A local NGO considers how best to save killing fields from disappearing
LOCAL nongovernmental organisation Youth for Peace (YFP) last month hosted a discussion with other NGOs on the pressing need to preserve and memorialise historical sites associated with the Khmer Rouge, including the locations of massacres and mass burials.
Kassie Neou, the outreach coordinator of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, said at the meeting that he was saddened that some of these sites had already disappeared, including a house in Anlong Veng where Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot killed his colleagues.
“We think it’s important to preserve these places for posterity, so future generations can learn from them and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past,” he said.
Neou Kassie said Cambodians should play a key role in protecting these places, but people are often too busy with their daily lives to make the necessary effort.
“Because of this, it would be better to approach the preservation of these locations as business ventures. To convince people to take care of these places, they must be able to earn money from them,” he said.
In March the Cambodian government announced plans to preserve 14 sites at Anlong Veng, including the home and grave of Pol Pot, as tourist attractions.
The move was not without its detractors, including Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, a project started by the Cambodian Genocide Centre at Yale University.
“Using genocide to attract tourists is irresponsible,” he was quoted as saying by The Independent (UK) following the government announcement.
“These [events] have to be preserved; they have to be documented. But if you allow this to be commercialised then you dehumanise and victimise us. For a long time we have been struggling to become something else.”
At the YFP’s discussion last month, Anja Bodanowitz, an artist from the Institute for Art in Context at Berlin University of the Arts, gave a presentation on Holocaust memorials in Europe, including museums, exhibitions and sculptures. She pointed out that many memorials were placed in easily accessible, public spaces.
Ms Bodanowitz said some of these memorials were made by individual artists, citing the example of Gunter Demnig, a German sculptor who has embedded personalised “stumbling stones” outside the last known residences of many Jews who were deported to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The “stones” – actually brass plaques – are embedded in the sidewalk and include the name, year of birth and information about the deportation of the deceased.
“All of these monuments were established to warn the people and warn the next generations. It’s a negative memory, but its intention was very strong,” Ms Bodanowitz said.
Chhounni Synan, the project officer at YFP, said he had visited some of these monuments in Europe and thought they were attractive, but wondered whether they would fit into the Cambodian context due to the cultural differences between Khmer and German people.
“The idea of the stumbling stones, for example, would conflict with Khmer culture because they would consider it insulting to victims to put their names in places where people would step in them,” he said.
Chhounni Synan said that rather than artistic memorials, rural Cambodians would benefit more from having small libraries in their communities that would feature realistic paintings illustrating historical events coupled with narrative sound recordings.
He admitted that generating income to keep the libraries open would be a challenge, but cited an example from South America on how it might be done.
“There is a museum in Peru where old people sell handmade souvenirs to visitors,” he said. “In this way, the memorial site is linked with local art while at the same time educating people, so the local community can benefit.”
According to the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, there were about 390 massacre sites and killing fields, as well as 196 prisons, throughout Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime.
However, only a small number have been fashioned into tourist sites, including Toul Sleng prison, now a genocide museum, the killing fields at Choeung Ek and monuments at Wat Ampe Phnom, Phnom Baset, Phnom Oudong as well as the house of Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok in Anlong Veng.
Many other sites now lie beneath farmland.