The water of the Kamping Puoy Basin in western Cambodia is still and vast, stretching between Ta Ngen and Kamping Puoy mountains in the distance. It’s extraordinarily dry and hot for midday in the month of December, usually the cool season in Cambodia. When the water levels of the reservoir are higher, Cambodians have picnics by the shore, eat bittersweet lotus seeds, and take boat rides. But today, the long and narrow wooden boats are empty, tied to planks at the shore’s edge, which is shallow in parts with grassy knolls peeking out.
Across the road behind us, a winding pathway leads down to makeshift shacks on stilts where villagers prepare a meal of rice, fried chicken, and Khmer beef stew that visitors can eat as they watch the water flow before them. It’s an idyllic scene and I have to remind myself that I’m standing at the abutment of a dam that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians nearly 40 years ago. There’s nothing here, no sign or memorial that even hints at the history. But constructing monuments is difficult in a country where every other street corner, rice field, or pagoda, no matter how innocuous, is potentially the former site of a mass crime.
On August 7th 2014, the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal sentenced two senior leaders of the Communist Part of Kampuchea, what Cambodia was called under the Khmer Rouge, to life in prison: 88-year-old former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party Nuon Chea and the 83-year-old former Head of State, Khieu Samphan. Life sentences for octogenarians have little substantive value, so for survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and their lawyers, the court’s decision on the reparations they have sought was of critical importance. I’m in Kamping Puoy basin as a consultant with the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) because of one such reparation order—the establishment of five permanent exhibitions on the Khmer Rouge period in provincial museums in Cambodia.
The Basin, built after the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, is six meters long and 1,900 meters wide and at full capacity it can hold 110 million cubic meters of water to irrigate over 13,500 hectares of rice fields in the province. It was conceived as part of the Khmer Rouge’s version of the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s ambitious and ultimately catastrophic attempt to modernize China’s economy by focusing on large-scale industrial and agricultural projects.
Cambodia became Democratic Kampuchea and much like China, people were forcibly evicted from their homes, families were separated, and everyone was sent to live in cooperatives. Their tasks included building dams, irrigation canals, farming, and growing rice. A typical workday during this period started at 5 am. Lunch (a can of watery rice soup shared among several people) was at 11 am. Work resumed from 1 pm to 6 pm and then, from 7 pm to 11 pm. Of the estimated 1.7 million deaths by the regime’s ouster at least half were due to overwork and malnutrition.
But executions were also commonplace. Khmer Rouge cadres killed workers for stealing a piece of palm sugar or a potato from the harvest. The methods of execution were brutal—if bayonets were in short supply, an axe or the sharp end of a palm frond sufficed. Mass graves were filled and more pits were dug. The stench often overpowered the redolence of fruiting mango trees.
Today in the sweeping Cambodian countryside, people wonder about bone shards, bits of torn fabric and skulls floating up from the rich soil. The Kamping Puoy basin is no different. It’s a macabre feature of everyday life—the verdant fields provide an abundant seasonal yield, as well as evidence of the country’s bitter history. In the years I’ve spent working here, the stories repeat themselves: water buffaloes defecate suddenly out of fear, or they refuse to pull plows in some segments of the fields because they can see ghosts; lakes that were shallow graves are now too deep to search for the bones of missing family members. But everyone keeps searching. Unfinished funerary rites haunt them as much as the memory of lost family members. Cambodians have been waiting for over 30 years to put these ghosts to rest.
The ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge came into power in Cambodia on April 17 1975, defeating the right wing, American-backed Lon Nol government after a protracted civil war. Fuelled in part by the rise of the communist People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in neighboring northern Vietnam, their numbers swelled during the American bombings of Cambodia, carried out during the American war in Vietnam. Fearing the spread of communism in Indo-China, the United States dropped 2,756,941 tons’ worth of bombs across 113,716 sites in the country. It’s a staggering figure that outstrips the total number of bombs dropped by the Allies during all of World War II.
The country was divided into administrative zones with numbered regions. The regime itself became an omniscient, omnipresent entity called “Angkar.” Again echoing the Cultural Revolution in China, the regime’s key architects banished religion, money, and private property ownership. City-dwellers in Phnom Penh were dubbed “new people” and seen as traitors who adored western culture in contrast to the “base people” who toiled in rural provinces and had true revolutionary zeal.
But the regime’s cadres forcibly evacuated both villagers and city-dwellers from their homes; no one was exempt. Loaded onto trains, trucks, ox-carts and often forced to walk for weeks, they ceased to be individuals or members of families, becoming instead a nameless labor force: bodies worked to death in cooperatives to produce enough rice for export. It was an insidious trade in which Cambodian rice was exchanged for Chinese weapons, while Cambodians starved to death.
