A program in Pol Pot’s last stronghold is giving students an insight into people they once perceived as monsters
On the remote, mountainous border between Cambodia and Thailand where the last of the Khmer Rouge leaders held out until the late 1990s, students from the Royal University of Fine Arts have been restoring significant sites.
At Pol Pot’s grave site – which marks his makeshift cremation on a bed of car tyres in 1998 – they have built an information kiosk. The mountaintop chalet of Ta Mok – “The Butcher”, or “Brother Number Five” – has been rebuilt as it once stood. The students have hand-drawn a map that charts the dozen sites in the region deemed to be of historical significance.
Some of its entries have, until now, gone completely unmarked and unnoticed – like the grave of Son Sen and his family, murdered on the orders of Pol Pot in a move that signalled the final implosion of the Khmer Rouge elite.
This outbreak of activity has been a long time coming to the impoverished district of Anlong Veng in northern Oddar Meanchey province.
Both the Cambodian government and the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) have for several years been planning to make the area more accessible to tourists. The town is integral to Cambodian history: it is the place where the Khmer Rouge fought on for almost 20 years after the Vietnamese invasion of 1979. And despite its remoteness, it is well-situated for tourism – only an hour from Siem Reap and close to a Thai border crossing popular with casino-goers.
According to Youk Chhang, executive director of DC-Cam, the push to bring students to the area is an indispensable part of his agenda to reintegrate this underdeveloped region.
Speaking last week, he explained that there was a distinct distrust of outsiders to be reckoned with, because the town’s inhabitants are mostly former Khmer Rouge and their descendants.
“There is an assumption among people there that if there’s a white car coming, they don’t want to talk to anyone from it, because it’s linked to the ongoing tribunal,” he said.
“I think the tribunal had so much impact in that area and therefore they’re only open to students.”
This openness to the younger generation has been thoroughly tested over the course of the two student tours that DC-Cam has so far organised – the first in February, the second this week.
During the trip, all participating students are sent out door-knocking with instructions to speak to local residents about their life under the Khmer Rouge and to record their stories.
It’s a confronting exercise, according to Ly Sok-Kheang, head of the Anlong Veng Peace Programme with DC-Cam and the man in charge of the monthly trips.
“The thought of those who never visit is that they don’t like Anlong Veng – it’s somewhere in Cambodia that they don’t understand,” said Kheang, speaking just ahead of his trip up north this week.
Before going to Anlong Veng, participants are required to fill out a survey that asks them about their attitude towards the Khmer Rouge.
“When we ask the question, what do you think about the words ‘former Khmer Rouge member’, most of them say that they are murderers, brutal or evil ... some people express anger, hatred against them,” Kheang explained.
The interviews, he said, altered their perspective. “The former Khmer Rouge members talk to them in a friendly way, are open to them for interviews. The dialogue makes them change.”
According to Meng Sovanlylin, a 22-year-old student who visited Anlong Veng in February, on DC-Cam’s first monthly visit, people were surprisingly open. “I thought that local people wouldn’t be happy to talk with us, but when I met them, they were happy to share about their past experiences and exchange information.”
Sovanlylin is an architecture student and has been one of two participants involved in rebuilding Ta Mok’s meeting house over the past few months. The building, atop a vertiginous cliff from which Ta Mok commanded his forces, was burned down in a fire in 2013.
Speaking on the phone, Sovanlylin said that the project couldn’t have been achieved without the team integrating into the local community. “We weren’t sure exactly what the old building looked like, but we tried to meet and talk with villagers and the workers who were involved in the building,” she explained.
Getting the details right has required time: which way did the doors hinge?
How was the interior decorated? Some have been hard to replicate: logging in Anlong Veng has destroyed much of the mountainous forest terrain, so securing the same wood to rebuild the property was impossible.
Sovanlylin says that her project is 70 per cent completed, with only the roof to go.
DC-Cam hopes that by better preserving the Khmer Rouge’s physical legacy they can encourage tourists to visit the region – last year, the town saw an average of only 50 international visitors a month.
But perhaps more important is the consciousness-raising function of these visits. This is the reason, Kheang says, why they have started with Cambodian students: he is keen to impress on the younger generation that things were never “black and white” when it came to the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng. Between 1979 and 1999 – when Ta Mok was finally detained – he was often a magnanimous patriarch, providing food, medicine and infrastructure to the region, according to Kheang, who has written a book on the subject.
“Even now, we try to use the words ‘those who worked for the Khmer Rouge’ rather than ‘perpetrators’,” Kheang said.
For Sovanlylin, visiting the region has succeeded in changing her outlook.
“Besides working on the plans for this site, I know a lot of history about Anlong Veng, and I want to preserve this place more and more,” she said.
She has grand plans for her architecture degree also. “When I study, I don’t want to just do the design and that’s it,” she said. “I want to get involved in different projects related to our history.”