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Cambodia takes its place in US genocide museum

The Cambodia 1975-1979 exhibit includes photos, videos and survivors’ testimony.
The Cambodia 1975-1979 exhibit includes photos, videos and survivors’ testimony. Photo supplied

Cambodia takes its place in US genocide museum

Two Khmer Rouge exhibits open today to educate visitors to the Washington, DC, Holocaust Memorial Museum

In an effort to increase understanding of genocide and foster connections between victims around the world, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is hosting a pair of exhibitions highlighting the horrors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. 

"Cambodia 1975-1979", which chronicles life under Democratic Kampuchea with photographs, videos and testimony from survivors, among other artefacts, and "I Want Justice!", which highlights how victims of mass atrocities have searched for justice, from Nuremberg to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, both open today. 

The Holocaust museum was established in 1993 in Washington, DC, to commemorate the roughly 6 million Jews that were brutally and systematically murdered by the Nazi regime during World War II.

However, its scope has since been broadened to become a "living memorial …[that] inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity", according to the museum's website.

DC-Cam executive director Youk Chhang examines the Khmer Rouge exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Musuem.
DC-Cam executive director Youk Chhang examines the Khmer Rouge exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Musuem. Photo supplied

“One way the [museum] honours the victims of the Holocaust is by working to prevent genocide and mass atrocities today,” said Gregory Naranjo, exhibition developer at the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education. “The museum wants to ensure people know that the crimes of genocide and mass atrocities did not end in 1945 with the Holocaust.”

The exhibitions are the result of three years of collaboration between the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in Phnom Penh and and have been opened to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.

DC-Cam executive director Youk Chhang, who is also responsible for translating The Diary of Anne Frank into Khmer, said the museum  approached him in 2012, and a group of the museum’s high-level personnel subsequently toured the Kingdom in order to better understand and communicate his country’s struggle. 

“I wanted them to see the country,” said Youk. “It was a chance for me to show that there are things in common on the ground – that we are people and we have experienced suffering and loss.” 

The museum has in the past called attention to other mass killing around the world. For example, the exhibit "From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide" looks into some of the world’s more recent genocides, such as those that took place in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Darfur region of Sudan. 

Youk and DC-Cam shouldered the task of sifting through thousands of photos, records and artefacts for the two Cambodian exhibitions. Naranjo described DC-Cam’s staff as the exhibit’s “historic advisers”.

“We co-created this,” Youk said. “We are partners with the museum… we are responsible for supplying all the data and resource materials. We have two large spots in the museum… which is beautifully done.”

The exhibitions are expected to vastly increase awareness of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Since it was established in 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum has attracted more than 38 million visitors.

“We can educate the US public the same as the Cambodian public,” Youk said.

For Sirik Savina, the director of DC-Cam’s Sleuk Rith Institute Museum of Memory, the Khmer Rouge exhibits represent an invaluable opportunity to spread global awareness of Cambodia’s tragic history.

“I think it is important that the exhibition on the Khmer Rouge history [is] opening at the Holocaust museum,” she said in an email. “It helps promote an understanding of the mass atrocity that took place in Cambodia, and alerts the world that mass killings continue to occur regardless of political history and geography.”

Both exhibitions are set to run until October 2017.

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