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Academic extols need to balance science, mores

Sculls sit in a cabinet at the Choeung Ek killing fields in 2013.
Sculls sit in a cabinet at the Choeung Ek killing fields in 2013. Vireak Mai

Academic extols need to balance science, mores

Drawing on her experience exhuming Khmer Rouge-era mass graves, an anthropology researcher analysing skeletal remains of Khmer Rouge victims published an essay this week in the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention extolling the importance of balancing artefact preservation with respect for local culture.

The author, Julie Fleischman, has examined and analysed skeletal remains from Choeung Ek – more commonly known as the Killing Fields – and recently began a new project at the Kraing Ta Chan security centre site in Takeo province.

“Human remains resulting from genocide or crimes against humanity are rarely accessible for research primarily because they are politically, culturally, ethically, and religiously sensitive,” Fleischman writes.

“Religious or cultural groups may believe that forensic teams profane the spaces and the individuals within if the grave is disturbed,” she adds, noting that King Sihanouk “employed religious discourse” when he suggested cremating the remains of Khmer Rouge victims in 2001.

Fleischman began work in Kraing Ta Chan this April, where she has thus far analysed more than 1,900 skulls.

In an attempt to overcome the challenge posed by “political narratives and religious ideologies” to forensic analysis, Fleischman also worked to restore the memorial stupa in which the remains were interred.

“A solemn Khmer Buddhist ceremony was held for the local community to call the spirits back to the mortal remains and wish them well in their next lives,” she wrote.

Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, agreed with Fleischman that it is important to “be sensitive to how the local people act and cope”, but pushed back against the insinuation that Cambodian people were a threat to preserving these historically relevant remains.

Chhang, himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, said it was the local people themselves who began the initiative to preserve these remains.

Fleischman does note that Cambodians made an effort to document and preserve, but also claims the memorials and preservations quickly fell into disrepair, something Chhang maintained was simply a result of a lack of resources.

“We should appreciate the effort from locals for themselves preserving the bones,” Chhang said, explaining that many of these people barely had enough money for food but still worked to dig up and preserve bones from mass graves.

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