Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Pol Pot's Killing Machine - KNT Diary

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Saturday, February 2, 2019

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Pol Pot's Killing Machine



The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, chronicling the Cambodian genocide. The site is a former secondary school which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (the real number is unknown). Tuol Sleng means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill". Tuol Sleng was just one of at least 150 torture and execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge, though other sources put the figure at 196 prison centers. On July 26, 2010, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia convicted the chief of Tuol Sleng Prison, Kaing kek Iew, (alias Duch) for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

The buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved, some rooms as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The regime kept extensive records, including thousands of photographs. Several rooms of the museum are now lined, floor to ceiling, with black and white photographs of some of the estimated 20,000 prisoners who passed through the prison. 

The site has four main buildings, known as Building A, B, C, and D. Building A holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims were discovered. Building B holds galleries of photographs. Building C holds the rooms sub-divided into small cells for prisoners. Building D holds other memorabilia including instruments of torture.

Other rooms contain only a rusting iron bedframe, beneath a black and white photograph showing the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each photograph, the mutilated body of a prisoner is chained to the bed, killed by his fleeing captors only hours before the prison was captured. Other rooms preserve leg-irons and instruments of torture. They are accompanied by paintings by former inmate Vann Nath showing people being tortured, which were added by the post-Khmer Rouge regime installed by the Vietnamese in 1979. 

The museum is open to the public from 8 am to 5 pm. Visitors have the opportunity of viewing a 'survivor testimony' from 2:30-3pm (Monday - Friday). Along with the Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields), the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is included as a point of interest for those visiting Cambodia. Tuol Sleng also remains an important educational site as well as memorial for Cambodians. Since 2010, the ECCC brings Cambodians on a 'study tour' to the Tuol Sleng, Choeung Ek and finishing at the ECCC complex. During 2010, around 27,000 Cambodians visited the museum through this tour. (See ECCC Court Report January 2011) Some believed that ghosts of the victims continue to haunt the place.

A number of images from Tuol Sleng are featured in the 1992 Ron Fricke film Baraka.

Survivors Chum Mey and Bou Meng can both frequently be seen near the administration office of the museum for a 'meet and greet' as well as the opportunity to buy their biographies.

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