In 2003, the United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia signed an Agreement to try the senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea and those most responsible for the national and international crimes committed between April 17, 1975, and January 6, 1979, when the regime fell. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was established within the Cambodian judicial system and officially inaugurated on July 2, 2006.
Borrowing from the French civil law system, one of the court’s key innovations is victim participation. Survivors are allowed to become civil parties to the proceedings, which enables them to have pro bono legal representation, submit evidence to the court, and seek moral and collective reparations. Individual monetary reparations are financially untenable. To date, more than 4,000 people have become parties to the first and second trials at the tribunal.
In the interim, Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge regime’s minister of foreign affairs passed away in March 2013 and his wife Ieng Thirith, minister of social affairs at the time, was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. This left only two defendants on trial for case 002: former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, 88-year old Nuon Chea and former Head of State 83-year old Khieu Samphan. Despite these setbacks, the process has made visible the grief and anger of survivors who’ve chosen to step forward and participate in the proceedings.
Case 002 is enormously complex and was split into two parts by the court’s Trial Chamber in 2011. The first phase of the proceedings focused on charges of crimes against humanity (which includes the crime of forced evacuations and hard labor), executions of members of the Lon Nol regime at Tuol Po Chrey prison in the northwestern province of Pursat by the incoming Khmer Rouge, and on the roles of the two defendants in Democratic Kampuchea’s administration.
The second phase of the trial began in October 2014 and will focus on the remaining charges against the two defendants. These include genocide against the Cham Muslims and Vietnamese, forced marriages and rape, internal purges, and several atrocities committed at security centres, dam work sites and ill-treatment of Buddhists. Judgment for this second phase may seem superfluous to a non-lawyer or a survivor, given that the two defendants have already been sentenced to life in prison. But its purpose is to hear the remaining evidence and document the mass crimes that were committed.
Regardless of the outcome of the second phase, it is significant that the judgment for the first phase has endorsed reparations for victims. The requests fell under three broad categories: remembrance and memorialization; therapy and psychological assistance to victims; and documentation and education. The court endorsed 11 out of 13 reparations projects, and communities and NGOs have now begun implementing these projects in earnest.
In December 2013, DC-Cam brought me to the museums in Battambang and Banteay Meancheay so we could begin planning the exhibitions. These provinces were in the Northwest Zone when the Khmer Rouge was in power. The historical rice bowl of Cambodia, hundreds of thousands of “new people” from regions inside the Zone and from the capital city of Phnom Penh were sent here on trains heading northwest to work the fields, build dikes and irrigation canals, and achieve the regime’s rice production goals. The Khmer Rouge kept immaculate records and documents show that 400,000 to 500,000 people were added to the Northwest Zone for this purpose alone.
There is no dearth of content: we’ve amassed stories of survivors, former cadres (many of whom were themselves executed or forcibly disappeared), photographs from the archives and folk stories that were surreptitiously told at a time when culture was banned. Education programs and tours are also in the works. But we face a peculiar dilemma. While the country has 24 provincial museums, most of them are underfunded, dusty buildings with poor lighting and minimal untrained staff. They mainly house artifacts from the ancient temples of Cambodia. Few tourists visit and we’re told many villagers don’t even know they’re allowed to.
We arrived in Banteay Meancheay province in the late morning. In the museum there, every other artifact is labeled with the words “provenance unknown” and “Banteay Meanchey military police headquarters,” which means that the police intercepted Cambodians who’d stolen the artifact to sell it to Thai traders across the border.
The museum director, Mr. Yung Taing Kuoy, is a quiet and slender man. When we met, he was dressed in a white shirt and grey pants with a black windbreaker. He stood outside the museum with his hands crossed before him, his face heavily lined and sunburnt. If there was any grief, it was hard to discern. I asked him through a translator what challenges he has faced in running the museum here. “Theft is the big problem,” he said politely. “Artifacts are stolen and taken across the border to Thailand. We have no time to do anything else. We can’t train the staff, properly label the artifacts, or run tours. We’re always dealing with theft.” The plan, he told us, is to organize visits to the villages in the province to educate people about the looting of cultural artifacts and the legal penalties involved.
