This past weekend, I was able to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I visited with a few friends of mine from the U.S. Embassy, and I was glad that they were there to share the experience with me. Tuol Sleng is a stark reminder of Cambodia’s recent history, and visiting is not a happy experience. However, George Santayana’s oft quoted line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” describes why I think it is necessary to have a memorial like Tuol Sleng – both as a way to remember the victims and to serve as a lesson to future generations.
I learned about Tuol Sleng long before I came to Cambodia as the U.S. Ambassador. One of my Khmer-language teachers back in the U.S. told me that she actually attended Chao Ponhea Yat High School before it was taken over and turned into the S-21 Prison. Looking at her, hearing her speak about her life during the Khmer Rouge, made me anxious to visit Tuol Sleng to try to understand why the Khmer Rouge leaders would want to “smash” their own people. On my visit to the former prison, I met with one of the survivors. We spoke about why the museum is important to him and for those who come to visit.
While I was at the museum, I also learned about programs that different groups in Cambodia are working on to help educate the younger generations born after 1979. A government approved history textbook has been published, and groups of Cambodians from the provinces are sponsored to come and visit the museum in order to learn about their past. There are even lectures for visitors put on by staff from the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
The museum offers visitors a place to learn, reflect, and heal. People heal in many different ways. One way is to be open about past tragedies and give people a forum to share their stories. I think this is an important aspect of Tuol Sleng, that it provides a location for people to gather to help reconcile the past with the present and gives them a way to begin to look forward to the future.
For this reason, I am proud that the United States government has provided nearly $12 million of assistance to date to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The conviction of ex-Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav (alias “Duch”) was a milestone not only for Cambodia, but for justice worldwide. It is a small comfort to know that one of the men primarily responsible for the horrors I witnessed at Tuol Sleng has been held accountable for his crimes.