Tuol Seng Genocide Museum is a must-visit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
In the 1960s, Phnom Penh, Cambodia was referred as ‘Paris of the East’ and sometimes referred as ‘Jewel of Asia”.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, visited Cambodia in April 1967 at the invitation of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Cruising along the capital’s elegant boulevards in a Mercedes convertible, Lee turned to his host and said, “I hope, one day, my city will look like this“.
What has happened to the Paris of the East/ Jewel of Asia? Has it lost it shine?
Khmer Rouge’s Rule
From April 17, 1975, until January 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), also known as the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) ruled Cambodia. In 1976, Khmer Rouge ruled states were renamed as Democratic Kampuchea, the country was led by Saloth Sar widely known as Pol Pot or ‘brother number one’.
Khmer Rouge’s ideology
The Khmer Rouge’s ideology combined elements of Marxism with an extreme version of Khmer nationalism and xenophobia. The Khmer Rouge explicitly targeted the Chinese, Vietnamese, and even their partially Khmer offspring for extinction. Some people with partial Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry were present in the Khmer Rouge leadership were either purged or had to participate in ethnic cleansing campaigns.
The party’s aim was to establish a classless communist state based on a rural agrarian economy and a complete rejection of the free market and capitalism.
Khmer Rouge abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private property, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture. Public schools, pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables, re-education camps and granaries. There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. Leisure activities were severely restricted. People throughout the country, including the leaders of the CPK, had to wear black costumes, which were their traditional revolutionary clothes. Public gatherings were also banned, and any form of family relationships were frowned upon.
Security Prison 21 (S-21)
Tuol Sleng in Khmer means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees”. Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country, and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were later killed.
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest.
After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were chained to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.
The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to resist. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison’s guards. They were sometimes forced to eat human faeces and drink human urine. The dirty living conditions in the prison caused skin diseases, mites, rashes, ringworm and other ailments.
The prison’s medical staff were ignorant and offered treatment only to sustain prisoners’ lives after they had been injured during interrogation. When prisoners were taken from one place to another for interrogation, their faces were covered. Guards and prisoners were not allowed to converse. Moreover, within the prison, people who were in different groups were not allowed to have contact with one another.
Criminal Charges to the Khmer Rouge
The genocide carried out by Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot between 1975 till 1979, estimated one and a half to three million people died.
A life sentence was given to Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, he was the head of the government internal security branch, which oversaw the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp.
Four surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge:
Nuon Chea, was the former party’s deputy secretary aka ‘Brother Number Two‘. The court convicted Chea of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to imprisonment for the remainder of his life.
Khieu Samphan was the former head of state of Democratic Kampuchea received the life sentence for crimes against humanity.
Ieng Sary, was the former deputy prime minister for foreign affairs of Democratic Kampuchea aka ‘Brother number three’. He passed away on the 14 March 2013 before the case against him could be brought to a verdict.
Ieng Thirith, the party’s minister for social affairs, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to “dementia most likely caused by Alzheimer’s disease”, she passed away on 22 August 2015.
Pol Pot died in 1998.
What did I learn from Tuol Seng Genocide Museum?
The experience and the cruelty of a human’s mind against another human being are utterly disgusting. Looking at the photos of the prisoners, I saw fear and desperation, as they know that their fate is sealed. The whole museum was very solemn, and a sense of eeriness. After visiting the museum, I felt that we should be more compassionate to one another. We should not hurt or impose our ideology onto someone else.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is open daily from 7-11.30 am and from 2-5pm, entry to the museum is 2 USD. It is located at 113, Cambodia.