I am a Tibetan-American who recently visited Cambodia. On December 26, I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The horrendous display of the actual rooms and real instruments of torture used by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 for interrogation, torture and killing of prisoners reminded me of similarly gruesome stories told by thousands of Tibetans who escaped since China’s total takeover in 1959. Cambodia and Tibet have many things in common: They are predominantly Buddhist countries, both colonised by foreign powers, both victims of communism.
Each one lost over a million people due to man’s inhumanity to man, the only difference being that the tortures and killings in Cambodia were done by its own people, the Khmer Rouge. In Tibet they were perpetrated by the People’s Liberation Army of China, which invaded and occupied Tibet in the early 1950s.
In the last hall of the exhibition on the third floor of Tuol Sleng, filled with countless old faded black-and-white photographs of prisoners, there was a large billboard that stated in Cambodian, French and English that the exhibitions were dedicated to the victims who perished during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.
It stated: “Keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodian soil alive is the key to build a new, strong and just state … making the crimes of the inhuman Khmer Rouge regime public plays a crucial role in preventing a new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on Earth.” This was indeed a noble commitment to principles made by a people who had suffered so much.
If only the government of Cambodia had not made a total mockery of these principles by handing back to China 20 Uighur refugees from the Xinjiang region of China who, after escaping, tried to seek political asylum in Cambodia. The Uighurs suffer from the same colonisation, torture and killing as Tibetans under China. The entire affair of the Uighur asylum seekers was handled with lightning speed .... Cambodian police arrested the 20 Muslim dissidents on December 18, and forcefully deported them on the night of December 19 on a specially chartered plane bound for an undisclosed destination in China.
Undoubtedly, they are now in some Chinese Tuol Slengs scattered throughout China, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet, where thousands of political prisoners, including those Tibetans arrested after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games demonstrations, are routinely tortured. The day after the Uighurs’ deportation, the vice president of China, Xi Jinping, arrived in Phnom Penh. He lauded the Cambodian government for its handling of the asylum seekers and signed some 14 economic assistance projects totalling US$1.2 billion.
On the day I visited the Angkor ruins, I had a glimpse of smiling Cambodian officials escorting Xi Jinping around Angkor. I could not help but wonder if these officials were even aware of the irony of the situation.
The barbaric acts on display at the Tuol Sleng museum in effect said “never again”, but the recent deeds of the government of Cambodia clearly indicated that Cambodia is not only willing to ignore its recent history but will actively collaborate with the biggest of all Pol Pots to perpetuate the same barbaric acts of torture and killing, if the price is right.
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