Meaning of a Museum
by Serge Thion
Sometimes, some things cannot be left without a comment. Lya Badgley's article, "Archives at Tuol 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 Conservation (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 Tuol Sleng Archives. Later generations will acknowledge this. I did my best, in January last year, to have the project resumed after it had stalled because of the post-Agreements political atmosphere. The documents, left over by Pol Pot's political police, 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 glimpse 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 and lies. Torture produced many false admissions and, in fact, very few of these documents have been so far accurately analyzed.
This "treasure" is now safely recorded. Khmer Rouge 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 Tuol Sleng that would require an effort of conservation? 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 Lycée 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 Galileo 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 Tuol Sleng. This ordinary school was surrounded by barbed wire and corrugated iron, to prevent you 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 museums. 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 Tuol Sleng also, many things have changed over time. In 1991, the map made of skulls could not be 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 like 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, Tuol 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 Stalinist type of propaganda (Polish-communist origins of the Tuol Sleng presentation) has, in my view, a very limited value. I do not believe that Tuol 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. Tuol Sleng was designed to attract Western support against Pol Pot by equating, in a subdued way, the 1975-79 massacres to the Jewish drama during the Nazi period. The use of the very word "Genocide" is a further proof of it. This is cheap propaganda. It did not stop the West, and particularly the U.S. government, supporting Pol Pot until quite recently.
Keeping monuments to educate for the future is an illusion. The keeping of Auschwitz did not prevent Tuol Sleng. Tuol 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 an example? On the roster of the US. "Campaign to oppose the return of the Khmer Rouge", 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 Tuol Sleng.