After years of debate, the famed skull map of Cambodia at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum will be coming down, officials confirmed Tuesday.
Authorities plan to photograph the map, which consists of more than 300 skulls, and put a copy on the museum wall where the map now hangs, museum director Chey Sopheara said.
The skulls, many of them brown and shiny with age, will be preserved in boxes, in keeping with a December directive by Prime Minister Hun Sen ordering officials to “take care” of the remains of the Khmer Rouge’s more than one million victims.
Officials will store the skulls in two boxed shelves in the room where the map now hangs and build a small stupa for a place of worship, Chey Sopheara said.
Authorities hope to inaugurate the new display before Khmer New Year begins April 14. A small Buddhist ceremony will be held before the inauguration.
The Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has dedicated itself to hunting down evidence that could be used in the Khmer Rouge tribunal, will give the museum an aerial map of Cambodia pointing out the location of other mass graves.
The museum needs $3,900 for the project, which it hopes to raise from businesses and foreign assistance, Chey Sopheara said.
Of the more than 14,000 men, women and children whom the Khmer Rouge sent to Tuol Sleng, only seven survived.
Debate has raged for years over whether the skull map and the skull-filled stupa at the Cheung Ek memorial site for Khmer Rouge victims were disrespectful.
King Norodom Sihanouk once said the displays were “like hanging people twice.”
Hun Sen, citing the need to keep memories of the genocide alive in the public consciousness, rejected suggestions that the remains be cremated in accordance with Buddhist tradition.
The new policy guarantees respect for the victims while still educating the public about Cambodia’s genocide, Takeo province Governor Kep Chutema said.
“We want the public clearly to understand the gratitude they owe to the party for liberating the people from the genocidal regime,” he said.
Takeo’s Bati district has its own memorial containing remains of Khmer Rouge victims. Kep Chutema said he would follow Documentation Center guidelines for preserving and commemorating them.
In Kompong Thom province, authorities plan to keep the remains of the victims in the villages where they were found, provincial Governor Nou Phoeung said.
In an unofficial survey last year, the Center for Social Development found most Cambodians favored preserving the bones of the victims.
Of 1,717 people surveyed, 65 percent said they wanted the remains kept in their present condition, 11 percent favored cremating them, and 22 percent said the decaying remains should be cremated while those still intact should be preserved, said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
She added that her personal opinion was that “the good remains should be preserved so that each can remind people about this holocaust and take precautions.”
But the debate over the victims’ remains is pointless without a Khmer Rouge tribunal, Sam Rainsy Party Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang said. King Sihanouk signed the tribunal law last August, but negotiations with the UN have dragged on since.
Only two former Khmer Rouge leaders are currently in custody, former military chief of staff Ta Mok and Duch, the former director of Tuol Sleng.
“Only when those who were responsible for the killings are tried will the victims’ souls stay in peace,” Eng Chhay Eang said.