The designer of a proposed Khmer Rouge memorial, the sculptor Séra, is determined it should be placed at ‘a crossroads of history, of destiny, of time’. Emily Wight reports on the new plans to commemorate Cambodia’s painful history.
PhouSéra Ing, better known as Séra, was 13 years old when he stood at the crossroads in front of the French embassy and witnessed black-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers marching into Phnom Penh, guns in hand, forcing residents to flee and begin a new life in the countryside. Upon telling his father that he saw the soldiers, he received a slap around the face. “It’s taken me 30 years to get over that,” he said, adding: “I’ll never know exactly why my father slapped me. Confusion? emotion? anger? A desire to, in his own way, prepare me for what lay ahead? To wake me from innocence? I lost my childhood on that day, April 17, 1975. All of us did.”
While Séra, his siblings and their mother, who was French, took refuge in the embassy and later escaped to Thailand and France, his father, who was Cambodian, was refused entry. The regime would go on to kill some two million, including Sera’s father, who was executed in 1978.
Séra’s memory of April 17, 1975 is crucial to the new plans to build a memorial sculpture to Khmer Rouge victims and survivors. While the proposed sculpture, entitled À Ceux Qui Ne Sont Plus Là (: For Those Who Are No Longer Here), has been given the go-ahead by both the French embassy, which has agreed to pay half the cost, and the City Hall, the embassy location hasn’t been officially approved.
But for the 52-year-old, who is famous for his graphic novels such as Impasse et Rouge, L’Eau et la Terre and Lendemains de Cendres, which depict life during and after the genocide, the French embassy is the best place for the memorial.
Speaking from his home in Paris, where he has lived since 1975, Séra said: “The intersection is very symbolic: masses of people leaving, going towards the roads where they would be sent to forced labour camps. It’s a crossroads of history, of destiny, of time.”
He added: “We will try all efforts to have it placed at this intersection.”
Séra said that the memorial, which is expected to cost between $90,000 to $120,000 and will be made from bronze, will serve as a public, commemorative space for Cambodians to remember their shared tragedy.
The memorial will be made up of six pieces of sculpture, centred around a large human-like form, between three and four metres high. Around this sculpture will be four smaller forms of about two metres, and behind it, a large wall.
He explained that the sculptures, which have bodily parts such as heads and limbs missing, are not supposed to be represent anybody in particular; it’s not even clear whether they are men or women.
“These figures are symbolic, which allows them to speak to and beyond individual identity. They are recounting and expressing the convulsions of time and suffering endured by the victims of the Khmer Rouge period,” he said.
Séra added that the sculptures’ missing limbs had a double meaning. He said that their mutilation is indicative of the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to break human beings and their identities: “By representing figures without heads, without arms, I speak of this mutilation of the mind and spirit as well as the body.”
In addition, the missing limbs reflect a common feature in Khmer statues. He said: “What is left to us today of the ancient statues are more often than not without heads, without arms. The significance of these figures, therefore, resides in their duality evoking Khmer memory and history, of this century and of centuries past.”
Séra believes that while families and individuals can commemorate their ancestors privately at memorial stupas in their homes and in the pagoda, there is currently no public space for Cambodians to come together and mourn the victims of the genocide. The public, including Cambodians, have to pay to enter Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, a policy which he called “an aberration”.
He added: “They are tragic, horrific places, where one is more quickly plunged into sadness than brought to a feeling of reconciliation and peaceful remembrance of loved ones. I cannot, and the average Khmer cannot go to these places and honour the memory of loved ones.”
Behind Séra is the Anvaya Association, a diaspora organisation launched in 2009, which received legal association status in November last year. Serving as a support network for Cambodian returnees, its central team in Phnom Penh is working with Séra to campaign for the memorial to be built, fundraising for the second half of the cost, and partnering with the embassy.
“We want this project to remain Cambodian-led, even if initiated with the support of the French authorities,” said Ke Bin Soreasmey, president of Anvaya.
The next step lies with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
Although not necessarily needed to start building, the Anvaya Association believes it is important to have the tribunal’s approval out of respect, Soreasmey said.
He continued that this is expected by the summer, adding: “We are willing for this project to be recognised by the tribunal, as this will give us a real legitimacy. But even if we do not have this recognition we will do it.”
Youk Chhang, director at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), said he “wholeheartedly” supports Séra’s memorial: “It’s the wish for people in Cambodia, not just Sera, but all of us, that we must heal and move on.”
Chhang is working on creating a memorial to the women who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime. He has the permission from the relevant authorities, he said, but is still seeking a designer.
It’s crucial for Cambodians to remember the human rights abuses suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime, Chhang added: “It’s who you are. How can you not deal with the past? If you cannot have adequate memory, how can you move on? You’ll be incomplete.”