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New UN exhibition reflects dark side of Cambodian history

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Pictures of Ly Yousib and Ly Smael that their mother, Kong Sarifas, kept with her are displayed at the exhibition. DC-CAM

New UN exhibition reflects dark side of Cambodian history

The UN Department of Global Communications – alongside the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect – are launching a New York exhibition that aims to remind viewers that no country is immune from the risks of genocide and related atrocities.

Stories of Survival and Remembrance – A Call to Action for Genocide Prevention features the reflections of survivors of four major atrocities including the Holocaust; the genocide and related atrocities in Cambodia; the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda; and the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Where we see people facing systematic discrimination or becoming targets of violence simply because of who they are, because of their identity, we must act – both to defend those at immediate risk and those who could be in jeopardy in the future,” UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, was quoted as saying.

“By promoting a culture of peace and non-violence that includes respect for diversity and non-discrimination, we can build societies that are resilient to the risk of genocide,” he added.

The exhibition was opened on the night of April 11 at the UN headquarters in New York, and will be open for public viewing until June 15.

“Sophea Eat, permanent representative of the Kingdom of Cambodia, delivered remarks at the opening ceremony,” Tracey Petersen, manager of the Holocaust and the UN Outreach Programme, told The Post.

“The audience included senior UN staff, diplomats and members of the public,” she said.

The exhibition showcases the poignant connection between history, memory, and survival by featuring photographs and cherished personal items that belonged to victims and survivors.

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Keo Chhoeun, whose barber’s tool is featured in the exhibition (right), was a former national volleyball and tennis champion and an official of the National Bank of Cambodia from (circa) 1968 -1975. DC-CAM

The photographs of items related to the Holocaust and the 1994 Tutsi genocide were taken by acclaimed photographer Jim Lommasson, while the War Childhood Museum in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Remembering Srebrenica organisation provided reminders of the Balkan tragedy. The Documentation centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) supplied items related to the Khmer Rouge period.

The UN provided a summary of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge history.

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime caused the death of approximately 1.5 to 2 million individuals through forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and starvation.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) categorised these acts as crimes against humanity and serious breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

In November 2018, the ECCC announced that the Khmer Rouge regime committed genocide against the Cham Muslim and ethnic Vietnamese minorities by implementing a policy that targeted religious and racial groups with the intention of creating an atheistic and homogenous society without any class, ethnic, national, religious, racial, or cultural differences.

It is estimated that 36percent of the pre-war Cham population of 300,000 were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Up to 90 percent of the 200,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia were forcibly displaced to neighbouring Vietnam, and up to 20,000 were killed outright.

Among the items on show is a hand-made beard/moustache trimmer. It was made by Keo Chhoeun, a former national volleyball and tennis champion.

An official of the National Bank of Cambodia, he vanished during the purge of the Preah Netr Preah commune of the Khmer Rouge’s region 5 in 1978. His sister, Keo Nann, who is now 96 years old, kept his beard/moustache trimmer with her for over 40 years, before gifting it to DC-Cam.

Kong Sarifas gifted photographs of her two sons, Ly Yousib and Ly Smael, to the exhibit.

Sarifas, a cake seller and member of the Cham muslim community, was married to a goldsmith. Her sons became fishermen in Phnom Penh.

During the Khmer Rouge period, Sarifas and her daughter lived separately from her husband and sons because Angkar, the shadowy organisation behind the Khmer Rouge, would not allow Cham families to be together.

After the country was liberated in 1979, she heard from several villagers that both of her sons had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge while searching for her. She shared photos of her handsome sons with the exhibit, noting that their pale skin meant they may have been considered Vietnamese by the Khmer Rouge cadres.

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Sarifas once consulted a fortune teller who assured her that her sons will return to her, but she has been waiting for decades, and is losing hope.

“The exhibition also includes a child’s teddy bear, a woman’s scarf, and ballet shoes, objects that survivors carried with them, and which sustained survivors when the world felt without hope,” said a UN press release.

“For some survivors, the object holds value because it is a physical connection to their loved ones who did not survive — a little girl’s cardigan, a grandfather’s watch, or well-worn photographs of happier times,” it added.

“Over 75 years ago, the United Nations was founded in response to the atrocities committed during World War II. The prevention of genocide is just as important today as it was then. This exhibition serves as a call to action, reminding people of the necessity to create a world in which justice prevails and where all individuals are equal in dignity and rights,” it concluded.

Youk Chhang, the executive director of DC-Cam, is a survivor, and author and a researcher.

“The world should not forget those who are no longer with us and those who are still suffering the far-reaching effects of genocide,” he said.

“If we don’t learn from past mistakes, how can we define ourselves today and how will we shape the future we want for our children?” he told The Post.


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