Despite funding woes, he has more ambitious plans for the long-term. A modest piece of land—long and rectangular—lies just behind the museum. The provincial head of the department of culture and fine arts has proposed it could be used for larger exhibitions and film screenings and Mr. Yung has been eager to facilitate this. Meanwhile, the permanent exhibition on the Khmer Rouge period will be housed in a room that is no larger than an office, but it is a start. Mr. Yung wants to use the museum as a site for discussing and disseminating the stories of survivors from the province.
We drove to Kamping Puoy basin around lunchtime and after our meal at the shacks, we took photographs of the dam and drove into the main town to visit the museum in Battambang. The province is larger in scale compared to Banteay Meancheay in more ways than one. It’s known for its quaint streets and French colonial buildings, it’s the main thoroughfare for tourists traveling from Thailand to Cambodia and though its museum is as under-utilized as the one in Banteay Meancheay, it is a far more impressive structure. The monks in the pagoda next door often direct tourists to go visit the Battambang museum, even if the guidebooks and provincial tourism office don’t.
We waited close to two hours for the director, Mr. Kim Sophorn, to return from a meeting in Phnom Penh. He got out of his car and greeted us with a wad of files in one hand. There were no smiles or polite exchanges. Getting down to business, he strode into the museum and allotted us the right wing, which was sparsely filled with artifacts and antique furniture. There was a gaping hole at one corner of the ceiling. My colleagues at DC-Cam hesitantly asked if they could use the left wing instead, but Mr. Kim was very insistent that the wing with the gaping hole was our only option. In order to set up a permanent exhibition here, DC-Cam would have to foot the bill for the leaking roof and damaged ceiling. A memorandum of understanding was drafted by hand in Khmer and signed. Afterwards everyone relaxed. We sat outside the museum and chatted with the staff or the occasional visitor. Though much of the exchange wasn’t translated, I could see from Mr. Kim’s demeanor that he was a seasoned negotiator.
Even this far from Phnom Penh, people know about the politics of memorialization. The Tuol Sleng and Cheung Ek Killing Fields, both sites of mass crimes in the city and its outskirts, are popular with tourists. While many decried the privatization of Cheung Ek and its management by the joint Cambodian-Japanese corporation JC Royal in 2005, some Cambodians feel the site has been better managed since the deal was struck. With an increase in visitors and greater revenues, the company began to funnel money into a scholarship program to support underprivileged students.
Justice isn’t just about hearings and verdicts. It can also boost the economy and support the community. Mr. Kim and Mr. Yung didn’t say this in so many words, but it’s at least one reason why both men have ben open to the idea of permanent exhibitions in their museums focusing on the Khmer Rouge period: it will be funded and it will draw visitors, which means training for existing employees and the possibility of more jobs. Not unlike Mr. Yung in Banteay Meancheay, Mr. Kim also plans to partner with the education ministry to bring high school and university students to visit the permanent exhibitions in the Battambang museum. Given that most provincial villagers rarely go to Phnom Penh because of work, not to mention the costs involved in traveling long distances and poor road access, these strategies to decentralize memorialization efforts are important.
For us as curators and human rights advocates, people’s stories are paramount. Even a few bilingual panels in a modest-sized room, with a television that plays a loop of archival footage showing Khmer Rouge cadres taking people on trains to work camps feels like a significant leap in the right direction.
Survivors often say that the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a prison without walls. The exhibitions might serve to contain that feeling, to make it more manageable. Inside the walls of a museum, people can choose to recall and exchange stories or remain silent. They can look at maps and narratives and better understand why the Khmer Rouge implemented their policies and how those policies affected them and their families. They can ask questions. This desire to know also recurs in every testimony I’ve recorded and it lingers, awaiting satiation.
But after an hour or two, they can leave. The ability to engage with that collective memory and then step away from it is also a kind of freedom. Many survivors feel trapped by the trauma of what they’ve undergone and by the lack of clarity on why it happened. Being forcibly evacuated or transferred from their native villages has also meant they lost their lands and homes. Like the unidentifiable artifacts that Mr. Yung keeps retrieving, there is a sense of rootlessness and disorientation that comes from not being able to pass down family history or one’s ancestral land. The stories recur and repeat, wearing away at their ability to make other memories, or tell new stories.
The exhibitions across the five provinces were launched over the course of the summer last year, in time for the verdict. There are plans to eventually roll out permanent exhibitions in over 20 provincial museums across the country. Now, Cambodian high school and university students, as well as survivors, have legitimate spaces where they can explore their collective history and have open dialogues about the way forward for their country. Museums will not bring back a survivor’s mother, father, siblings, wife, husband or children. But seeing their experiences transposed from their psyches to exhibits that honor them might enable them to make sense of that trauma and imagine a new narrative.