Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Meaning of a Museum

Tuol Sleng Museum: living reminder of human cruelty or a 'cheap' and cynical propaganda machine?
‘To put it in a nutshell, Tuol Sleng has been turned into a propaganda machine.’

by Serge Thion

Sometimes, some things cannot be left without a comment. Lya Badgley's article, "Archives at Tuol Sleng Imperiled" (Phnom Penh Post, June 18-July 1, 1993) is at some points misleading and raises a question which deserves some more thoughts.

She is director of the Cornell University Library Conservation (or Conversation?) Project. I know the library as I did research there, many years ago under the very kind guidance of the late Professor John M. Echols. This is the best place in the world to study Cambodia and many other Southeast Asian subjects. The library has done an immense service to Khmer history in microfilming the Tuol Sleng Archives. Later generations will acknowledge this. I did my best, in January last year, to have the project resumed after it had stalled because of the post-Agreements political atmosphere. The documents, left over by Pol Pot's political police, cannot be safeguarded for ever in a climate where all paper documents either disintegrate or are sold on the market. Beside, they are political hot potatoes. The killers' squad and their boss, nicknamed Deuch, had some R&R in Sakeo (Thailand) in 1979 and are now roaming free in the forest.

Lya Badgley says these documents are a "treasure". It is true. The fall of Phnom Penh on January 7,1979, to the Vietnamese army was so sudden that Deuch and his team had no time to carry away the bulk of the papers. Historians have thus the rare luck to have a glimpse into the operations of a KGB-type of political police. But the utmost caution should be applied because the documents contain an incredible mixture of truths and lies. Torture produced many false admissions and, in fact, very few of these documents have been so far accurately analyzed.

This "treasure" is now safely recorded. Khmer Rouge were good record-keepers in any case and nothing indicates they would have a policy of destroying documents. I believe they just do not care about them. Is there anything else of value in Tuol Sleng that would require an effort of conservation? The place, the buildings, according to Ms Badgley, who says they "create an experience of an atmosphere unknowable from any book".

I know the place. I knew it very well. I spent one year teaching in these building in 1968-69, when it was called the Lycée Chau Ponhea Yat. I remember the noisy crowd of schoolboys and girls, my Khmer and French colleagues, the classroom where I tried to explain the contribution of Galileo to the birth of experimental physics to pupils who had never seen a lab. Twelve years later I was back on the old premises, then called Tuol Sleng. This ordinary school was surrounded by barbed wire and corrugated iron, to prevent you from looking inside.

But the place was not as it was when Deuch had left it. Vietnamese experts had been brought in, soon after the discovery. Since 1975, these North Vietnamese experts had created throughout Vietnam several political museums. Some of them had been trained in Auschwitz, Poland. Auschwitz itself had been closed for several years, in the 50's, to allow rebuilding and redesigning. 

In Tuol Sleng also, many things have changed over time. In 1991, the map made of skulls could not be seen anywhere. The huge pile of clothes, deliberately reminiscent of WW II concentration camps photographs had disappeared. The plaster busts of Pol Pot, which were probably brought in from somewhere else in 1979, had vanished. Many other small changes had occurred.

What I want to convey is the idea that museification implies an alteration of the place. Efforts are made to reorganize space and display artifacts to create a meaning that was lacking or was not obvious enough. This is quite conceivable when a museum is built for this purpose. But when it is organized in the very place where events took place, you have to transform the place in order to make it look more like what it was, to change it to look more true. I find this paradox unbearable.

I knew this place, several of my friends were killed there. But what I see now is not the real place. Why should we consider it worth keeping if authenticity is lacking? The theatrical reorganization of the place creates a distance. I believe casual visitors cannot really grasp what really happened through just walking by horror pictures. This would require a lot of knowledge on conditions in Cambodia at the time that either belong to the realm of personal experience or to a strong will to understand history. And books teach much more.

To put it in a nutshell, Tuol Sleng has been turned into a propaganda machine. I strongly believe that a struggle should be waged against Pol Pot because the danger is still there, waiting in the wings. But a Stalinist type of propaganda (Polish-communist origins of the Tuol Sleng presentation) has, in my view, a very limited value. I do not believe that Tuol Sleng should be kept as it is because some part of it is fake. This is not a honorable way to show respect for the victims.

Moreover, I do not believe that Cambodians really accept this kind of institution. Very few Khmers ever visit the museum. Prince Sihanouk suggested to cremate all the human remains to appease the wandering souls. If a stupa was then erected, crowds of Cambodians would gather there, I am sure. Tuol Sleng was designed to attract Western support against Pol Pot by equating, in a subdued way, the 1975-79 massacres to the Jewish drama during the Nazi period. The use of the very word "Genocide" is a further proof of it. This is cheap propaganda. It did not stop the West, and particularly the U.S. government, supporting Pol Pot until quite recently.

