing its windows – the first hints of the horrors that happened within the compound.
Now known as Tuol Sleng (hill of poisonous trees in Khmer), it is a genocide museum that chronicles the massacre that happened under the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.
As the SEA Games draw to a close, I had the opportunity to visit the museum and understand more about the genocide.
Despite the 35 deg C heat, many of the exhibits, especially the haunting mugshots of the prisoners and collection of victims’ skulls, sent a chill down my spine.
Many of the inmates were shackled and packed like sardines in bigger cells or sent to smaller brick or wooden cells. They were routinely interrogated, beaten, electrocuted and tortured with various contraptions.
Out in the courtyard, a wooden structure which students used for rope climbing was turned into a device to suspend prisoners from. Underneath it are large water jars – which remain to this day – in which they were plunged head-first.
At the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2015, a witness revealed that some victims had their faces mutilated and acid was poured on the wounds.
After converting the school into a prison, torture chamber and mass grave named Security Prison 21 or S-21 – one of between 150 and 196 such centres established by the regime – the Khmer Rouge held approximately 20,000 people captive at Tuol Sleng.
Most of the prisoners included local soldiers and government officials from the previous Lon Nol regime, as well as doctors, teachers, engineers and monks. There were also foreigners from Vietnam, Thailand, France, United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Indonesia.
Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s paranoia and fear of a coup saw this group expand to include its own ranks.
The party’s brutal five-year rule resulted in the deaths of between 1.5 million and two million people.
When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only 14 survivors from S-21. They made it out alive by using their skills like photography or painting.
One of them was painter Bou Meng, whom I met at the museum promoting his first-hand account of his time in captivity through his autobiographies.
In his book, he shared how on Aug 16, 1977, he and his wife were arrested by the revolution they pledged allegiance to. He was then known as Prisoner No. 570 and never saw her again.
Bou was lashed by twisted electric wires, electrocuted and starved.
His fate improved as cadres were looking for someone to paint portraits of Pol Pot and other Communist leaders.
Eventually, he managed to escape on Jan 7, 1979. More than 20 years later, he painted more than 100 pieces depicting his personal experiences during the regime, hoping his art would inspire the world to avoid repeating Cambodia’s painful past.
He wrote: “I wasn’t lucky. Sorrow and pain have always stuck in my mind and have become a shadow that follows me. Year by year, Tuol Sleng inmates and other victims have died with their eyes open and without seeing justice.”
It felt odd walking through the scene of war crimes and snapping photos like it was a regular excursion. There was also an indescribable feeling of sadness and amazement at how people could treat others like animals.
One may also feel it is degrading for an 82-year-old former prisoner-of-war to be a book-hawking wefie magnet (some tourists took wefies without buying his autobiography).
But like the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Bou is a lesson to us, a visual and vivid reminder that such atrocities must never happen again.