Title

Trajectories of memory embodied in memorial and historical sites

Dossier Cambodge. Tuol Sleng ou l’histoire du génocide en chantier / Tuol Sleng. A History of the Cambodian Genocide Under Construction.

Special Issue of Mémoires en Jeu, enjeux de société /Memories at Stake, Issues of Society.
Issue 6 (2018), pp.44-110. 
https://tinyurl.com/memory6-2018

Scholars, artists and eyewitnesses participated at a conference in Utrecht in 2017 to discuss the history of memory embodied in Tuol Sleng, a Phnom Penh secondary school converted into a special interrogation and execution place by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. They discussed the memorial museum itself, but also artifacts, pictures, movies, theatrical productions and paintings that contain tangible and intangible traces of the Khmer Rouge’s mass slaughtering, which turned Cambodia into an enacted utopia between 1975 and 1979, inspired by Maoist China. The results of this conference are now bundled in a special issue of the French magazine Mémoires-en-Jeu that deals with trajectories of memory embodied in memorial and historical sites. It also tries to analyze what it means in contemporary society to memorialize a divided past that produces asymmetries in rethinking and mastering memory.

The no longer mysterious Communist Party of Cambodia went on a rampage against its own population. By compartmentalizing their self-created adversaries into enemies and giving others licenses to kill, Pol Pot and his henchmen provided the motives and orchestrated the means of the killers.

The special issue, edited by a French-Spanish editorial board (Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier, Anne-Laure Porée and Vicente Sánchez-Biosca) devotes much space to the well-known collection of mugshots that the Tuol Sleng prison guards left behind when Phnom Penh was liberated on January 7 by the Vietnamese army and a small group of defected Khmer troopers. A small unit accompanied by a Vietnamese cameraman discovered a place euphemistically called Security Office 21 or S-21, which served as the main interrogation center for KR-cadres of the Pol Pot regime. The thousands of photographs made by the Khmer Rouge in the prison became an impressive memorial for the victims who were executed 15 kilometers from Tuol Sleng/S-21 at Choeung Ek. The prison was the summit of a system of 197 interrogation centers that together formed the center of the Killing Fields of Cambodia. In Tuol Sleng alone an estimated number of 18.000 people were interrogated, tortured and killed. Just a dozen male prisoners and four children survived. Pol Pot’s reign of terror between 1975 and 1979 was accountable for the death of at least 1.7 million people.

Nowadays Tuol Sleng is open to the public as a genocide museum. It plays a role in the painful ‘heritage’ left by the former regime, for imagining a past that is remembered, but nearly lost. As proof of an atrocity it tells a narrative that is elsewhere created. The contributors of this special issue reflect upon this legacy in a kaleidoscopic way. Important is that local voices are included here, like the former and present directors of the museum, Chey Sopheara and Chhay Visoth, who give the reader an intrinsic Cambodian perspective upon a painful past. They also tell of the laborious way the museum had to struggle with the help of foreign donors to engage with the institutional technology of representation. Rachel Hughes’ article about the role and function of visitor books is a refreshing contribution to this field.

Much attention is devoted to what Tuol Sleng has been made known for outside Cambodia: the more than 7000 pictures of mostly anonymous victims taken by their torturers, at a certain moment before their execution. By combining the images with written documents that were left in the prison archives, researchers have been able to provide names and sometimes background information for those taken to S-21. Journalists, playwrights, artists, photographers and filmmakers have dealt with this collection. Playwrights Catherine Filloux and Randal Douc show in their contributions how the traces of genocide have inspired their work in different situations. Cambodia’s most famous film director Rithy Panh discovered one prisoner’s name and background: Hout Bophana, the wife of an important KR-cadre, who remained loyal to her husband when he fell out of grace and was brought to the interrogation centre. Vicente Sánchez-Biosca tells the story of how her portrait became a source and a medium of agency, even until today. A well-known iconic image is the photo of prisoner number 462, a mother and her child; she too had her name returned to her. Chan Kim Srun became the symbol of the way the Khmer Rouge crushed innocence and reduced people to dust.

Chan Kim Srun and her baby before she got a name (left, above). Display of mugshots in Tuol Sleng. Photo taken by John Kleinen in May 1991.

The display of photographs also played a pivotal part in the outreach work of the extraordinary chambers in the courts of Cambodia (ECCC). While the verdicts of judicial cases against the main perpetrators might have been a deception for many who suffered from the Pol Pot regime, the criminal process is, like Sarah Williams argues in her contribution “only one dimension of an ongoing process of remembering” (p.75). Julia M. Fleischman, however, suggests that the results of forensic medical anthropology in the form of human remains are used quite late during the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders. Her findings are supported by the contributions of Chhay Visoth (about explicit graffiti) and Magali An Berthon (about textile and clothing), who also make an appeal not to dismiss these forms of evidence. 

This special issue dealing with the Cambodian genocide - still a term that requires explanation - also gets its weight from the visual material it presents (including archive photos of the museum itself) and the various interviews the editors held with Cambodian and non-Cambodian artists, who were asked to share details of their relationship with Tuol Sleng and the ways in which their work is influenced by the past.

The interview by Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier with American anthropologist Eve Zucker concludes the section with a fascinating account of memory practices of villagers who try to cope with the horror in their community. It also reflects on the fieldwork she conducted in Cambodia – an experience she recounts in her book Forest of Struggle: Moralities of Remembrance in Upland Cambodia (2013) – as she tracked the recovery of a village community in the southwest of the country, a site that was a Khmer Rouge base and battleground for nearly thirty years. The interview opens up the question of the remembrance of Khmer Rouge atrocities beyond Tuol Sleng and the urban environment. It points to a nationwide traumatic landscape, which in turn helps to better understand the role of the museum in today’s Cambodian memory politics, and to imagine alternative forms of memorialization of a historical period that continues to haunt generations of Cambodians. This closing paper reminds the reader of the limited space most of the authors have contributed to debates about theoretical issues. Ever since Jean Lacouture’s inapt verdict about the Khmer Rouge as an expression of tropical fascism, allusions to the Gulag or Laogai systems have been scarce. As said, the Khmer Rouge’s mass slaughtering as a means to create an enacted utopia, inspired by Maoist China, comes closer to realities than the many references to Nazi-Germany. An approach as proposed by Dutch sociologist Abraham de Swaan in his book The Killing Compartments (2015) might be a way-out to understand and to compare the tragedy that struck the inhabitants of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.


John Kleinen Visual anthropologist and historian; Dept of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam International School for Social Science Research (AISSR), J.G.G.M.Kleinen@uva.nl

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