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Southeast-South Asia Reflections

The horrors of Tuol Sleng, Pnom Penh, Cambodia

CAMBODIA | Monday, 30 January 2017 | Views [231] | Comments [1]

Today, we went to Tuol Sleng Prison in Pnomh Penh, Cambodia. Tuol Sleng is the political prison run by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79 where at least 20,000 political prisoners were tortured and killed. Having worked in the 80s in Thailand with Khmer, I was unable to come to visit Cambodia at that time because of the war. It was always my intention to come back and visit Cambodia when the war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese backed government of Cambodia was over and the Khmer government allowed it. While working in Phanat Nikhom in Thailand, we got to know many Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Laotians. Many of them were traumatized- haunted by the experiences of the long wars that raged through their counties for decades.

I always felt and still feel great sadness for the role we (Americans) played in the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. If it wasn't for the carpet bombing of Cambodia by the US of over 3,000,000 tons ( yes - that is the figure) of bombs in Cambodia in the 60's through 75 (especially the early 70's) and the resulting death of 25% of its population, Pol Pot would likely never have gained power in Cambodia. But his ego driven ideological embrace of racist driven communism led to the extermination of somewhere between 2 and 3 million more people between 1975 and 1979. Tuol Sleng was one of the worst prisons, and as I wandered between cells and torture chambers in horror I pondered about our own personal responsibility as a nation of Americans. Thinking that my own taxes (gleaned in high school and college - small though they were) had supported and perpetrated such horrors upon a people makes me realize the deep importance for us to be a participatory democracy and to make ourselves aware where our tax dollars are spent. Amazingly, Ford, Carter and Reagen played some role in continuing to support Pol Pot even after refugees were escaping Cambodia to tell their horrific stories of genocide inside the borders. The Khmer Rouge were supported by US government largely to punish Vietnam for the perceived sin of communism and for winning the war (we call it the Vietnam War, but they call it the American war.)

As I stool alone in a torture chamber hearing the silent screams of ghosts of the past it also struck me how history repeats itself and that we as a government fail to learn from history so that we do not repeat those mistakes over and over. Think Iraq! We do not understand the landscape of the culture, its history or its hierarchy, but base our own policies in selfish interests based in economics and regional domination driven by economic interest and a desire to dominate a region. I often wonder what would happen if we based international policy largely on humanitarian interests how much better off we'd be.

Two quotes in the exhibit were very profound to me, enough for me to write them down. The first was written by a former inmate from Tuol Sleng. He wrote "reflection on the past is a crucial task for all post-conflict countries because a country that can not face the problems of its past will never have the courage and fortitude to face the problems of the present and the future." I wonder what we have learned from our own reflections?

The second quote was written by a German Ambassador to Cambodia. Baron von Marshall German ambassador to Cambodia in the first decade of this century wrote "This prison reminds us to be wary of people and regimes which ignore human dignity. No particular political goal or ideology however promising, important or desirable it may appear can ever justify a political system in which the dignity of the individual is not respected." As I am so far away from my own home, I ponder with deep concern the policies I see being put forward against many people based on their religion by our new president in America. Pol Pot was a demigod - narcissistic, cruel, disrespectful who came to power with the support of mostly the rural poor people who lacked education, but were promised jobs and prosperity if  they just supported this revolutionary change. The press was reviled, then dismantled and replaced by edicts written by Angkor ( the Khmer Rouge leadersh. Education was not valued and those who were educated were targeted for persecution. Freedoms were restricted and obedience was demanded through fear. Families were separated so as to break the bonds of connection. I can't help but to worry that we are doomed to repeat the past unless we learn from it!

I will write another night about Phanat Nikhom and Koh Samed in Thailand, places I lived and hold dear in my heart always. I had an amazing time there but have little energy right now to write about it this moment. For now, it was an exhausting day and rest calls! Hopefully, my sleep will not be interrupted by nightmares and ghosts of the past!




Hi Sarai, thanks again for the blog post. It does indeed make one think. We got your postcard yesterday. Thank you! Looking forward to seeing you. Glad you are not here right now. Love, Fawzia.

  Fawzia Khan Feb 10, 2017 1:58 PM

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