On the grounds of Tuol Sleng, where an estimated 14,000 inmates were tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge, a ceremony yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the inscription of the prison’s records in a Unesco register of world heritage.
About a hundred people, including S-21 prison survivors, representatives of embassies, the government and NGOs, gathered at the former detention center for speeches and performances organized by Unesco and the Ministry of Culture.
Chuch Phoeurn, secretary of state at the ministry, said that the listing would help to preserve the documentation for people all over the world.
“It is the ambition of Cambodia to be considered not only by Cambodians themselves but in the memory of the world so the same crimes as in Tuol Sleng will not be committed,” Mr Phoeurn said.
Unesco is helping to repair a Tuol Sleng building damaged by a storm last month, an incident that highlighted the fragility of paper documents stored there, said Teruo Jinnai, representative of the Unesco office in Phnom Penh. The UN cultural agency is digitizing S-21’s meticulously kept prison records, as well as renovating the site with a new reception area and parking lot, Mr Jinnai said.
Across the world there have been similar efforts to memorialize genocides in Europe and Rwanda, he said. “So now Asia also has had this clearly recorded and witnessed atrocities and this has to be remembered…. We are trying to work with the government to preserve as long as much as possible what happened.”
Bou Meng, Vann Nath and Chum Mey, three of the handful of known S-21 survivors, said yesterday they were glad Unesco had inscribed the records of their suffering.
“It is very special because Unesco is helping to preserve the criminal place…. We want to keep this museum to tell humans not to commit such crimes,” Mr Meng said.
During the ceremony, a traditional Khmer ayai performance mixed recollections of suffering with comic banter between two singers.
Mr Jinnai said the Khmer cultural performance conveyed information without mocking anyone. “I think the souls of the victims would have understood, they would have enjoyed.”
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that the Unesco listing undermined previous Cambodian efforts to preserve Tuol Sleng.
“Tuol Sleng has been well established in thirty years and the whole world knows of Tuol Sleng so I do not see what difference the inscription makes,” Mr Chhang said.
Mr Chhang also objected to performances at the site, which he said should be used for prayer, mourning and respectful silence.
“It is a tomb and I regard it as such,” he said.
Acclaimed Cambodian modern artist Leang Seckon also performed an interpretive movements set to music in front of his latest artwork, a multimedia piece that incorporates rough copies of prisoner mug shots at Tuol Sleng. The abstract performance drew on memories of his family’s suffering during and after the Khmer Rouge era.
Mr Seckon said that although his experiences differ from those of Tuol Sleng victims, they also have something in common.
“It is not exactly the same, but a different act of one society,” Mr Seckon said. He said that a scene near the end of the performance in which he appeared to vomit flowers represents the transformation of suffering into artistic expression.
Mr Nath, the former S-21 detainee, said that he paid close attention to Mr Seckon’s performance.
“It is crucial for the next generation to understand the past,” he said.