Sometimes, some things cannot be left without a comment. Lya Badgley's article, "Archives
at Toul Sleng Imperiled" (Phnom Penh Post, June 18-July 1, 1993) is at some
points misleading and raises a question which deserves some more thoughts.
She is director of the Cornell University Library Conversation (or Conversation?)
Project. I know the Library as I did research there, many years ago under the very
kind guidance of the late Professor John M. Echols. This is the best place in the
world to study Cambodia and many other Southeast Asian subjects. The Library has
done an immense service to Khmer history in microfilming the Toul Sleng Archives.
Later generations will acknowledge this. I did my best, in January last year, to
have the project resume after it had stalled because of the post-Agreements political
atmosphere. The documents, left over by Pol Pot's political police, could cannot
be safeguarded for ever in a climate where all paper documents either disintegrate
or are sold on the market. Beside, they are political hot potatoes. The killers'
squad and their boss, nicknamed Deuch, had some R&R in Sakeo (Thailand) in 1979
and are now roaming free in the forest.
Lya Badgley says these documents are a "treasure". It is true. The fall
of Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, to the Vietnamese army was so sudden that Deuch
and his team had no time to carry away the bulk of the papers. Historians have thus
the rare luck to have a glimpses into the operations of a KGB-type of political police.
But the utmost caution should be applied because the documents contain an incredible
mixture of truths. Torture produced many false admissions and, in fact, very few
of these documents have been so far accurately analyzed.
This "treasure" is now safety recorded. Khmers Rouges were good record-keepers
in any case and nothing indicates they would have a policy of destroying documents.
I believe they just do not care about them. Is there anything else of value in Toul
Sleng that would require an effort of conversation? The place, the buildings, according
to Ms Badgley, who says they "create an experience of an atmosphere unknowable
from any book".
I know the place. I knew it very well. I spent one year teaching in these building
in 1968-69, when it was called the lycee Chau Ponhea Yat. I remember the noisy crowd
of schoolboys and girls, my Khmer and French colleagues, the classroom where I tried
to explain the contribution of Galilee to the birth of experimental physics to pupils
who had never seen a lab. Twelve years later I was back on the old premises, then
called Toul Sleng. This ordinary school was surrounded by barbed wire and corrugated
iron, to prevent from looking inside.
But the place was not as it was when Deuch had left it. Vietnamese experts had been
brought in, soon after the discovery. Since 1975, these North Vietnamese experts
had created throughout Vietnam several political museum. Some of them had been trained
in Auschwitz, Poland. Auschwitz itself had been closed for several years, in the
50's, to allow rebuilding and redesigning. In Toul Sleng also, many things have changed
over time. In 1991, the map made of skulls could not seen anywhere. The huge pile
of clothes, deliberately reminiscent of WW II concentration camps photographs had
disappeared. The plaster busts of Pol Pot, which were probably brought in from somewhere
else in 1979, had vanished. Many other small changes had occurred.
What I want to convey is the idea that museification implies an alteration of the
place. Efforts are made to reorganize space and display artifacts to create a meaning
that was lacking or was not obvious enough. This is quite conceivable when a museum
is built for this purpose. But when it is organized in the very place where events
took place, you have to transform the place in order to make it look more what it
was, to change it to look more true. I find this paradox unbearable.
I knew this place, several of my friends were killed there. But what I see now is
not the real place. Why should we consider it worth keeping if authenticity is lacking?
The theatrical reorganization of the place creates a distance. I believe casual visitors
cannot really grasp what really happened through just walking by horror pictures.
This would require a lot of knowledge on conditions in Cambodia at the time that
either belong to the realm of personal experience or to a strong will to understand
history. And books teach much more.
To put it in a nutshell, Toul Sleng has been turned into a propaganda machine. I
strongly believe that a struggle should be waged against Pol Pot because the danger
is still there, waiting in the wings. But a Stalin Ian type of propaganda (Polish-communist
origins of the Toul Sleng presentation) has, in my view, a very limited value. I
do not believe that Toul Sleng should be kept as it is because some part of it is
fake. This is not a honorable way to show respect for the victims.
Moreover, I do not believe that Cambodians really accept this kind of institution.
very few Khmers ever visit the museum. Prince Sihanouk suggested to cremate all the
human remains to appease the wandering souls. if a stupa was then erected, crowds
of Cambodians would gather there, I am sure. Toul Sleng was designed to attract Western
support against Pol Pot by equating, in a subdue way, the 1975-79 massacres to the
Jewish drama during the Nazi period. The use of the very word of "Genocide"
is a further proof of it. This is cheap propaganda. It did not stop the West, and
particularly the U.S. government, to support Pol Pot until quite recently.
Keeping monuments to educate for the future is an illusion. The keeping of Auschwitz
did not prevent Toul Sleng. Toul Sleng does not prevent Sarajevo. Politics is not
rooted in memory but in the thirst for power. And memory in itself is not strongly
related to justice. You want example? On the roster of the U.S. "Campaign to
oppose the return of the Khmers Rouges", you find William Colby, a former head
of the CIA. Let's forget the CIA. But this man was the head of the Phoenix program
in the Mekong Delta in 1968-69. As such, he ordered the killing of 60 to 80,000 civilians
suspected to be Vietcong. Where is the court which would declare this now respected
U.S. citizen a war criminal? Is this kind of man qualified to patronize a Genocide
Museum? Let us thank Cornell, the Luce and Christopher Reynolds foundations for having
saved the archives and let the Cambodians decide for themselves what they will do
with Toul Sleng.
- Serge Thion, French scholar who contributed to the forthcoming book,
"Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia", edited by B. Kiernan, at Yale University.