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Cambodia Needs a Genocide Museum

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The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

Cambodia Needs a Genocide Museum

Establishing the Sleuk Rith Institute would meet this need, and more.  

Cambodia Needs a Genocide Museum

An artistic rendering of the planned Sleuk Rith Institute, as envisioned by late architect Zaha Hadid.

Credit: Image courtesy of DC-Cam

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge’s march through Phnom Penh, which turned Cambodia into a living hell for the next four years, leading to one of history’s greatest atrocities. We may never really know how many Cambodians perished, but even the most conservative numbers are terrifyingly high. Virtually all Cambodians, including Khmer Rouge cadres, were victimized. Not all who perished were deliberately killed, just as not every atrocity was committed with genocidal intent. Nonetheless, as events go, the Democratic Kampuchea period ranks among the most gruesome, deadliest, and most victimizing in the history of mankind.  

The Pol Pot regime’s legacy is relevant not just to Cambodians but to mankind. Yet, sadly, five decades later, Cambodia has no museum-institute, such as those commemorating the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Holodomor genocide, and the Rwandan genocide

Considering the events that ushered in this dark period in Cambodia’s history, an officially recognized architecturally inspiring space should be established – one that does much more than simply memorialize the past, as some museums do by simply displaying photographs and artifacts. Cambodia, the victims and survivors of Democratic Kampuchea, their descendants, and humanity need and deserve a museum-institute that informs, inspires, and interacts with visitors and scholars the world over.

It should offer more than a narrative of the historical events – what brought the Khmer Rouge into power, how Democratic Kampuchea functioned, its disastrous social-engineering experimentation, the purges, the conflicts with its neighbors, the genocide committed against the Cham and Vietnamese, the treatment of intellectuals, the demise of Democratic Kampuchea and the years of struggles thereafter until the Paris Peace accords, and the ultimate demise of the Khmer Rouge. It should also serve as a center for academic research, education, as well as symposiums, exhibitions, and cultural events. It should archive oral histories. It should have a robust outreach program that attracts visiting scholars. It should interact with communities and survivors. And it should associate itself with other museum-institutes in exchanging experiences and coordinating efforts on promoting accountability and tackling impunity. 

There are monuments and memorial sites scattered throughout Cambodia. There is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where mainly Khmer Rouge cadres were tortured and killed. As a memorial, it tells a fraction of the story; it tells only about the deaths of around 13,000 prisoners. Much like the Choeung Ek killing field memorial (generally the only other place visited by foreigners interested in the Khmer Rouge atrocities), the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum plays an important function in preserving and educating on what took place there, but considering the magnitude of atrocities, it is wholly insufficient and inadequate in telling the entire story and in providing the sort of resources a museum-institute for mass atrocities and genocide should provide.

The attempts of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to shed light on the atrocities and hold the surviving leadership accountable have been met with mixed reviews, primarily because courts and trials can no more establish the historical truth than they can address all incidents. Indeed, the ECCC’s jurisdiction was limited to the period between the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and its fall again in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge fled to the Thai border. The cases tried were limited in scope. Civil parties who testified were only allowed to give a sliver of their story. 

With only four cases (and only two that made it to trial), it can hardly be claimed that the ECCC’s archives, though important, tell the entire story. Nor can it be claimed that the symbolic reparations pronounced by the ECCC, welcomed as they are, provide the means and space for preserving the memory and legacy of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Appreciatively, as part of the ECCC legacy, it has established a Resource Center to carry out broad outreach and educational work. As valuable as this will be to professionals and researchers, its mandate and capabilities are limited.

The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), founded in 1995 by Yale University researchers with a grant from the United States federal government, was initially set up to build an archive of original documents and related evidence pertaining to the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea period. It became an independent legal entity in 1997. Arguably it has compiled the largest archive on the Pol Pot regime, including testimonials and oral histories from survivors.

With an impressive outreach program that informs and trains Cambodian youths at the grassroots level throughout Cambodia, it also holds symposiums and exhibitions. Its curriculum has informed and shaped educational curricula in public schools and public awareness activities throughout the country. Simply put, DC-Cam already provides many of the services that a museum-institute should offer. 

DC-Cam’s current abilities and facilities, however, are limited. Commendably, DC-Cam is acutely aware of this and has, for years, been working on a bold and state-of-the art museum-institute – the Sleuk Rith Institute. Absorbing DC-Cam’s archive, it will have a library, a graduate school on genocide and human rights, a research center, a media center, and an auditorium. 

The Sleuk Rith Institute aspires to become “Asia’s pre-eminent center for comparative research, analysis and interpretation on genocide, conflict, and human rights” in a space that “powerfully embrace[s] remembrance, healing, and restoration in the context of timeless Asian humanitarian values and design.” Overall, its mission will be to “advance human understanding and knowledge of atrocity crimes and the rule of law” through professional and education programs and services, research programs, general human awareness programs, and publicly available online historical archives. 

Realization of the Sleuk Rith Institute is years away. Such an undertaking will require extensive planning and funding and support from the Cambodian government and the international community. A decade has passed since Youk Chhang, the director of DC-Cam, conceptualized the Sleuk Rith Institute, even going so far as to convince the late, legendary, and award-winning architect Zaha Hadid to design the premises pro bono. Sadly, the project is moving at a snail’s pace, if not outright stalled. 

Setbacks are natural. Trying to get a project of this kind started, let alone finished, is a Herculean task. With official backing and recognition, funded by foreign donors, and situated on a large centrally located and easily accessible piece of land in the state’s capital, the Sleuk Rith Institute is the best hope for a Cambodian genocide museum-institute.

So is it time for Cambodia to have a museum-institute that fully memorializes the legacy of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea? The answer is an emphatic and urgent yes. Time is of the essence. The window of opportunity for establishing this institute, while the generation that survived this regime is still alive, is closing. The Cambodian government and newly elected Prime Minister Hun Manet, as well as the international community, would be well served by lending their support and assistance in nurturing the birth and sustainability of the Sleuk Rith Institute.