The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located in the heart of Phnom Penh, is Cambodia’s main memorial site of the Khmer Rouge interrogation and detention centre. Formerly a secondary school-turned-Security Prison 21 (S-21) after the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975, Tuol Sleng was one of the largest torture and execution sites in the country during the Pol Pot’s “reign of terror”.
In addition to this prominent museum, there are 81 memorial sites (stupas) across the Kingdom’s provinces that contain the bones and other remains of the victims.
The haunting memories of the iron beds, shackles and the lingering scent of blood remain etched in the minds of those who have visited the museum, to this very day.
Lor Kimgech, a 62-year-old lawyer residing in the capital, told The Post that the first scene he encountered when he visited the museum in the early 1980s was a room containing leg cuffs fastened to an iron bar. These served as a stark reminder of the restraints used on the incarcerated. He also noticed a bloodstain on the floor tile, still emitting a foul smell. He saw a metal box designated for prisoners to defecate and a metal bed with a mat.
“The black-and-white photographs of thousands of people, their upper bodies displayed with ID numbers affixed to boards, are among the most profoundly sorrowful images,” Kimgech said.
Within the compound, he witnessed a distressing sight outside the room: giant water storage jars, stacked in a row, with pillars and hanging ropes placed on top of them. These objects served as instruments of torture, where inmates would be submerged headfirst into the water with their feet tied. He also noted the presence of barbed wire fences, both on the front porch and surrounding the building, intended to prevent any potential escape attempts.
“At that time, upon entering the various rooms, there was an unpleasant smell. Encountering these harrowing scenes, I was overwhelmed with shock and sorrow. Tears streamed down my face as I empathised deeply with the sufferers. Although the physical environment has remained largely unchanged to the present, the foul smell has since dissipated,” Kimgech said.
Today, the museum serves as a symbol of collective remembrance for the world. While certain parts of the museum have been renovated, the fundamental structures and rooms where detainees were held remain intact.
Chhang Youk, the executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), told The Post that an astonishing 18,063 men, women and children had been killed at Tuol Sleng. It stands as the only memorial of its kind in the country. In various provinces, 81 stupas have been established, each dedicated to preserving the bones of people killed by the regime. The construction style of these stupas varies, reflecting the individual preferences of each provincial authority.
Youk also mentioned that the facility is just one among 196 criminal detention sites that existed during the period, which included 390 killing fields and 28,833 mass graves. Within Tuol Sleng, thousands of prisoners’ confessions have been preserved.
The focus at the museum, as well as at the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre, is on collecting lost items from the era, including skulls and clothing that belonged to the victims. Legal documents pertaining to the trial of the Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) leaders, along with over half a million historical documents, have been presented to the court. In addition, research documents on the history of the regime are available at the DC-Cam.
“So, each section serves as a collection of our shared national history, recounting the genocide that unfolded during the period from 1975 to 1979,” Youk said.
He added that the DC-Cam has locations in multiple provinces including Phnom Penh, Tbong Khmum, Kampong Cham, Prey Veng, Takeo, Oddar Meanchey, Pursat, Kampot, Stung Treng and Mondulkiri. The centre’s collection is organised based on specific areas and historical events that transpired during the era. These documents come in various formats, such as paper records, books, photographs, videos and interviews with survivors.
According to Youk, the primary objective of the centre is to prevent history from being forgotten, ensuring that the painful past is not repeated. This serves as a lesson, not only for Southeast Asia but for the world. It stands as a tribute to the two million lives lost during that period and to the five million survivors who played a pivotal role in rebuilding the Kingdom from scratch since 1979. Therefore, he suggests that students should visit these locations for study, research and deeper understanding.
Youk said that the DC-Cam in Phnom Penh attracts a diverse range of visitors, with an average of approximately 1,000 people per month. The centres in various provinces across the country draw between 500 and 1,000 guests each month.
Chhuon Sokna, the chief of the Peam Chikang commune in Kang Meas district of Kampong Cham province, said that within his area there are 13 memorial sites dedicated to preserving the remains of Khmer Rouge casualties. One such site measures approximately 3x4 square metres and is enclosed by clear glass, allowing travellers to view the bones. In his commune, a total of 38,690 people were killed, comprising both local residents and individuals from outside the area.
Sokna added that a glass-covered stupa is located at O’Trakuon pagoda in Kang Meas. Each year, district and provincial authorities organise a memorial service dedicated to the victims. This event draws hundreds of young people who listen to speeches vividly depicting the suffering and genocide perpetrated in the country. Through this ceremony, young people gain a deeper understanding of the regime.
“When youth participate in these memorial ceremonies, they often tell me that they had previously heard about the Khmer Rouge from their parents but hadn’t fully believed it. However, upon witnessing the human bones firsthand and hearing survivors describe their experiences, they come to believe,” Sokna said.