Unidentified Prisoner, Tuol Sleng Prison, Cambodia (1975-1979). Image Source: Tuol Sleng.
The era of the Khmer Rouge (the Communist Party of Kampuchea) in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 saw the country renamed as Democratic Kampuchea in the wake of a deadly civil war connected to the Vietnam War. The country's leaders, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan helmed the party. Pot, cleaving to a vision of agrarian socialism, declared that 1975 marked the 'Year Zero,' the year in which he intended to 'restart civilization.' The more brutal the dictatorship, the greater the desire to control time and reset the clock of history. According to filmmaker John Pilger, even the word 'sleep' was banned. Only the word, 'rest' was permitted. During Pol Pot's rule, one of the world's bloodiest genocides took place as part of that effort to reset time and restart civilization, resulting in the deaths of some two million people.
The ghosts of this disaster, whether they are literal or metaphorical, haunt Cambodia to this day. In this case, reality was worse than any supernatural horror. And in the end, it's the ghosts that explain this Cambodian reality, not the other way around. The Khmer people's belief in spectres is the only thing that makes this madness make sense. So in this case, it's not a question of trying to debunk the ghosts and their Netherworld. It's a question of trying to comprehend this world and living its nightmares with something that goes beyond reality.
Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia (1979) © John Pilger/ITV. Video Source: Google Videos.
The documentary Year Zero was an exclusive first look at what had happened in Cambodia. Its maker, John Pilger, strongly reflects the left-right political debate that still rages over what happened there. This is a left-wing commentator struggling to come to terms with the hellish record one of the world's most bloody Communist régimes. There's a lot of finger-pointing. Who is to blame? And which ideology? And why?
The aftermath of the genocide that took place under the Communist régime is barely surfacing now. The Times reports that Cambodians have only begun to deal with this nightmare of decades past. Pol Pot died in his home in 1998. But the wheel is finally turning on that fateful mid-1970s period. Since the late 2000s, the UN has sponsored moves to put Khmer Rouge officials on trial, although the tribunals are beset by problems and some perpetrators may escape justice (see: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). One of the most grisly cases involves the actions of Duch, aka Kaing Guek Eav (also spelt Kiang Khek Iev), a former school teacher who became head of Tuol Sleng prison, one of the most notorious genocidal torture centres since the Second World War. As of April 2011, only Duch had been tried and convicted - and he is appealing his conviction.
Tuol Sleng Prison
The Khmer Rouge transformed the building into Security Prison 21 (S-21). According to Wiki: "Tuol Sleng ... means 'Hill of the Poisonous Trees' or 'Strychnine Hill.'" Wiki:
From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. Although the official reason for their arrest was "espionage", these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners' families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination center.Out of 17,000 estimated prisoners (the number varies between 12,000 and 20,000 and cannot be confirmed), some 6 to 12 are known to have survived. And of those, only 4 are left alive today: Vann Nath, Chum Mey, Bou Meng and Chim Math (see another report on Math, the prison's only female survivor, here). The details of torture and mass murder are so horrific that they are difficult to grasp.
S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (excerpt 2003). Video Source: Google Videos.
A 2003 documentary film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, tried to explain the aftermath, in which former guards were confronted by two survivors. Tuol Sleng is now a genocide museum (see photos of the prison here, here, and here).
Image Source: Tripcrazed.
Caption for the above photograph: A tourist posting on Tripcrazed who visited the prison remarks: "Each bedroom- if you can call them that- has a picture like this that shows how they were found. Each person was killed before the prison was shut down."
It's hard to separate the continued presence of death in the museum, for example the vast cabinets full of skulls, from the superstition that death walks these corridors in the form of disembodied spirits. Yet those who work at the prison-turned-museum generally agree that the site is haunted. There is a news report on the ghosts of Tuol Sleng here. During their lunchbreaks, staff leave food out for the ghosts. Otherwise, they say, they cannot eat in peace, due to noises and poltergeist activity. The personnel who work to identify the victims claim that they can hear the ghosts in the room with them, leafing through the photographs and records. They believe that the ghosts are trying to help them in their task.
