Sadly, the most popular and highlighted segment in Cambodia’s history is neither a national achievement nor historical feat: it is the horrendous, inhumane regime of the Khmer Rouge and its supreme leader, Pol Pot. This group executed millions of innocent Cambodians, including their own relatives, friends, and neighbors, including women, the elderly and children. Many of their gory and bloody acts against humanity are too vicious to even mention. Today, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is an eerie reminder of this dark history not only of Cambodia but of all humanity. Tuol Sleng in Khmer means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees”. The museum stands today so that the bloody acts of yesteryears should never happen again.
Below is a brief historical account on how the museum came about.
The facility that is now the Genocide Museum was originally a high school, the Chao Ponhea Yat High School. In August 1975, four months after Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh, the school was converted into a prison and interrogation center. It was called S-21 or Security Prison 21. After a short time, the buildings lost all semblances of what it used to be – a place where children received education – into a place of torture and death. Classrooms were converted into tight prison cells and torture chambers, the school perimeter was enclosed with electrified barbed wire, and the windows were fortified with iron bars plus more barbed wires.
The first prisoners were government officials and soldiers of the past regime, as well as the educated – academicians, teachers, students, engineers, monks, and so on. Pol Pot considered those people lazy because they did not know how to work in the farms. At one time there were only about a thousand prisoners but the incessant interrogations, tortures and forced confessions led to more convictions. The Khmer Rouge purged their ranks and jailed their own, including high ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. They were compatriots of Pol Pot and were serious threats to his dictatorship, which was why they were sent to Tuol Sleng and executed.
As prisoners arrived in S-21, they were photographed and thoroughly interrogated. They were then stripped and all their possessions confiscated. Not only were they kept inside hot, smelly and crammed prison cells, they were also shackled to the walls, floors or iron bars. They didn’t have mats, mosquito nets or toilets, and were not allowed to talk with each other. They were fed with just four spoonfuls of rice porridge and soup twice a day. Sometimes, they were forced to eat their own feces. They were beaten and tortured, and the prison guards made sure that they could not save themselves from more beatings by committing suicide.
From 1975 to 1979, it is estimated that about 17,000 to 20,000 people were incarcerated at Tuol Sleng, made to march for 17 kilometers, and executed at Choeung Ek, more popularly and notoriously known as the Killing Fields. Entire families were killed and buried in shallow grave pits. Today, the Cambodian government has converted Choeung Ek into a tourist destination so that foreigners will get a better understanding of the horror that the country has gone through. More than 20 years after the Khmer Rouge regime, bones and remains could still be seen scattered all over the Killing Fields.
In 1979, the Vietnamese came and pushed back the Khmer Rouge army, and took control of Phnom Penh. Vietnamese soldiers discovered S-21 and in 1980 reopened it as a historical museum.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum has been preserved from 1979. Today, about 500 visitors come to the museum every day. It is definitely the most popular educational museum for Cambodian students and the most sought after destination for tourists.