Victims' remains near Battambang: vexing problem for survivors.
T was a gruesome death that met the victims in the deep caves of Phnom Sampov mountain
a few kilometers outside Battambang town. From almost 20 meters above, KR security
cadres killed their prey by throwing them into the vertical abyss of rugged, sharp
The starved and frightened victims were forced to walk out to the edge of the cliffs
by themselves. A merciless push sent them screaming down into the chasm. Most must
have died instantly when they hit the harsh rock sides and the bottom of the cave.
If not, they were left to slowly bleed to death.
During Pol Pot and the KR terror regime 1975-79, up to 10,000 people fell to their
death in the depths of the Phnom Sampov caves. One of the three killing pits was
for children only.
For years, the remains of the unfortunate victims lay scattered on the bottom of
the craters. Now, after locals have collected the bones, a wooden table on the rock
floor holds the remains of dozens of the cave's victims, their restless souls appeased
by a small Buddhist shrine nearby.
But these days the Phnom Sampov caves are haunted by another problem: bones, and
particularly skulls, have begun to disappear - stolen by ignorant visitors.
And Phnom Sampov is not the only killing field in Cambodia, where time, indifference
and ignorance has taken its toll on the physical evidence of KR atrocities. All over
the country the remains of thousands of victims are constantly being lost forever
- washed away by rain, eaten by cows and pigs, or simply stolen.
However, the intensifying talk about a tribunal to prosecute former KR leaders has
brought new attention to the issue of the millions of bones and skulls littering
the Cambodian countryside. And some Cambodians hope the renewed focus on KR atrocities
will revitalize efforts to preserve and protect the victims' remains.
"I feel strongly that there should be some kind of formal and scientific preservation
of the victims' remains. The talk about a trial has made it a very sensitive issue,
but I hope that the government will make it a priority," says Youk Chhang, Director
of the Documentation Center for Cambodia that collects evidence about the KR regime.
On the other hand, the trial talks have also rendered the topic of remains highly
politicized, as the government uses KR memorials and ceremonies to convince the population
that they take the matter seriously, while stalling tribunal negotiations with the
Early last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected calls by a UN group of experts for
an international KR tribunal in a third country, on the grounds that dealing with
the KR regime was an internal, Cambodian matter. After that, observers point out,
certain measures were put into place in order to underline the national interest.
For one thing, the annual "Day of Hate" on May 20 suddenly sprung back
into action - although under its new name of "Day of Remembrance." The
day, designated to commemorate the victims of the KR regime, was formally abolished
after the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991. Last year, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara
and other dignitaries participated in a large May 20 ceremony at the Choeung Ek killing
fields for the first time in eight years.
Outside the capital, another famous former killing field also caught official attention.
The old school house at Tapeang Sva village in Tonle Bati had for years contained
the remains of several hundred victims, exhumed from nearby mass graves. The ruined
building with its 10-meter-wide pile of skulls and bones had long been a popular
location for photographers and TV crews seeking to show the brutality of the KR regime.
Last year, a number of CPP generals, including close Hun Sen aide Kun Kim, paid for
the construction of a stupa to which all the remains were moved.
It's not the first time that the evidence of KR atrocities in the shape of camera-friendly
skulls and bones has been used for political purposes or propaganda.
For the Vietnamese-installed and Hanoi-supported People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK)
of the 1980s, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Choeung Ek and other killing fields
were important tools in the struggle to legitimize the Vietnamese invasion that ousted
Pol Pot in 1979.
Internationally, the piles of bones and skulls challenged UN policy of awarding Cambodia's
seat to the KR and the isolation that many foreign powers imposed on the PRK. Nationally,
constant reminders of KR atrocities sought to generate support for a government,
seen by the population as the extended arm of an unwelcome invader.
During the early years of the PRK, numerous smaller memorials were erected all over
Cambodia, as villagers and local authorities dug up mass graves and cleared up killing
sites. And even though official interest faded after the Paris Peace Agreement, many
locals still maintain and improve the basic memorials today.
In Krang Kov Chan village, Tram Kak district in Takeo province, a simple bamboo cage
in a small wooden house contains the skulls of hundreds of victims from KR mass graves.
The building was erected in 1984 and here - as well as at the Phnom Sampov caves
and many other killing fields - the Day of Hate has been celebrated every year, even
when it was formally abolished.
Village chief Pim Samuth says: "If we don't keep the memorial and have a ceremony
every year, people will one day not believe the terrible things that happened here.
Sometimes I take the children down to the house and tell them about Pol Pot times".
According to Senator Chhang Song, that is exactly the purpose of the KR memorials.
"The government should mobilize a national effort to guard the knowledge of
past times. We have to collect and encourage oral history, so it will be remembered.
It is a legacy that belongs to all Cambodians and must not be forgotten," Song
However, he and many others concede that there are limits to how the legacy of KR
atrocities should be portrayed. The famous "skull map" of Cambodia in Tuol
Sleng, put together in 1979 by human skulls from what was then freshly exhumed graves,
arouses a lot more disgust with its creator than sympathy for the victims.
Director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Sopheara Chey, acknowledges that the
skull map may not be an entirely good idea.
"I'm aware that people don't like it. We would like to draw up another map and
put the skulls to rest in a glass coffin. But money is important, and right now we
just can't afford to make this change," says Chey.