Killing Time in the Killing FieldsApril 8, 2012
Fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh a Buddhist stupa sits in the middle of manicured lawns surrounded by heavily-trafficked dirt paths. Throngs of Western tourists, dressed in beachwear and earphones, walk around, treading lightly over the bones of Cambodian people that emerge from the dirt track after a heavy rain, and gape in horror at the mass graves on their way to take photos of the tower of Khmer skulls displayed in the stupa.
Most tourists who only spend a few days in Phnom Penh usually do a circuit of the Royal Palace; the former high school and Khmer Rouge detention center Toul Sleng; and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. The Killing Fields are a heavily trafficked part of the Cambodia tourist trail where visitors seek to understand the enormity and the horror of the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodian history.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek were the site of more than 17,000 killings between 1975 and 1979, including many women and children. Of the 129 mass graves there, only 43 have been excavated, and the rest remain buried. Unlike many atrocity memorials in the world, Choeung Ek was not created with the input of psychologists, victim’s families, or teams of designers and architects. It is this rawness and supposed authenticity that many foreign visitors find so powerful, and make the experience such a meaningful one for many.
Interestingly, though, on a regular day, you’ll see few Cambodians visiting the memorial. From the start, the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek was not a grassroots memorial; the site, like Toul Sleng, was designated for tourism and propaganda by the Vietnamese soon after they invaded Cambodia in 1979. The purpose of both Choeung Ek and Toul Sleng was to highlight the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and justify the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. The sites were intended for foreign viewers as a means of swaying international opinion. In fact, Cambodians were not allowed to visit Toul Sleng when it first opened. Today both sites continue to promote the narrative that the current government saved the Khmer people from genocide. That, and generating revenue, are the primary purposes of Choeung Ek, not remembering the dead.
Mai Lam, a Vietnamese colonel, designed the stupa filled with thousands of Cambodian skulls at Choeung Ek. Many Khmer Buddhists believe that this monument is not in line with their traditions, which require immediate cremation or burial of corpses. In fact, while former King Norodom Sihanouk was on the throne in 1994, he offered to pay the cost of official cremation ceremonies for the remains at Choeung Ek and Toul Sleng.
In the face of government opposition his wishes were ignored. In 2004 he posted a handwritten statement on his website that said, “What Buddhist man or woman accepts that, instead of incinerating their dead relatives . . . one displays their skulls and their skeletons to please ‘voyeurs’?” Having their skulls on display, he wrote, “is to punish the victims, humiliate them, dishonor them.”
But the value of Choeung Ek as a tourist attraction is more important, it seems, than offering a proper memorial to the thousands that died there, or providing Khmers the opportunity to better understand their recent history. Many researchers have argued that Choeung Ek deliberately focuses on the perpetrators and methods of killing ,rather than on the silent, faceless victims, whose personal stories are told nowhere at the site. Indeed, the official website for Choeung Ek has detailed pages about the “killers” and the “killing process” but the “victims” page remains empty, under construction since the site was launched.
Choeung Ek is not the only site of mass killings by the Khmer Rouge, but it is the closest to Phnom Penh, making it an ideal tourist attraction. The Cambodian government has allowed the site to be privatised, and has sold a thirty-year concession to operate the site to a Japanese company, JC Royal, who have raised ticket prices and their own profits by showcasing Cambodia’s violent history.
Because the displays at Choeung Ek focus almost entirely on the killings as such, rather than on the victims or the history of the Khmer Rouge, the site can seem impersonal to many visitors. Foreigners often find themselves making offerings to the Cambodian victims at Choeung Ek’s stupa while Cambodians themselves are noticeably absent. Previously, dozens of local tour guides were available to help fill in the gaps and and make the experience more personal by talking about their own families’ experiences during the Khmer Rouge era. Recently, though, $3 audio tours have been brought in and the Khmer tour guides have disappeared, presumably because the audio tours are more profitable for JC Royal. It’s possible to spend hours at the memorial and see no Cambodians besides the ticket-seller and the children who stand outside the chain link fence begging for money from the Choeung Ek tourists.
At the site they screen a documentary about the Khmer Rouge atrocities in English, subtitled in English. The film is not offered in Khmer. The documentary, “The Road to Killing Field Choeung Ek,” claims that the stupa was erected because Buddhists believe that the bones of the deceased should be kept in a special place. King Norodom Sihanouk’s assertions suggest otherwise.
After visiting the site a number of times, I began to question whether I really needed to continue taking my out-of-town guests there. Was the site such a crucial part of the tourist experience, I wondered? And is a tourist attraction really a special place for the dead? My own reaction to it was one of discomfort; I felt that my participation in the site as a tourist was somehow wrong, in a way I have not felt at similar memorials in other countries. I also found it boring, due to the lack of information presented, and then felt deeply ashamed that I could be bored at a site of such horrific tragedy.
Then as I began researching the history of Choeung Ek and its use to generate support for the government of Cambodia and revenue for a private company in Japan, I wondered why I had been taking visitors there at all. Wasn’t it too much like orphanage tourism? Do tourists go to the Killing Fields just to feel aghast, to underscore their own good fortune in life, to be reminded of their own deep compassion for the Cambodian people?
But perhaps there is a more generous way to look at this. It may be that foreigners go to the Killing Fields to better understand the tragedy that befell Cambodia. And maybe that outweighs the many legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable with Choeung Ek. My hope is that, despite Choeung Ek’s deficiencies, those who choose to visit will be so deeply affected by the horror of what they see there that they will be willing to act to stop the next genocide in some far-off land. The cynic in me suggests that’s unlikely.
What do you think?
Words: Khmer 440
Images: Richard Reitman
To see more images by Richard, visit his website www.richardreitman-photography.info