A memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge’s policy of forced evacuation has been unceremoniously removed just weeks after it was inaugurated at its designated site next to the French Embassy.
The sculpture, part of a memorial entitled For Those Who Are No Longer Here by French-Cambodian artist Séra Ing, was one of the reparations projects outlined in the 2014 judgment handed down by the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Case 002/01 against former Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan.
The work, a mottled bronze figure frozen mid-air as it tumbles backwards with its hands pressed into a sampeah, evokes the displacement of the victims of the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975.
The number of deaths stemming from the forced evacuation is imprecise, but evidence presented at the court suggests anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 people perished.
The sculpture was inaugurated on December 7 with much fanfare and 20 civil parties – recognised victims of the regime who take part in the legal proceedings and are entitled to reparations – attended, along with lawyers and government officials.
By early January, however, the statue had been quietly removed by municipal authorities and is currently residing at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Muesum, where it will later be installed.
Civil party lawyer Marie Guiraud said she had not received “any official notification or explanation” for the sudden removal. She said the court, in its judgment, “noted that the Municipality of Phnom Penh had agreed to the proposed location of the memorial” in front of the French Embassy.
“We then learned that the Memorial had been moved to Tuol Sleng, which is not a location one would think of for a memorial aimed at honoring the victims of forced evacuations,” Guiraud said in an email.
“We are about to inform the Trial Chamber and the civil parties about that unexpected development.”
But “on a positive note”, she said the sculpture would be included in the museum’s audioguide and a plaque would explain its meaning to visitors.
The artist, Séra, said the position next to the French Embassy held deeply personal significance. It was the last place he saw his father, who was killed in 1978. While Séra’s mother and siblings took refuge at the embassy and later fled the country, his Cambodian-born father was refused entry.
“It is here that I saw with my eyes the last inhabitants of Phnom Penh forced to leave too,” he said in an email.
“This place was also symbolically charged for me; it is here that I saw for the first time in my life heaps of calcined human bodies, after the destruction of the bridge in 1972. In this mass of bodies, we no longer recognised the men or women.”
Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng said the statue was removed “because at that place, it needs to be turned into a park”.
But when probed on why the municipal authorities acted against the court’s decision, Sreng deferred questions to the French Embassy.
French Embassy spokesperson Mathilde Teruya said in an email that “the Municipality, after having informed the French Embassy, is in the process of installing this Memorial in Tuol Sleng, where exposure will be greater and the upkeep easier”.
Youk Chhang, of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said the Khmer Rouge’s crimes happened all over the country, and it was important to mark those sites to “unpack” the immensity of the loss, rather than “packing it all in” at Tuol Sleng, the former site of an infamous torture centre.
He said the sculpture project had been years in the making, and to remove it in such a short time “undermines all that effort – all that hard work seems to have vanished”.
“If you can remove or replace part of a legal judgment, what is the impact?” he said. “It is a major loss in terms of victims’ perceptions of the power of the judgment at the ECCC.”
Séra stressed the memorial was not yet complete, and still required a dark marble pool of water and an abstract wall. It remained unclear how that would be realised within the walls of Tuol Sleng.
“On this surface, I would wrinkle, scratch in the earth, to talk about the suffering of those who are no longer there,” he said.
“I wanted the city where I was born and where I grew up [to] not forget its history, even when it was tragic.”
Additional reporting by Kong Meta