Journalist Andrew Lam sees Cambodians' belief in ghosts as a window into their mentality as they struggle to deal with this tragedy. They frame the social and political meltdown in spritual terms, saying their country was cursed, that the Communist officials who hunted down, tortured and murdered their own people were possessed by demons:
There is a real ghost story drawn from the Khmer Rouge period told here. Some say this has always been a deeply superstitious country. Out in the countryside, animism still prevails and belief in good and evil sorcerers is common. People consult fortune tellers and get tattoos, believing the inked symbols will give them enhanced abilities.I suspect ghosts and spirits and myths provide a crucial window to the Cambodian psyche. After all, modernity has little sway in a country where nine out of ten people live in the countryside, without electricity, where 7 out of ten are essentially illiterate, and where there is only one true urban center -- the capital, Phnom Penh.To explain the cause of their country's suffering, most Cambodians are more likely to provide a ghost story or a legend than political analysis.
From notebooks I wrote while traveling the Cambodian countryside --An old woman named Srong said this about the Khmer Rouge. "The old monks used to say, 'One day there will be a war where the demons come and blood will rise to the elephant's stomach,' and it came true." Srong is blind. Her face is strangely serene as she explains she had witnessed the Khmer Rouge murdering her own children and then found she could no longer see. She spoke of the years under the Khmer Rouge as "Cambodia's Punishment Time."A man named Hott Nguong explained the Khmer Rouge. "The Khmer Rouge soldiers are possessed by demons who came from hell. They have no souls. You can tell by looking in their eyes. If you are a human being how can you torture children to death?"Bonn Srey, a woman who cannot read or write, explains Cambodia's tragedy by saying the country is cursed. "A long time ago, the Cambodian king was powerful and cruel to neighboring countries and those people curse Cambodia. Now Cambodia is full of demons and ghosts."Intellectuals are not immune. Reasay Poch, a Cambodian American with a graduate degree in Asian Studies from Cornell was doing research at Tuol Sleng, the infamous Khmer Rouge prison where some 20,000 people were incarcerated, tortured, then systematically killed. Poch was working on the second floor of the building, reading and photocopying written confessions left behind by Khmer Rouge victims when he heard screaming and the sound of clanking metal. He rushed out to the balcony overlooking the torture chambers on the first floor, but saw nothing. "I had to tell myself even if there were ghosts, they wouldn't harm me," he said. "After all, I am here to help tell their stories."
Wat Kokos Pagoda
Under the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism and other religious or spiritual beliefs were banned. The Khmer Rouge not only attacked all members of the clergy and their pagodas, but in one instance they used a religious site to kill their victims. Wat Kokos Pagoda was transformed into a torture centre outside Phnom Penh. From The Cambodia Daily (25 May 2006):
WAT KOKOS "KILLING FIELD" MEMORIAL, Takeo province - Early one morning in April, 15-year-old Song Vutha and other novice monks made a grisly discovery while digging foundations for a new building at Kokos pagoda in Bati district.At a depth of around two meters, Song Vuth unearthed the remains of three people and colorful clothing, similar to clothes worn during the 1970s.Song Vutha picked up a piece of bone from the forgotten pit and teased some of the other boys-playful antics he would later regret.By 5 pm, Song Vutha had come down with a raging [f]ever and became delirious, during which time, monks believe, the unhappy soul of one of Pol Pot's victims entered his body.The spirit that possessed the teenager identified herself as Nim Nuon, said Keo Kosal, the chief abbot of Wat Kokos pagoda."She called out her name as Nim Nuon. She said she was angry with the children for playing with her bones," Keo Kosal recounted. ... The ghost of Nim Nuon eventually left the boy after the abbot promised to leave the bones untouched and to pray for her.
Ironically, the aftermath of the genocide ended up encouraging religion, superstitions and magic. The Cambodian Buddhist festival of the dead is known as Pchum Ben. It occurs on the fifteenth day of the tenth month in the Khmer calendar. The memory of the genocide is now addressed through religious ceremonies, where people converge on the pagodas, and associated Wats, to feed and appease the restless hungry ghosts, under the monks' supervision.... "Everywhere there are souls and ghosts. We have to pray for their peace every time we lay a new foundation," he said. "Why was my pagoda used as a killing field? We are curious, why did they use a sacred place?"
For my earlier posts on Hungry Ghosts, go here and here.
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