A Reflection: Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Image of bracelets at the Killing fields
Minutes in Phnom Penh

Yesterday, I flew into Phnom Penh on a red eye from Colombo. It was a long night and I was exhausted when I arrived, but my curiosity kept me awake.

A tuk-tuk driver spotted me wandering aimlessly out the airport doors at 2pm and offered me a ride. He was kind, professional looking, and instead of looking for a cheap bus, I immediately said yes.

Within a few minutes of driving, he asked me if I would be going to the killing fields or genocide memorial later that same day.

Since I just arrived in Cambodia, I felt it was a bit too somber an activity for my first day. Little did I realize how fortunate I was to experience the harrowing history of Cambodia within my first few days in the country.

Preparing Myself

This horrifying past is an important part of the Khmer people’s history. The Khmer Rouge regime lasted from 1975-1979. Long enough to see 25% of the countries population die from famine, being-over worked, and murder.

People still live every day acknowledging the tales of recent war. Because it is important to the people, it is important to me.

Image of Tuol Sleng Floor
The floor of Tuol Sleng Prison: a high-school in Phnom Penh turned Security Prison 21 (S-21) and now a Genocide Museum

Most importantly, I learned the Khmer people want the world to see the horror that happened in their country. 

A friend of mine has spent the past nine months teaching English and living in Phnom Penh. She recommended I prepare myself for the Killing Fields by brushing up on their history.

I realized I would feel isolated by my own ignorance if I didn’t research more on my own before visiting the memorials. Thus, I took her recommendation and stayed awake until one in the morning watching Angelina Jolie’s movie, “First they Killed my father,” [definitely a need to watch].

Visiting the Memorial: a reflection

The Khmer people have a saying about their dark past and the history from the Khmer Rouge. The saying suggests,

People from around the world should visit these memorial sites and should share what they learn with the world because the terrors should remain a memory for the world

Meaning, people should not be shunned from the past. Children should be taught what terrible people in power can do. And it should be acknowledged that the human race is capable of inflicting horrors on another human.

I feel it is our responsibility to the victims to hear their stories.

This way we feel empathy, sadness, horror, and moving forward, peace. And thus, by acknowledging, knowing, and being saddened by genocide, we never repeat it.

Image of a survivor from Tuol Sleng
One of the survivors from Tuol Sleng

I was so fortunate to meet Chum May, one of the survivors of S-21. He is 87 years old this year which is quite inspiring because you don’t see a lot of Cambodian’s that age. It’s horrible to think that anyone over the age of 39 has directly experienced the Khmer Rouge. Himself and Bou Meng sell their books of survival from inside the Genocide museum. Read more about Chum May from this interview here

Education, War, and Genocide

In school we learn about Ancient history, American history, and European history, but it’s far more infrequent to learn of present day genocides.

After the memorial, my group of four [American, Italian, and Irish]: reflected that we were never taught Cambodias history in school.

Why wouldn’t children be taught about present day war? If we turn a blind eye, who is to say it won’t happen again?

Cambodia is right, war and genocide should be a memory for people to move forward, not to repeat itself.

Students should learn about the mass cleansing that is still happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar. Or of the 25 year war that just ended in Sri Lanka in 2009. And lastly, about the Khmer Rouge genocide that murdered three million people in a country of eight million.

Maybe our education system is turning a blind eye because it’s easier to acknowledge a history that happened long ago than a history of war that is currently happening. Or maybe these countries did a such a great job at hiding their terrors that we were truly cut off from knowing.

Whatever the cause maybe be, I am sharing my experiences to spread empathy to the victims who lost their lives and to the family who survive for them.

My adventures and ramblings through Europe, Australia, and now back the United States. I generally write from daily inspirations or from random thoughts.

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