PHNOM PENH— On Thursday a memorial was unveiled in Phnom Penh to the thousands of men, women and children who were brought to Cambodia’s notorious S-21 prison between 1975 and 1979, where they were tortured and then executed by Pol Pot’s murderous regime. Although many have welcomed the memorial, one aspect of it has proven controversial.
Hundreds of tourists visit Phnom Penh’s genocide museum each day to view the Khmer Rouge’s torture and execution prison.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as it is called, has become a popular stop on the tourist trail.
In this former school, thousands of so-called enemies of the revolution were tortured to extract confessions of their supposed guilt.
On Thursday, dozens of government officials, donors and staff from the U.N.-backed war crimes court came here for the memorial’s unveiling.
Also present were family members of victims. And two of the men who survived the prison: Chum Mey, who repaired typewriters, and Bou Meng, an artist. They were kept alive by the prison commander, Comrade Duch, because they had skills he could use.
Almost every other prisoner was executed.
The new monument, a stupa, was built following a request from plaintiffs at the war crimes court that jailed Comrade Duch for life in 2012.
One of those plaintiffs was Im Sunty whose husband - a renowned Cambodian professor - was murdered here. She is glad to see the memorial unveiled.
“Now that the memorial has been built, it gives us some relief from the pain because now we have a place to pay our respects for those who died in Cambodia as well as those in this place,” she stated.
The names of more than 12,000 victims of S-21 will be inscribed on these black marble slabs that surround the stupa.
That’s where the controversy comes in. Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the key organization researching the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
He said 80 percent of those killed at S-21 were Khmer Rouge. Only 20 percent fall strictly into the category of victim.
He said listing every name mixes up victims - such as Im Sunty’s husband - with perpetrators. “Very controversial memorial - that’s why I liked the previous memorial. It was just spiritual memorial for all who died. But when you start to name and you start to inscript name, and you started to identify, then you create questions,” Youk Chhang said.
Baron Joachim von Marschall is Germany’s ambassador to Cambodia. His country funded the memorial.
He understands the controversy over the names but cautions that drawing the line between victims and perpetrators in such extreme situations is not always easy.
“And so I personally feel that it was a wise decision not to try to distinguish. Those who know about the past of victims here, they know to distinguish, I believe, and in the end all those who were in this torture chamber perished in the same terrible, cruel way,” said Joachim von Marschall.
The memorial’s message never to forget what happened is something everyone agrees on.