Go west off Achar Mean Blvd, down a road, over a garbage-filled canal, turn left at the sign and about 200 meters down the dusty back road is one of Phnom Penh's major tourist sites. Through the gate in the double wall and past the gauntlet of missing-limbed men and one enters Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. "X" marks the spot.
Tuol Sleng, or S21 as it was formerly known, was the tip of an extensive prison system during Pol Pot's reign. Between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 20,000 women, men and children, most charged with treason, were brought here to be tortured, interrogated and eventually led away in the night to be killed.
Tourists come to gaze upon implements of torture, shudder at paintings of atrocities, and wonder at the photographs. Journalists come for background, atmosphere, and the odd filler story. An occasional Cambodian comes to check the roster of names for missing relatives. All share, in varying degrees, an intimation of terror. But, unknown to most, upstairs on the second floor of Building B, there is treasure. In a locked room behind curtains to protect against the sunlight, are shelf after shelf of facts about the Khmer Rouge.
Climate, chaotic conditions and a possible Khmer Rouge policy to systematically destroy evidence, has vastly reduced the amount of actual documentation available to researchers. The Khmer Rouge have been compared to the Nazis in their meticulous record-keeping habits, but little has survived-except for Tuol Sleng. And even here, only a fraction of the estimated original documents remain.
Each of the 20,000 victims, in Maoist tradition, were forced to give a "biography" and full "confession" of their crimes. Almost 5,000 of these individual dossiers-ranging from a few, to hundreds of pages depending on how long a prisoner was kept alive-are stored in the museum's archives. In addition to this roomful of documents, are almost 6,000 original photograph negatives, as well as a cabinet with an assortment of surviving Khmer Rouge materials. These include supposed CIA organization charts, youth propaganda journals, French-Cambodian returnee visa applications, and torture technique manuals, to name a few. For the historian, the political analyst, or anyone interested in attempting to understand recent Cambodian history, this is indeed "treasure." Much of what is known about the so-called "dark times", comes from these documents.
But the treasure is at risk. Originally set up as a propaganda tool for the Hun Sen government, the museum has since become a lesser priority. The staff is underpaid, the buildings are crumbling, and funds for even minimal maintenance are non-existent. There are even rumors that the site could be shut down, the documents destroyed.
In 1988 Cornell University with funding from the Luce and Christopher Reynolds foundations began a Library Conversation Project, the purpose being to donate microfilmed copies of the university's extensive Khmer language holdings in the United States as a foundation for the reconstruction of the National Library in Phnom Penh. In addition, Cornell microfilmed Khmer texts on site at the National Library-one copy to be kept in Cambodia, one copy in the United States. The project also trained local staff in conservation techniques and provided conservation materials, as well as microfilm readers. Filming eventually extended to include holdings at the National Museum, the Palace, and finally, the archives at Tuol Sleng.
Always volatile and in uncertain status due to logistical problems and occasional threats of being shut down, the Tuol Sleng project was successfully completed the last week of March. Two hundred and thirteen reels of microfilm, close to half a million pages, have been recorded.
While Cornell University has facilitated a very important contribution to the future of Cambodian historical research, more must be done. The photo negatives are stored in a rusty metal cabinet and are covered with mildew. The documents are kept in archival quality containers but the room they are stored in has no climate control. The building itself is falling apart.
There is more at risk here than the loss of a primary tourist site. Like Auschwitz, this site represents a physical manifestation of a crime against humanity. Not just for Cambodians, but as a reminder to us all of what we are capable for the sake of ideas. Not just the documents, but the buildings themselves, create an experience of an atmosphere unknowable from any book. There are mass graves surrounding the museum of those who died there under torture which no one has bothered to excavate. Bit by bit, pieces of old uniforms, pages of confessions and relics, are disappearing into the pockets of visitors and even more disturbing, bit by bit the memories recede, the horror more containable, more manageable in its setting of ruin and decay. If left alone, one way or another, the power of this place will die. The witnessing will be finished and the cycle could begin again.
It would take relatively little to establish an international foundation to oversee and administer funds independent of local politics. The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide and its treasures should be maintained as a World Cultural Heritage Site, not just as a monument of the past worth preserving but as a much needed education tool for the future. The power and value of the tangible should not be underestimated.
(Lya Badgley is the director of the Cornell University Library Conversation Project)