Keeping monuments to educate for the future is an illusion. The keeping of Auschwitz did not prevent Tuol Sleng. Tuol Sleng does not prevent Sarajevo. Politics is not rooted in memory but in the thirst for power. And memory in itself is not strongly related to justice. You want an example? On the roster of the US. "Campaign to oppose the return of the Khmer Rouge", you find William Colby, a former head of the CIA. Let's forget the CIA. But this man was the head of the Phoenix program in the Mekong Delta in 1968-69. As such, he ordered the killing of 60 to 80,000 civilians suspected to be Vietcong. Where is the court which would declare this now respected U.S. citizen a war criminal? Is this kind of man qualified to patronize a Genocide Museum? Let us thank Cornell, the Luce and Christopher Reynolds foundations for having saved the archives and let the Cambodians decide for themselves what they will do with Tuol Sleng.

Serge Thion


Anonymous said...

CPP Vietcong Vietnam, the master of disguise is going to try to fool the world once creating foolish laws about 1975 genocide...

Nothing but to suppress opposition/change party...

Must watch Vietcong role in ASEAN

Anonymous said...

Former king SHN did mention that he wish Toul Sleng should be get rid off but he didn't say why now I think he didn't want hun sen and the viet to use it as a propaganda tool as they are doing it now.

Baay Kdaing

Anonymous said...

i think it is good for cambodia to have this kind of museum. museum is a living history. people of the younger generation and future generation to come can see and appreciate and learn about the rich khmer history of all sorts whether good or bad history, students of khmer history find it fascinating. plus, museum like this fit well into field trip, tourists of khmer history, etc, etc... cambodia should learn from the rest of the world when it comes down to museum, etc, you know. don't let outdated thinking shape you too much; it is good for cambodia and khmer people to adapt, adopt and change or modify with time as well, really. it's part of survive of cambodia when we have museum like this as part of a rich variety of the long history of a nation like cambodia. so, leave your dirty politics aside, museum is museum, it's part of the freedom of cambodia to enjoy many kinds of museum. respect those of us who enjoy having museums. it's part of diverse history of khmer.

Anonymous said...

10:09 AM. The issue isnt the museum, it is Ah Hun Sen dirty politic using whichever way he can to silence the opposition. Why dont you use your freedom to ask Ah Hun Sen why he serves the Youn propaganda and threatens to create a civil war if he looses the election?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Serge Thion for your article as a proof for young generation to know Vietnamese's propaganda. There are more proof to as the facts to support Tul Sleng propaganda.

I am a political sciences scholar in US. I have though this fake museum since day one. Vietnam have planned to use this museum to support its invasion of Cambodia and to convince the west to turn their policies against west themselves as well as against china. But the real danger is Cambodia and the future of Cambodia. Vietnam will do everything to legalize its invasion of Cambodia and to annex Cambodia as plan.

Anonymous said...

10:09 AM

Is Ah (you know! really! ok!).
Don’t even bother responding to this Hun Sen’s dog.

Anonymous said...

Both buildings were my classroom1970-1975 second floor third floor from southwest bld and second floor from southeast bld ,very sad to see this such thing. What left over for me from my 33siblings(synonym used of words siblings mom dad brothers ,sisters inlaws nieces and nephews plus my lycée)


Anonymous said...

Khmerican William,

(mom dad brothers, sisters in-laws nieces and nephews minus my lycée) = relatives
You need to use the word ‘relatives’, so you don’t have to explain.

Anonymous said...

នៅសល់តែគុកទួលស្លែងមួយទេដែលក្រុមហ៊ុនសែនមិនហ៊ានលក់ បើកុំតែមានកន្លេងតំកល់ឆ្អឹងនិងតាំង រូបថតអ្នកស្លាប់ កុំអីលក់ហ្មត់

Anonymous said...

6:45 PM

Interesting thought!

There was a quiz running in a well-known newspaper once concerning the total size of the Kingdom of Cambodia to which one respondent wrote: "Wat Phnom"!!

Ironically, Wat Phnom [the historical place that gives its name to the Khmer capital] is a spot of town now increasingly flooded with ethnic Vietnamese residents running 'massage palours' and other related vices.

Anonymous said...

ពីព្រោះយួនបញ្ជាមិនឱ្យលក់ កុំអីលក់ហ្មត់ ។

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"respect those of us who enjoy having museums. it's part of diverse history of khmer.."

10:09 AM

You DAMN right Vietcong dog!

If you brainless don't wake-up, sooner or later the communist Vietcong barbarian will create another museum for your families too as long as you choose to live in the frog hole..

Anonymous said...

Wake up everyone, just look around, the whole world is laughing at such a leader who know nothing about politic except fighting one another for power and isn't 30years enough already? So, just look around, the more you hang onto power, the more they will take advantage of us and our downfall, be smarter, be united and be like others e.g Yingluck and Abisit, they have helped each other out in the name of 'community building', they focus on their job like, what else needs to be done for their nation. Not about power, it is about, how to help each other to grow and how to build a strong nation and so on.

Hun Sen, you needs to stop listening to outsiders, because they would never want what is best for us but to see us falling apart, that is all. Look, they done this to us before, for the last four hundreds years, so don't make the same mistake over and over again. Just get out from them crooks now, before it is too late. Because they are very good at lying, decieving and manipulation. As you can see, recently, they tried to eliminate some of our MPs, why? to continue to make us weak and be at their mercy at all costs.

