Taking a class at Tuol Sleng

Taking a class at Tuol Sleng


Paola Barisani/Phnom Penh Post

A lecture gives a class on Khmer Rouge history at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum has reclaimed part of its original status as a high school by co-ordinating free history lectures on the Khmer Rouge regime.

The museum recently stepped into a three-year plan which holds the classes every Wednesday from 9am to 10am, and Friday from 2 to 3pm, and is led by international and national scholars on Cambodian history and S-21 survivors.  

Savina Sirik, team leader of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s Living Documents projects  says: “We decided to choose this place for our history lessons,  and brought all the chairs and tables from one of the high schools in Phnom Penh because we wanted to make it real, and remind people that this was a place of education before the Khmer Rouge regime transformed it in a place of fear and death.

“And also because one of the survivors, who is still alive today, used to study here. So we picked this class and arranged it accordingly to her description,” Savina Sirik says.

“We chose a three-year period because we thought it would coincide with the Khmer Rouge tribunal, but this is only the first step.

“We are planning other activities, like the screening of documentaries in other rooms of the building, to make the museum livelier. We also plan to make the history classes a real course, with one subject taken from the book that we make available in class, and discuss it with everyone.”

Classes, which officially started in November, are organised by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia in collaboration with Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

The lessons contrast the devaluation of education promoted by the Khmer Rouge with slogans such as, “Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution.”

Lectures focus on the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, its domestic and foreign policies, security systems, the S-21 office, the regime’s fall and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’s recent verdict.

So far, the courses have attracted an average of 20 to 30 people at one time. More than half of them were foreign and domestic tourists, the rest mostly Cambodian students,.

“Since the majority of the students who come to the lectures can understand English, the classes are taught in this language,” Ser Sayana, team leader of Student Outreach of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says.

“But we also have lectures in Khmer for Cambodians. At the end of every lecture, people can leave their comments, share their thoughts and write down their impressions.”   

Australian Ben Alpers, 42, who attended a class, says the unusual environment is more conducive to study.

“When you come to something like this, you can’t help but feel it. It keeps you very focused, not like a normal classroom which is very distracting. I think that’s what we lack in schools today,” Alpers says.

“We lack feeling. My problem with education systems is exactly that. They’re so out of context, you don’t actually learn anything. You can learn more in five minutes here than you could learn in three years in an Australian classroom. And you remember it.”