One of the most unforgettable symbols of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime—the map of human skulls at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum—needs to be better protected, officials say.
Sopheara Chey, director of the Tuol Sleng museum, said he wants to move the map into an enclosed protective box, using a slide projector to project its image on the wall where it now hangs.
“I want to keep the skulls properly and looking better,” he said. “If the map continues to hang on the wall, I don’t think it will last much longer, because it is decaying.”
One recent news story about a visit to Tuol Sleng described a young visitor trying to wrench a tooth from one of the skulls making up the map.
Sopheara Chey said some tourists also express grief and shock at seeing the map, which is made up of scores of human skulls belonging to the victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Tuol Sleng was a neighborhood high school in a Phnom Penh suburb until the Khmer Rouge turned it into a torture and interrogation center between 1975 and 1979.
Historians believe as many as 16,000 people, mostly Cambodians, passed through Tuol Sleng during the Khmer Rouge regime. Many were Khmer Rouge cadres suspected of betraying the revolution; they were tortured until they “confessed,” then taken outside the city and killed.
The museum was created during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in the decade following their overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese troops arrived at Tuol Sleng to find the corpses of recently killed victims still chained inside interrogation rooms.
Today the museum is a harrowing place, featuring the photos of thousands of innocent Cambodians, many of whom knew they were about to be killed.
Although at least 60 tourists a day visit Tuol Sleng, the museum is run on a tiny budget. Sopheara Chey said he needs approval from the Ministry of Culture to build the new exhibit, which he expects will cost more than $100.
In the past, some politicians have opposed maintaining the museum, saying it was built by vietnamese occupiers and perpetuates a period Cambodia would do better to forget.
Sopheara Chey said he does not want to change the exhibit to destroy evidence or minimize the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, but rather to preserve the proof.
“I do not attempt to destroy the evidence of a brutal regime,” he said, but to protect the skulls from decay, “like [the skulls] at the killing field, Choeung Ek.”
Sok Sorun, a student at the National Institute of Management who works at the museum researching his thesis on tourism, said he sees no problem with moving the map, as long as it is not destroyed.
“Otherwise,” he said, “Cambodia will lose a famous resource for tourism, and young Cambodians will not learn their own national history.”
Sopheara Chey also noted that other exhibits at the museum, such as the homemade handcuffs used on prisoners, are sometimes stolen by visitors. Sometimes the thieves are children who want to sell the items, while other times they are people with a passionate hatred for the Khmer Rouge.
“Some Cambodian visitors who lost members to the Khmer Rouge regime urinate on Pol Pot’s statue,” he said. And while he understands the urge, he said, he is hoping to make other arrangements.
“I would like to install a toilet at the center” designed by Pok Leakreasey, a laboratory worker at the Institute of Technology who painted the faces of Pol Pot, and former Khmer Rouge leaders Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea on a urinal.
“In the future, people can urinate on that, because I do not want them to destroy evidence.”