We often remark we have never seen such brutality or what is becoming of the world. Sadly madness has always been part of history. While we watch Burma shut itself from the world, arrogantly telling us “You can do nothing!”, I’m reminded of madness that took form in its neighboring country.
Will we see the emergence of a 21st century’s Hell on Earth?
Can lessons from Cambodia help Burma?
(ps : some of the images are graphic so continue reading only if you think you can)
Visiting Phnom Pehns depressing memoirs
There’s an eerie silence as you approach the sole building standing in a somewhat empty groove. As you look further you realize the groove is filled with large holes. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center which is referred to as ‘Hell On Earth In 20th Century’ was the center of the centre of Cambodia’s genocide.
129 mass graves and about 8000 skulls at the site bear testimony to the unspeakable crime that were inflicted on the people of Cambodia by the Ultra Communist Khmer Rouge Regime (UCKRR) between 1975 – 1979. It was the final destination for many as it was known as the killing fields, no one returned alive.
The 8000 skulls that were unearthed are now placed in the memorial house.
More than 3 million victims were killed through execution, starvation and forced labor by the Khmer regime in just 3 years. This was a civil war, the regime were killing their own race, people who had their own features, people who could have been their own brothers or sisters by nation.
Yet they killed without mercy.
"To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."
That was the motto of the Khmer Rouge. Anyone who fitted the categories below were arrested, tortured and eventually executed.
• anyone with connections to the former government or with foreign governments
• professionals and intellectuals - in practice this included almost everyone
with an education, or even people wearing glasses (which, in regime logic,
• they read a lot)
• ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, Cambodian Christians, Muslims and the
• "economic sabotage" for which many of the former urban dwellers (who had not starved to death in the first place) were deemed to be guilty of by virtue of their lack of agricultural ability.
While the killing fields in the outskirts of Phnom Pehn served as an isolated witness to the killings. A former high school in the centre of Phnom Pehn, the capital of Cambodia was turned into the Security Prison 21 (S-21) concentration camp by the communist Khmer Rouge regime. It has been conserved as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in memory of the torture suffered by the Cambodian people.
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give complete biographical information. Then they were shackled against walls or on the floor in large mass cells. The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey
Prisoners were tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Typical confessions ran into thousands of words in which the prisoner would interweave true events in their lives with imaginary accounts of their espionage activities for either the CIA or KGB. This was possibly the only incidence in the Cold War when both intelligence agencies were considered enemies as the Soviets were aligned with the hated Vietnamese. The confession of Hu Nim ended with the words "I am not a human being, I'm an animal." The vast majority of prisoners were innocent of the charges against them and their confessions produced by torture
After the interrogation, the prisoner and his/her family were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination center, fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh. There, they were killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons. Victims of the Khmer Rouge were seldom shot as bullets were viewed as too precious for this purpose.
Survivors of Tuol Sleng
Out of an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only seven known survivors. Only three of them are thought to be still alive: Vann Nath, Chum Mey and Bou Meng. All three of these men were kept alive because they had skills their captors judged to be useful. Vann Nath had trained as an artist and was put to work painting pictures of Pol Pot. Many of his paintings depicting events he witnessed in Tuol Sleng are on display in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today.
Barbed wires greet you as you walk into the school area. A seemingly serene courtyard greets you only to have behind its veneer, rooms that served as torture chambers. The rooms that served as torture chambers have been left as it was during the regime. Metal beds and iron shackles, skulls of the victims, stains of the torture, torture devices, everything remains in place.
Bigger classrooms that had served as mass prison cells bear now house rows and rows of photos of the victims that passed through the gates of the former school. The rooms house stories of the struggles of the people, photographs of the gruesome period, skulls of the victims, pages of confessions extracted from the victims, photographs of the victims that were murdered or left to die before the place was found and the most eerie paintings I have ever seen.
The paintings by Vann Nath one of the only 7 survivors of Tuol Sleng depicts the torture methods and life at Tuol Sleng. The photo I have here is the least graphic image of the sufferings. The rest were too horrifying to photograph. At one point it became too unbearable to look at the paintings.
If you ever drop by there, do watch the video that is aired at the centre. This was the time where love letters were looked upon as the working of the devils and people were tortured for it.
Words cannot explain what those people went through, neither can photographs. Yet here we are about to witness what could be the rise of the 21st centurys hell on earth in Burma.
Lets hope history does not repeat itself and Burma can be saved!