Friday, December 26, 2008

History revealed

An entrance to Tuol Sleng in January 1979 (copyright Tuol Sleng Museum)
It's been mooted for many years that potentially important evidence concerning the Khmer Rouge was whisked off to Vietnam during the occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s and that some of that evidence could be crucial to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal currently being held in Phnom Penh. Whether that's conjecture or the truth, it's at least encouraging that the Vietnamese authorities have at long last consented to give up 20 documentary films from the Khmer Rouge period which they are handing to DC Cam this week. Youk Chhang, the Executive Director at DC Cam - who are the main repository for all items pertaining to the Khmer Rouge period - is off to Vietnam to collect the films which are believed to contain general views of the country in the late 70s as well as footage from the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison at the time it was liberated by the invading Vietnamese forces - 7 January 1979. We have seen some glimpses of footage from around that time on other documentaries like John Pilger's Year Zero and the East German documentary Kampuchea: Death & Rebirth but if it's the original footage of the Vietnamese cameramen as they witnessed Tuol Sleng for the first time then it will be invaluable. Chhang revealed that the Vietnamese authorities have provided photographs and documents in the past but it sounds like they've been doing a spring clean of their archives and have found some more. Wouldn't it be great if they could do a full stock-take and dust off everything they have in their secretive vaults that would assist the Tribunal.
It was a Vietnamese colonel, Mam Lai, who turned the former S-21 prison into a musuem in 1979 and had been the person responsible for the stupa of skulls at Choeung Ek. Lai, the former curator of the American War Crimes museum in Saigon, added the most controversial exhibit at Tuol Sleng - a map of the country constructed out of human skulls - as the Vietnamese deliberately demonized the Khmer Rouge and personalized the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary genocidal clique." It's clear that photographs and confessions, seen by reliable sources soon after the Tuol Sleng archive left by the retreating Khmer Rouge was discovered, subsequently disappeared but where those invaluable documents ended up isn't known.

On the subject of Tuol Sleng and DC Cam, a new book is just about to be published detailing the story of one of S-21's rare survivors, Bou Meng. In 2002, DC Cam's magazine Searching for the Truth reported that Bou Meng had disappeared and was presumed dead. However, he'd survived and like his fellow inmate Vann Nath, his skill as a portrait painter had saved him, though he lost his wife and two children in the Khmer Rouge slaughter. The 175-page book Bou Meng: A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21: Justice for the Future, Not for the Victims, written by researcher Vannak Huy will soon be on sale from DC Cam.
Bou Meng returns to Tuol Sleng

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