Transitional Justice at Sites of ‘Dark Tourism’: The Case of Genocide Memorials in Cambodia

Cheryl Lawther, Rachel Killean, and Lauren Dempster join JiC for this post on sites of ‘dark tourism’ in Cambodia. Cheryl, Rachel, and Lauren are Lecturers at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. Their post draws on a period of fieldwork in Cambodia conducted by them in January 2018, with the team carrying out over 30 interviews with survivors, members of staff at Tuol Sleng and Choeung-Ek, representatives of NGOs and other stakeholders to examine how victims and survivors are represented at these sites. In addition to Tuol Sleng and Choeung-Ek, the team visited a number of former prison sites in the provinces. Using a transitional justice lens and drawing on the interviews conducted, this blog examines how these sites can be argued to be, and be critiqued as, spaces of: truth, justice, and reparations.

A visit walks past photographs of some of those killed in Prison 21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Musem (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty Images)

The practice of ‘dark tourism’, whereby members of the public visit sites associated with atrocity and violence, has received growing attention in recent years. Thousands of visitors travel to Auschwitz, Cambodia’s ‘Killing Fields,’ ports used in the global slave trade, and to other sites of mass atrocity. While these sites appeal to (some) tourists, how do those impacted by the violence perpetrated in these places view them? And what do these sites say – or not say – about those harmed there? Focussing on two sites associated with such activity in Cambodia, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the ‘killing fields’ of Choeung-Ek, this blog post explores how transitional justice can provide a framework for analysing the value of these sites to survivors of the genocide, and for unpicking whose, and what, experiences are represented there.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is a former site of torture and detention run by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Those detained at Tuol Sleng were transported to Choeung-Ek, a site to the south of the city, where they were executed and buried in mass graves. Both sites have become popular places for tourists to visit.

Sites of Truth

For many interviewees, Tuol Sleng and Choeung-Ek are considered to be places where the truth of past harms is acknowledged. Tuol Sleng is used as a space of truth-telling by survivors, often working with NGOs and victim support organisations. Survivors at the sites spoke of the importance of telling their stories, of theirrole as ‘living documents’ of what had happened, and in some cases of feeling a ‘duty’ to share their stories with researchers and visitors. At a more instrumental level, Tuol Sleng’s iconic photographic exhibition of former detainees has been a place where relatives of those killed in the detention centre can learn the fate of their loved ones. One survivor told us of visiting Tuol Sleng in order to ‘search for the truth.’

While playing an important truth telling function, neither site is viewed as telling the ‘full’ ‘truth’ about Cambodia’s past. For example, some interviewees drew attention to the fact that many of those tortured at Tuol Sleng and subsequently killed at Choeung-Ek were themselves former Khmer Rouge cadres subsequently detained by the regime. We found thatsuch complexities of victimhood are not fully engaged with at the sites. Increased representation of the ‘shades of grey’ of victims and perpetrators might facilitate the telling of a more comprehensive and nuanced truth. Others drew attention to the harms that are less visible within the sites, such as the widespread death caused by overwork, exhaustion and starvation during the regime. Some suggested that the development of other sites associated with the regime might help highlight these abuses. We found that the sites created a hierarchy of harm which prioritised violent death, rather than exposing a more comprehensive truth of the harms experienced during the regime. A number of interviewees expressed a desire for these stories to be amplified.

Sites of Justice

The sites are very much viewed as places of evidence, where the proof of past crimes is preserved and presented. The role of these sites as repositories of evidence was raised by interviewees in two ways. Firstly, many of our respondents emphasised the importance of these sites in authenticating the experience of those who suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime and ‘showing the world’ what happened. One interviewee described the sites as ‘the best place to show the public about the crime committed during the Khmer Rouge regime.’

Secondly, the elevation of Tuol Sleng and Choeung-Ek as ‘tourist attractions’ has had material benefits in terms of the physical preservation of the sites. Indeed, Tuol Sleng continues to be developed as an archive of evidence, as demonstrated for example by UNESCO’s digitalisation initiative. This will involve the digitisation of some 400,000 documents recovered from Tuol Sleng as part of UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ programme. One interviewee described the importance of ‘preserving’ the sites as ‘evidential places.’ Yet, some also expressed concern that the physical remains of prisons in the Cambodian provinces were being lost over time, as a result of neglect and the effects of exposure to nature.  While Tuol Sleng and Choeung-Ek were valued by interviewees as sites of justice, the lack of preservation of other sites associated with the regime may produce an uneven landscape of evidence of the Khmer Rouge regime’s abuses.

Sites of Reparation

In terms of reparations, several components were frequently highlighted by interviewees: education, guarantees of non-recurrence, healing, and memorialisation. Almost all interviewees suggested that the sites of Tuol Sleng and Choeung-Ek were important places for educating young people, the international community, and other Cambodians about the Khmer Rouge period. Attendees at the ECCC hearings are taken to visit Tuol Sleng and Choeung-Ek via its outreach programme to learn about what happened there.  Linked to this education function, and particularly with regards educating the young, was a sense that through learning about the past and knowing what happened, such events could be prevented from recurring. The sites also have a role in broader efforts towards healing. They are used in the provision of counselling and support for survivors via testimonial therapy sessions which take place there.  Finally, a number of interviewees spoke of the importance of these sites as places of memorialisation and the use of these sites for memorial events.

However, it is worth noting that the focus on these sites as spaces of reparation is not uncontested. One interviewee was troubled by what they perceived to be the exclusive use of Tuol Sleng as a space for commemorating the past, as for example demonstrated by the decisionto move a memorial sculpture awarded as reparations in the ECCC’s second case from in front of the French Embassy into Tuol Sleng.  Past controversies have also surrounded the decisionto include the list of victims of Tuol Sleng on a monument insidethe compound, as some deemed the move potentially offensive to families as the names of cadres were also listed. Examining these sites from a reparations perspective directs our focus to some of these challenges.

To conclude, using a transitional justice framework can be helpful in articulating the value of sites of ‘dark tourism’ to those most impacted by past violence, and can facilitate a more critical reflection on these sites. While those we interviewed in Cambodia viewed these sites as extremely important and valued the fact that so many people visited them, it was also suggested that these are spaces where there is the potential tomore comprehensively represent the past, engaging with the complexities of victimhood and the full spectrum of harms perpetrated under the Khmer Rouge regime. If, as Haldeman proposes, TJ is about recognition, then considering sites of ‘dark tourism’ as spaces of transitional justice raises questions about who is recognised, what harms are recognised, and who, what, or where, is excluded from recognition.

The authors would like to thank their partners at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) for their assistance in this research. 

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
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1 Response to Transitional Justice at Sites of ‘Dark Tourism’: The Case of Genocide Memorials in Cambodia

  1. Pingback: Transitional Justice at Sites of ‘Dark Tourism’: The Case of Genocide Memorials in Cambodia – Jehtro Lewis – Blog

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