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Meaning of a Museum


Sometimes, some things cannot be left without a comment. Lya Badgley's article, "Archives

at Toul Sleng Imperiled" (Phnom Penh Post, June 18-July 1, 1993) is at some

points misleading and raises a question which deserves some more thoughts.

She is director of the Cornell University Library Conversation (or Conversation?)

Project. I know the Library as I did research there, many years ago under the very

kind guidance of the late Professor John M. Echols. This is the best place in the

world to study Cambodia and many other Southeast Asian subjects. The Library has

done an immense service to Khmer history in microfilming the Toul Sleng Archives.

Later generations will acknowledge this. I did my best, in January last year, to

have the project resume after it had stalled because of the post-Agreements political

atmosphere. The documents, left over by Pol Pot's political police, could cannot

be safeguarded for ever in a climate where all paper documents either disintegrate

or are sold on the market. Beside, they are political hot potatoes. The killers'

squad and their boss, nicknamed Deuch, had some R&R in Sakeo (Thailand) in 1979

and are now roaming free in the forest.

Lya Badgley says these documents are a "treasure". It is true. The fall

of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, to the Vietnamese army was so sudden that Deuch

and his team had no time to carry away the bulk of the papers. Historians have thus

the rare luck to have a glimpses into the operations of a KGB-type of political police.

But the utmost caution should be applied because the documents contain an incredible

mixture of truths. Torture produced many false admissions and, in fact, very few

of these documents have been so far accurately analyzed.

This "treasure" is now safety recorded. Khmers Rouges were good record-keepers

in any case and nothing indicates they would have a policy of destroying documents.

I believe they just do not care about them. Is there anything else of value in Toul

Sleng that would require an effort of conversation? The place, the buildings, according

to Ms Badgley, who says they "create an experience of an atmosphere unknowable

from any book".

I know the place. I knew it very well. I spent one year teaching in these building

in 1968-69, when it was called the lycee Chau Ponhea Yat. I remember the noisy crowd

of schoolboys and girls, my Khmer and French colleagues, the classroom where I tried

to explain the contribution of Galilee to the birth of experimental physics to pupils

who had never seen a lab. Twelve years later I was back on the old premises, then

called Toul Sleng. This ordinary school was surrounded by barbed wire and corrugated

iron, to prevent from looking inside.

But the place was not as it was when Deuch had left it. Vietnamese experts had been

brought in, soon after the discovery. Since 1975, these North Vietnamese experts

had created throughout Vietnam several political museum. Some of them had been trained

in Auschwitz, Poland. Auschwitz itself had been closed for several years, in the

50's, to allow rebuilding and redesigning. In Toul Sleng also, many things have changed

over time. In 1991, the map made of skulls could not seen anywhere. The huge pile

of clothes, deliberately reminiscent of WW II concentration camps photographs had

disappeared. The plaster busts of Pol Pot, which were probably brought in from somewhere

else in 1979, had vanished. Many other small changes had occurred.

What I want to convey is the idea that museification implies an alteration of the

place. Efforts are made to reorganize space and display artifacts to create a meaning

that was lacking or was not obvious enough. This is quite conceivable when a museum

is built for this purpose. But when it is organized in the very place where events

took place, you have to transform the place in order to make it look more what it

was, to change it to look more true. I find this paradox unbearable.

I knew this place, several of my friends were killed there. But what I see now is

not the real place. Why should we consider it worth keeping if authenticity is lacking?

The theatrical reorganization of the place creates a distance. I believe casual visitors

cannot really grasp what really happened through just walking by horror pictures.

This would require a lot of knowledge on conditions in Cambodia at the time that

either belong to the realm of personal experience or to a strong will to understand

history. And books teach much more.

To put it in a nutshell, Toul Sleng has been turned into a propaganda machine. I

strongly believe that a struggle should be waged against Pol Pot because the danger

is still there, waiting in the wings. But a Stalin Ian type of propaganda (Polish-communist

origins of the Toul Sleng presentation) has, in my view, a very limited value. I

do not believe that Toul Sleng should be kept as it is because some part of it is

fake. This is not a honorable way to show respect for the victims.

Moreover, I do not believe that Cambodians really accept this kind of institution.

very few Khmers ever visit the museum. Prince Sihanouk suggested to cremate all the

human remains to appease the wandering souls. if a stupa was then erected, crowds

of Cambodians would gather there, I am sure. Toul Sleng was designed to attract Western

support against Pol Pot by equating, in a subdue way, the 1975-79 massacres to the

Jewish drama during the Nazi period. The use of the very word of "Genocide"

is a further proof of it. This is cheap propaganda. It did not stop the West, and

particularly the U.S. government, to support Pol Pot until quite recently.

Keeping monuments to educate for the future is an illusion. The keeping of Auschwitz

did not prevent Toul Sleng. Toul Sleng does not prevent Sarajevo. Politics is not

rooted in memory but in the thirst for power. And memory in itself is not strongly

related to justice. You want example? On the roster of the U.S. "Campaign to

oppose the return of the Khmers Rouges", you find William Colby, a former head

of the CIA. Let's forget the CIA. But this man was the head of the Phoenix program

in the Mekong Delta in 1968-69. As such, he ordered the killing of 60 to 80,000 civilians

suspected to be Vietcong. Where is the court which would declare this now respected

U.S. citizen a war criminal? Is this kind of man qualified to patronize a Genocide

Museum? Let us thank Cornell, the Luce and Christopher Reynolds foundations for having

saved the archives and let the Cambodians decide for themselves what they will do

with Toul Sleng.

- Serge Thion, French scholar who contributed to the forthcoming book,

"Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia", edited by B. Kiernan, at Yale University.



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