Horror tourism – heritage that hurts
Discussion of the massacres of late 1965 is still taboo in many areas of Indonesia, and the mass graves off-limits. Not so in Cambodia where the horrors of the Pol Pot regime are now major tourist attractions. Duncan Graham reports from Phnom Penh on a nation that’s being transparent about its vile past and turning it into an economic resource.
Choeung Elk is serene. It was once an orchard. At the center of the tree-filled park about 15 kilometers outside of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is a tall monument of concrete and glass. The windows are stacked with what appear from a distance to be small boulders. The building is topped by a Buddhist stupa.
The trunk of one stout tree is a mass of multicoloured cottons suggesting a joyous or prayerful place.
There are ponds, shady meandering walks and some small pits surrounded by low chain fences. Visitors who peer among the stones and soil, the leaves and insects, can spot small spherical objects and what seem to be fractured fibrous sticks.
Close up the rocks under the stupa are revealed as piles of skulls, the blank eye sockets staring through the glass. The beribboned tree is a shrine; it was used to smash out the brains of small children. Bullets were expensive and in short supply so the executioners beat their victims to death using farm tools, like hoes, and iron bars.
Loudspeakers hung in the trees played cheerful music to drown out the screams of those being killed so local residents wouldn’t know what was happening. But they did. They saw trucks full of prisoners roll through the gates and then return empty.
Choeung Elk was one of more than 300 killing fields in Cambodia; about 9,000 people died there after first being processed at S 21, also known asTuoi Sleng, a three-storey high school in the capital converted to a torture center.
The skulls, teeth and bone fragments are the remains of the victims of mass killings which swept Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. This was more than ten years after Indonesia’s genocide where at least 500,000 people were murdered for being communists, or supporting communist ideals.
The number of humans slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge [Red Khmer] in what used to be Democratic Kampuchea, is also a guesstimate, but certainly exceeds one million.
They were killed for the opposite reason to those who died in Indonesia – for not being totally committed communists. However, as in the Indonesian pogroms, many were slaughtered arbitrarily to settle personal gripes, to satisfy psychopathic urges or for no logical reason.
Anyone who wore glasses was automatically suspect as an ‘intellectual’ and therefore an enemy of the state. The same fate befell many creative people in Indonesia. Because they were writers, artists or film-makers they were suspect.
The Khmer Rouge were eventually defeated by their former allies, the North Vietnamese. The country, which has now returned to a monarchy, could have attempted to hide the great shame of its terrible past, and – like Indonesia – smothered all information.
Instead, and to lift the curse of history, the government promotes study and discussion of its gore-soaked history and encourages tourists to visit the grim remnants of evil that litter the land.
|Ribbons to remember; babies were bashed to deaath on this tree.|
It sounds ghoulish and at first it feels awkward, almost voyeuristic. Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, not morally challenging. But turning the hideous recent past into a modern attraction works in Cambodia largely because it’s handled openly and with dignity. There are no touts, signs are few and visitors are left to wander and contemplate mortality.
This, whisper the pits and ponds, is how humans can behave when driven by fanaticism and delusional ideology. It’s our shameful story, say the Cambodians, but it could be yours. Be ever alert; cruelty knows no political or cultural borders, malice is universal.
The classrooms in what used to be the Tuol Svay Prey High School, now the Tuoi Sleng Genocidal Museum have no desks, only rusting metal beds where the political prisoners were manacled and tortured.
But in their weirdly methodical way the Khmer Rouge first photographed every victim, and these pictures have been preserved. . The walls of the school are covered in their portraits.
In other rooms are the devices used to inflict terrible agony, like metal baths where men and women were held underwater till they signed confessions that they were capitalist spies who harbored hopes of overthrowing the regime. Outside the exercise bars used by students became gallows.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Genocidal Museum, along with the Angkor Wat temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage site in the north of the country, are the reason why Cambodia – a nation of only 15 million – attracts more than four million tourists a year. This number has been growing by more than 15 per cent annually during the past few years.
By comparison, Indonesia with a population of 240 million draws less than 9 million visitors a year.
Why go into the dark?
Seeking horror on your holidays is even the subject of academic research into the psychological needs to visit sites of tragedy.
The Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain has been studying ‘where death education and tourism studies collide (to) … shine critical light on the social reality of death.
‘Dark tourism can also reveal tensions in cultural memory, interpretation and authenticity, and political and moral dilemmas in remembering our heritage that hurts.’
Apart from Cambodia, dark tourism sites in Europe, like the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Poland and the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars, are visited by millions every year.
Holocaust Memorial Museums are also popular and can be found around the world [though not in Indonesia] far from the places where the awful events occurred.
Dark tourism isn’t new; for more than 250 years people have been visiting Pompeii in Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site preserved by the ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. So it must be filling some basic need.
(First published in The Jakarta Post J Plus 23 November 2014)