VC and Chinese crooks ambidtion is, to take over the 'whole' srok khmer and to make sure we are finished. They'd done this before and they will do it again and again. Hun Sen, you have to know this fact, once you are no longer useful to them, they will find way to get rid of you too. But it is not too late yet, just turn around and say, 'enough is enough'. You are a leader and you have the right to make the decision based on, what is right and just. Right now, I can see you are following the same foot steps as Kingta, they promised you this or that, but the truth is, they are lying and decieving, they are using you to do their dirty work for them.

They are borrowing your hands and say ' well done...we will watch your back', but, for what? that is called 'helping to destroy'. So please, they lied once, twice but don't make it three times, ok. Because, the truth is, you are just another khmer like me and I don't want you to be the next victim like Pol Pot, Kingta, Hawk Lundi...,either. So, you have to wake up now and try to join hand with the CNRP for the benefit of our country and nation or else, we all be doomed!, simple as that.

Anonymous said...

We have to change the name as VIETNAM KILLED KHMER MUSEAUM.


Anonymous said...

8:16 AM. My boss wanted to knwo why 2 million Khmer were killed. I explain to him that it was impossible for Pol Pot to kill 2 millions of his own people when we were bombed by the Americans and at the asame tiem the Vietnamese occupied half of Cambodia.

Not to mention how Americans bomb Laos and was also heavily invaded by the Vietnamese.

He agreed that the Vietnamese are behind the genocide. The Americans helped cover up the crimes.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

In 1981, There were foreign doctors reported about S-21, Tul Sleng Center. Democratic Kampuchea was from 1975 to 1979 (4 years). But the head sculpts staged at S-21were examined, then found out many of the head sculpts were at least 10 to 15 years old.

Anonymous said...

The American should know better than anybody else about the Vietnamese treachery.
While the peace accord was going in Paris in 1972 about a general cease fire to the US bombing on Hanoi, among the 4 parties: the US, South Vietnam, VN and Vietcong, the 2 latter’s moved their ground troupes into South Vietnam.
Hell, the discussion about the shapes of the conference tables alone took about 3 months.
The VN and Vietcong tried to drag on as long as possible so they could move their troupes. But the American kept their word that was why they lost the war.

Anonymous said...

11:14 AM

Don’t miss your hallucination pills; they help you to see even better than you are seeing now.

Anonymous said...

‘To put it in a nutshell, Tuol Sleng has been turned into a propaganda machine.’

I agree not 100% but 1000% that Tuol Sleng has been turned into a propaganda machine.’

ECCC in Cambodia is US-Hanoi to cover their own war crimes and cirme against Cambodian human as follow:

Yuon Hanoi K 5 plan as part of Genocide in Cambodia.

US brought war from Indochina into Cmabodia, war had killed so many Camobodian.

US B 52 carpet bombed in Cambodia during 1970s and before 200 days and 200 nights.

So ECCC in Cambodia is Hanoi-US ECCC to twist real Khmer history, to turn things upside down for some Khmer who do not study our real history and believe things easily and blindly as Tuol Sleng has been turned into a propaganda machine and still many Khmer ( not all ) believe blindly.

Anonymous said...

4:15 PM
You can write a label, but you cannot give the reason, you are simply a bunch of Liar Youn in Cambodia. Look at yourself in the mirror. How cheap you are, you lie, give people label without reason!

Anonymous said...

Hun Sen, Chea Sim, Heng Samrin and a Beer Girl all go to Hell and receive a challenge from the Devil (Yomabal) -- if they can stump him, they're free to go to heaven instead. Hun Sen goes first and asks the Devil a very hard chess game question -- to which the Devil snaps his fingers, gets a book, and gives the answer.
Chea Sim and Heng Samrin try as well with different questions of their own -- but the Devil instantly gets the answers.

“All three of you don’t worth a damn!” The Devil yells at the three men, “So you stay here in hell!”

When it comes to the Beer Girl’s turn, she pulls up a chair and drills three holes in it. She then sits down in the chair and farts.

"Now," she says, "which hole did the fart come out of?"

"Oh, that's easy," says the Devil. "All of them."

"No, stupid! It came out of my butt-hole!"

Anonymous said...

11:05 PM
Bravo! You seem to describe yourself very well.

Anonymous said...

ជុំ ម៉ី !ម្តេចមិនធ្វើបាតុកម្មដេញយួនខុសច្បាប់ចេញពីស្រុកខ្មែរផងទៅ ?
តើសំដីរបស់ កឹម សុខា បានធ្វើអោយខ្មែរបាត់បង់ទឹកដីដែរទេ ?ឬមួយតាឯងធ្វើដើម្បីផ្គាប់ចិត្តចៅហ្វាយយួនរបស់តាឯង ????
បើមិនបានជួយជាតិ គួរធ្វើខ្លួនអោយក្មេងជំនាន់ក្រោយគោរពផង ។

Anonymous said...

ជុំ ម៉ី !ចៅហ្វាយកឹម សុខា!
ម្តេចមិនធ្វើបាតុកម្មដេញយួនខុសច្បាប់ចេញពីស្រុកខ្មែរទៅ ?