Skulls and Social Media: Genocide Memory at Sites of Violence in Cambodia
Bibi Imre-Millei, Assistant Editor
September 1, 2019
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Memorials, museums, and historical sites have always been an important way to remember genocide. These public spaces play an important role in genocide prevention. I recently visited Cambodia (mostly travelling in the area on Phomn Penh, with a brief stop-over in Siem Reap), where genocide legacies are fresh, public, and relevant. The Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia for years between 1975 and 1979, harnessing a combination of Marxist-Lenin and Maoist ideology to kill and oppress the population. Though some of the world doesn’t recognise the Khmer Rouge’s reign as a genocidal, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) has established the acts of the 1970s as a genocide at least towards the Cham and Vietnamese minorities. Khmers (the ethnic majority) consider themselves victims of genocide as well – after all, the Khmer Rouge’s mysterious “Angkar” government was responsible for the deaths of almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population, and the forced labour and torture of millions. Many Cambodians believe they suffered as one, and victim and perpetrator blur; the Khmer Rouge soon turned on their own soldiers, torturing and killing those they thought to be dissidents.
On social media, the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities are well represented. Over the past five years, as the tourism industry in Cambodia has experienced a boom, more and more pictures have surfaced in my online feeds. Piles of skulls mix with scenic jungles, crumbling temples, and silver pagodas in grateful Instagram posts touting “self discovery.” The disconnect often remains unaddressed, and I began to wonder what Cambodians thought of the memorialisation of their recent history.
Most historic sites in Cambodia encourage the use of audio guides and often include audio components in the admission fees. Strolling through memorials, sacred sites, and museums, it is common for each visitor to have a separate experience through their headset. These private experiences are quite graphic. The audio guides at Tuol Sleng (a Khmer Rouge S-21 prison) and Choeung Ek (commonly known as “the killing fields”) don’t pull punches. As you tour the grounds, your headset details graphic scenes of torture and death, narrated by survivors, and interspersed with quotes from the trials held at the ECCC.
When I first arrived in Cambodia, I thought Cambodians would not like tourists posting pictures of the scenes at these memorials. After all, I had seen many disrespectful Facebook and Instagram posts. Fresh in my own mind was Auschwitz’s Twitter page, which chastised visitors for posting pictures balancing on the railway tracks just weeks before my trip. But upon my visit to Choeung Ek, one of the final sections of the audio guide encouraged visitors to enter the memorial stupa (where piles of bones are displayed and catalogued in a huge glass case) and take pictures. There were few photo restrictions throughout Choeung Ek. In Tuol Sleng, photography was more restricted. Most display rooms did not allow pictures, in part because so many displays included pictures of the faces and mutilated bodies of victims.
The experience of walking through these sites can be frightening. Entering by way of the main gates of Choeung Ek, I was immediately struck by the smell: it’s cloying, sweet, and clings to you in the humidity. It’s difficult to tell were the smell comes from, but it’s widely known that not all the mass graves in the area have been excavated, and one remains untouched under a large pond on site. The audio guide explains the stories of those who survived and those who did not, highlighting the graves of soldiers thought to be traitors, the nationalist songs that played at night to drown the screams of victims, and the tree that babies were killed against.
The locals who I talked to (mainly students, young academics, and tuk-tuk drivers), seemed happy that tourists were visiting the sites. They spoke of the importance of learning the history of the Khmer Rouge, and spreading this information internationally. Public knowledge is important to them, after all, the history of the Khmer Rouge was not taught in schools until 2007, and Pol Pot and his comrades were recognised at the United Nations long after the regime ended in 1979. Sites such as Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are viewed as net positives, Cambodians are eager to educate the world, especially about the nuances that are often missed in summaries and official narratives. Guides tend to be outspoken, and will pull visitors aside to tell their own versions of state sponsored histories. Under a de jure constitutional monarchy and de facto single party dictatorship, Cambodians refuse to be silenced.
On my arrival in Phnom Penh, I was fully prepared to decry the pictures posted on social media as a disrespectful, locally discouraged, and generally tasteless practice. But the relationship between local and global dynamics of genocide memory is, as always, far more complicated than my initial observations. As Robbie B. H. Goh notes, memorialisation is often uncomfortable, confronting, and photographable for a reason. In developing countries such as Cambodia, state funding may be scarce for memorials, and even active agendas of genocide prevention may delineate funds based on the marketability of sites to tourists. Choeung Ek, and to a certain extent, Tuol Sleng, are high on the list of “dark tourism” sites, in part due to how brutally the information is presented. It can be quite lucrative for memorials to allow pictures. Shots of pensive white women staring at piles of skulls on Instagram are a free and organic promotion strategy to bring more visitors and increase revenues.
Locals can also benefit from foreign tourism to these sites, and not just through job creation. International tourists allow enough revenue for the sites to remain free for Cambodians. On my own visit, I saw many local visitors, including multiple school tour groups. As Kristina Killgrove writes for Forbes, the remains at Cambodian genocide sites are meant to be viewed, by tourists and by Cambodians. Public and ceremonious memorial services are regularly held at these sites, where acts of genocide are reenacted by youth in shocking detail. Many Cambodians take the opportunity of free access to learn about their history, and practice the ancestor worship common in Theravada Buddhism.
Signs of conflict are visible throughout Cambodia. In Battambang province in particular, landmine injuries remain common. It is only in the more populated areas, the interior of the country, and high traffic tourist areas where landmines have been fully cleared. In Phnom Penh, and dotted around the countryside, many sites of killing fields remain, some are turned into memorials, others are unexcavated. Even in the temple complexes at Siem Reap, conflict is visible. At Banteay Srei, a temple popular with tourists for its intricate carvings, Viet Kong bullet holes can be observed.
Though the history of genocide in Cambodia was not taught until recently, today, people seem willing and open to discuss it and engage with it. Cambodians do not shy away from their history, despite years of a “don’t look back” doctrine. It’s not only tourists who engage with new technologies to spread information about genocide. Organisations, like the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and its partner organisation, the Sleuk Rith Institute, are active online, and create multi-media educational tools which inform users on genocide and its intersections with the people, the government, and the environment. Bophana, an active archivist centre, has created not only a database of Cambodian media (much of which the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy), but also a highly interactive, intuitive, and stylised app (KhmerRouge History) which extensively details the timeline and context of the Democratic Kampuchea.
The scholars and locals I talked to in Cambodia acknowledged the problematic nature of tourists posting graphic images of genocide along with more mundane shots. The implicit imperial and colonial implications remain salient today -- it seems in bad taste for gawking tourists to marvel at the violence intertwined with a history of French, North American, and Chinese direct imperialism and colonial meddling. But the reality of what counts as disrespectful when posting pictures of tourist experiences in any country is far more complex than it may seem on the surface.
If tourists want to post pictures from memorials to mass atrocities, they should know what is culturally appropriate. Start with the signs. Do they encourage photos? Do they ask you to remain silent or quiet? Keep captions informational, and respectful. Highlight local organisations that deal with historical preservation and genocide prevention. Identify the site, don’t leave it as a nameless destination on your trip. We’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible on social media, and many norms have yet to be established. Knowing what we portray, and its impact, is just the beginning. Genocide is not a thing of the past, it’s happening around the world in the present day. As tourists and visitors with the privilege of travelling to international sites of violence, it is our duty to highlight local efforts and feature local voices. Used respectfully and in context, pictures of skulls can be part of the greater toolkit of genocide prevention.