ABSTRACT

Both the former S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where some 15,000 Cambodians were detained and tortured, and corresponding Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’, have become widely recognizable international symbols of the crimes of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), the communist regime that controlled the small Southeast Asian country from 1975 to 1979. While thousands of international visitors have travelled to these sites every year since they were preserved and curated by the Vietnamese-backed regime in the early 1980s to globally condemn the Khmer Rouge, until recently, many Cambodians had never visited S-21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes) or Choeung Ek. ‘Study tours’ that were first undertaken by civil society organizations in 2004 to bring groups of Cambodians to the two memorial sites and the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal courthouse,1 creating a narrative of violation and redemption, have now been largely co-opted and expanded by the Public Affairs section of the court itself. As the tribunal’s second case unfolds, hundreds of Cambodians from around the country are bussed to the sites during proceedings in an effort to ‘educate’ them about their country’s past and the cases underway at the court. During a tour held in early September 2012, men, women and children

from rural Takeo Province, located in the southern part of the country and bordering Vietnam, met at the local commune office at 4 a.m. to catch buses for the trip. Many said they had seen programmes about the tribunal and tours on TV that had motivated them to accept their village chief’s offer to participate in the programme. ‘I lost many relatives during the Pol Pot time. I want to know who was on top, who was responsible’, one woman told me. ‘I have watched on TV about the court, but I don’t think it is as clear as being here to see for myself’ (my emphasis). Itineraries of tours vary depending on time limitations and coordination with other groups. For example, one group may visit Tuol Sleng and/or Choeung Ek in the morning, while others start their day at the tribunal itself. Before relatively rushed and unmediated afternoon tours of Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, the Takeo group began the day at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)

building with a briefing from a press officer about the history of the tribunal and the proceedings that had taken place to date. In a somewhat politically truncated narration of the court’s creation – which will be explained in greater depth later on in this chapter – the press officer said that the ECCC had come into being through the efforts of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had requested the United Nations create a court to ‘discover who was really responsible for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge’. Several older members of the audience interjected to express their support for this effort, saying that they had also ‘worked hard in the fields’ and never had enough to eat during the DK period. Another man in attendance, however, more nervously inquired as to who, exactly, was being investigated. ‘I was the head of a collective during that time’, he said, ‘and I never knew of any killings or any orders to execute people’. To reassure him, the press officer explained the mission of the court is to try ‘senior leaders and those most responsible’ for the atrocities committed during the DK period. ‘The court is not interested in small people’, he said, ‘only the people who made policy. You do not need to worry’. The exchanges that took place at this press briefing illustrate some of the

tensions inherent in the current judicial and educational efforts underway in Cambodia. For reasons both political and social, the ECCC and its corresponding study tours aim to create a historical narrative of the DK period that emphasizes the culpability of a few top leaders and fail to address

crimes committed throughout the DK power structure. While responsibility for crimes was actually much more widespread, the narrative promoted by the government grants de facto amnesty to lower-level perpetrators, shielding former Khmer Rouge in the current regime (including Hun Sen) from greater scrutiny and, officials argue, facilitating social reconciliation. As part of this effort, memorial sites that were originally created primarily to justify Vietnamese occupation of the country to an international audience have now been repurposed to serve as explanatory devices for the work of the ECCC to Cambodians. Yet ECCC-coordinated tours often provide little in the way of interpretation or historical context, relying on the physicality of evidence at Tuol Sleng, Choeung Ek and even the court itself to convey this state-sanctioned version of history. In many ways, the lack of clarity serves the government’s purpose – too much explanation and discussion could lead to questions that subvert the authority of the official narrative being formed. Yet codification of a generally agreed-upon history of DK is still very much evolving, and Cambodians bring their own experiences, ideas and biases to these study-tour encounters, affecting the extent to which the government’s message is accepted, rejected or incorporated to varying extents into pre-existing narratives. Numerous scholars have written about the politically charged process of

memory formation in Cambodia after the fall of DK, wherein the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime sought to legitimize itself both domestically and abroad by highlighting Khmer Rouge atrocities. While sociologist Serge Thion argues that the PRK’s efforts ‘obliterated’ (Thion 1993: 183) the ability of Cambodians living under the regime to form their own narratives of the period and Michael Vickery (1984) contends that the version of history promoted by the government did not correspond to the majority of Cambodians’ experiences under DK, Judy Ledgerwood writes that the PRK narrative served as the starting point for Cambodians to construct an understanding of DK (Ledgerwood 1997: 93). Of course, this would have only been true for those Cambodians living in PRK-controlled areas of the country throughout the 1980s, not those who continued to fight with a repackaged Khmer Rouge coalition force from near the Thai border. While Cambodians were urged by the state to move beyond the past in the 1990s in the interest of reconciliation, the establishment of the ECCC in 2003 has launched a new era of outreach, education and memorial efforts. Many of these have involved work by civil society organizations2 informed by international discourses related to human rights, democracy and transitional justice. This chapter focuses on one such effort – the tribunal study tours – which

began largely as a civil society initiative, but which has now been co-opted to a great extent by the ECCC itself. By exploring the reactions of Cambodians who participate in such tours, the chapter makes two major claims: (1) that although there is always variation in individual experience, the ways in which Cambodians respond to the government-backed narrative put forth at the

ECCC and memorial sites appear to be highly dependent on whether participants lived in a PRK-controlled area or a Khmer Rouge stronghold after the fall of DK in 1979, and; (2) that, while many Cambodians say they joined the tours in order to learn more about the DK period, they often leave with numerous unanswered questions due to the lack of clarity and explanation. Concerning the latter claim, Cambodians are frequently able to derive satisfaction from the experiential and performative aspects of their visits as acts of bearing witness to atrocity. Their reactions are similar to those that Rachel Hughes found among foreign tourists to Tuol Sleng (Hughes 2008: 326). My findings are drawn from ethnographic work conducted in Cambodia

from late August to early November of 2012, a period in which I interviewed 52 people (some multiple times) and also engaged in participant observation with select individuals who worked at the two memorial sites I was researching. My informants consisted predominantly of Cambodians who participated in study tours, hailing from both former PRK-controlled areas as well as Khmer Rouge strongholds. They were drawn primarily from two major areas – the previously mentioned Takeo Province and Pailin Province, a notorious former Khmer Rouge stronghold in the northwest of Cambodia near the Thai border. Several of the current defendants at the ECCC had been living freely in Pailin before they were arrested in 2007. My informants also included staff at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek as well as Cambodians from other organizations who worked with the memorial sites in some capacity. This study builds upon the two-and-a-half years I had previously lived in the country, a period I spent working as a journalist and frequently interviewing Cambodians about the disastrous period of ‘three years, eight months and 20 days’.3