Pim Samuth plays leading role in Takeo
When Pim Samuth came back to his native village of Krang Kov Chan in Takeo province
in early 1979, he found that the Khmer Rouge had turned many of the surrounding rice
paddies into virtual killing fields.
He and other villagers returning from forced evacuation literally stumbled upon mass
graves everywhere they went. The pits contained thousands of bodies, and during the
next year Samuth helped exhume the graves and collect the remains of the victims.
"The smell was terrible, but what frightened me the most were the skulls that
were still blindfolded," he remembers.
Later, Samuth was a driving force behind collecting money to build a bamboo cage
inside a small wooden house, where hundreds of skulls are now being kept.
Yet today, when village chief Samuth makes sure that the building is sufficiently
maintained, he's still not completely sure about the memorial.
"It would be better to burn the skulls. That would be the proper way,"
On the other hand, a cremation would deprive the village of an important means of
educating its children about KR atrocities, so Samuth is opting to raise enough money
to build a nice concrete stupa instead.
The considerations of Samuth in Krang Kov Chan village reflect the general discussion
about what should happen to the enormous amount of human remains that the KR killing
machine left behind all over Cambodia.
Some believe that the only correct thing to do - in cultural and traditional terms
- is to cremate and bury the bones. Others say they constitute a vital historic reminder
of the murderous Pol Pot regime and important evidence for a possible future trial,
so they should be preserved and protected.
One popular misunderstanding surfacing regularly in the debate is that according
to Buddhist belief, a dead body must be burned before the soul can be released and
reincarnated. But as Senator Chhang Song, a long-time student of Buddhism, explains,
this practice stems from tradition and not from religion.
"Nowhere in Buddhist texts or transcripts is it written that the soul can only
be released when the body is burned. Cremation has nothing to do with Buddhist belief.
Instead, the tradition of cremation began for practical reasons, because there was
not enough land to bury the bodies in," Song points out.
Venerable Sin Kim is head monk at Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh, where most of the capital's
cremations take place. He is well aware that Buddhism does not dictate cremation,
but for practical reasons he still prefers the remains to be burned.
"Everybody lost family during the Pol Pot regime, and it's impossible to say
who is who among the bones. If they were cremated, the ashes could all be put in
the same place. That way nobody can grab and take away the ashes, like they can take
the bones because they think it is their relative," Kim argues.
Even though a cremation is not necessary for a safe journey beyond, the matter is
still not as simple as that. A soul still has to get rid of its bodily shell before
it can be reincarnated, and Song explains that a person doesn't really die before
the soul leaves the body.
Usually this will only happen when the soul is firmly reassured that it will be reincarnated
in a new body. Sometimes, however, in the case of accidents or murder, the soul is
not prepared for departure, which will cause it to roam around the body as a ghost
until it finds a way out or is helped on its way by monks chanting mantras.
While Samuth claims that there are no ghosts of KR victims roaming around Krang Kov
Chan, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is apparently full of them.
"For instance, it is not wise to sleep in the doorways at night. We also have
a lot of women ghosts. Maybe they were raped here in this room and cannot find peace,"
says museum director Sopheara Chey.
Even two annual ceremonies at Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year are not enough to appease
the ghosts of Tuol Sleng. Given the particularly brutal history of the place, that
may not be so strange at all.
"If there were no ghost at Tuol Sleng, then there would certainly be something
wrong," says Song.