Death as tourist attraction

December 12, 2006

We’ve just arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, in southern Vietnam, after spending a few days in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Although Phnom Penh is an interesting, bustling SE Asia city, with some old French colonial districts and a nice (if predictably litter-strewn) promenade alongside the Tonle Sap river, the tourist conveyor belt there leads inexorably to Choeung Ek, the country’s most notorious Killing Field, and Toul Sleng, aka S21, the one-time school, turned torture centre, and now Genocide Museum.

This raises some interesting questions about tourism, and about how it feeds off history, even bloody, very recent history. We both had some reservations about visiting these places – sure it’s the done thing, but is it really the right thing to do?

The broader argument about how tourism is helping in the recovery of Cambodia’s shattered economy holds true here, but there are also ethical questions about whether visiting mass graves, and the site of terrible deeds and tragic human losses, is justifiable.

After visiting these two places, I believe it is, though it’s still a difficult area. Choeung Ek is very moving, even upsetting. Texts translated into poor English tell with utter despair and anger of the deeds performed there – thousands brought along in the night and murdered.  Murdered with farm implements – probably as the Khmer Rouge were so effectively pushing the country back to pre-industrial times they couldn’t spare ammo. Children bashed against trees. Loudspeakers hung in the trees to drown out the screaming and moaning.

Although 8985 bodies were exhumed from 86 mass graves, 43 other mass graves were left. The grassy grounds of Cheoung Ek contain several pits, and bones and clothes still jut from the ground.

In the centre is tall stupa, containing a tower of skulls. This is all undoubtedly macabre, but due to the stupa, and the obvious Buddhist blessings the place has received, it does feel strangely restful. Even if you’re not of a spiritual or religious bent (like my aestheist self), the psychological value of the ceremories held here, and of the memorial itself, have given the place (and presumably many Cambodians) some sense of peace.

It’s very different at S21. From the outside it still just resembles an ordinary suburban school. But the gallows standing alongside the exercise bars from its school era rapidly cause you to revise your impressions. Stepping inside, reading some of the texts, and seeing the tiny cells the classes were divided into brings about further revisions. But most of all it’s the mood of the place. Between 1975 and 1979 (the Khmer Rouge era) an estimated 20,000 people were held, brutalised, tortured and even killed here (or taken to Choeung Ek), and the atmosphere is steeped in their pain, even on a sunny day, with myriad tourists bumbling around (sporting anxious or horrified faces).

Row upon row of mug shots of the victims are heartbreaking. Very very few people brought to S21 survived. Artistically rubbish, naive paintings of the tortures are strangely potent. While the tiny, poorly constructed cells are grim indeed. Texts giving some accounts of victims hint at a wider picture of Khmer Rouge Cambodia in the late 1970s. The victims were old, young, educated, peasant, politicians, even KR members, turned upon by Angkar (“the organisation”). All of whom were subjected to terrible tortures by children – children and young teens taken from their families at that sensitive time when they should be learning morality and instead warped into monsters with “demon hearts”, in the words of a text at Choeung Ek.

Both places informed us about this hideous time in Cambodia history. And are deeply moving. Yet somehow, the “never forget” sentiment (which people have graffittied on walls) seems trite, as it was already something being reiterated after the truthes of the Nazi Holocaust emerged, or those of Stalin: and yet Pol Pot’s regime still took hold. And genocide spread across the Balkans, or took hold in parts of Africa (such as Rwanda).

Sure, we’ll never forget, and I feel better informed about Cambodia’s woes now, but how do the human stop the people succumbing to warped ideologies and discovering the barbaric parts of themselves that lead to such things as Cambodian children killing other Cambodian children? Visiting these places and learning about such things as a tourist may be a tiny piece in the psychological jigsaw. If not, at least we helped fund the upkeep on the memorial and the museum.

Choeung Ek


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