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Cambodia: Cashing in on the Khmer Rouge

According to a government tourism plan, 14 Khmer Rouge sites are set for a makeover.

sites are more dilapidated. An old munitions warehouse, perched high in the Dangrek Mountains along the Thai border, is scrawled with graffiti, while Pol Pot’s cremation site sits in a sandy lot close to the makeshift shacks of construction workers.

A trip to Anlong Veng

For foreign visitors, Anlong Veng — like Tuol Sleng, the infamous prison in Phnom Penh where as many as 15,000 people were tortured before being executed as “enemies of the revolution” — offers a harrowing counterpoint to the grandeur of Angkor Wat and the laid-back atmosphere of the coastal backpacking scene.

Most Cambodians tremble at the mention of Tuol Sleng or Comrade Duch — the gaunt chief of the prison who was handed a life sentence by the Khmer Rouge tribunal earlier this year. So, the warm recollections of many Anlong Veng residents raise a disquieting question: Will government preservation efforts serve history, or burnish the legacy of a bloody regime?

In this poor and forgotten corner of the country, where the prospect of an influx of foreign tourists is undoubtedly welcome, there are also some who hope to cash in on the renewed interest in Khmer Rouge history.

One of these is Nhem En, the former photographer from Tuol Sleng who snapped the chilling monochrome prison portraits that have become an icon of the regime’s systemic murder of its opponents.

Over the years, Nhem En has amassed an impressive collection of Khmer Rouge relics, including thousands of photographs, Khmer Rouge-era songs and what he claims are Pol Pot’s shoes and toilet seat, pilfered from the former leader’s home in the late 1990s. Now a deputy district governor in Anlong Veng, Nhem En has announced plans to set up a private museum about 6 miles outside town to house his collection.

The project has stalled due to a lack funds, but Nhem En says he is eager to see his memorabilia preserved for future generations. Though he is willing to hand it over to the government, Nhem En says he won’t turn down more lucrative private offers.

“I would like to sell my museum and all my Pol Pot material if anyone is interested,” he said, flashing a winsome smile. “I plan to sell everything I’ve got for $500,000.”

But for the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), an NGO devoted to historical research of the genocide that has helped plan Anlong Veng's preservation, the goal is not simply to cash in on the region's legacy.

“Memories should not be commercialized. It’s not about tourism; it’s about history,” said the director, Youk Chhang.

In a country where Khmer Rouge history wasn’t even taught in schools until recently, tourism officials hope that the preservation effort can better educate the young about the country’s past.

“If the government did not protect this area, the young generation wouldn’t know about the history of the last Khmer Rouge,” said Sieng Sokheng, the tourism director in Anlong Veng district.

He also said profit-seekers like Nhem En would have “big problems” if they tried to cash-in on the area’s history. “The government will not let him set up a private museum, and all his material must be given to the museum here,” Sokheng said.

As the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, Youk said Anlong Veng has great historical significance. It was here that Ta Mok’s forces arrested Pol Pot in June 1997, an act that precipitated the final disintegration of the movement.

A year after Pol Pot’s death under house arrest in April 1998, Ta Mok himself was arrested by the Cambodian military. He was set to be tried at the war crimes court in Phnom Penh, but died in 2006 before the trials got underway.

Given the strong local sympathies for the Khmer Rouge, and the recentness of its history, Youk said DC-Cam is also training local guides to educate visitors, and will later this year publish a written history of Anlong Veng, based on interviews with around 500 local residents. He hopes that both will help forge a dialogue between old communist supporters and outside visitors, promoting reconciliation between perpetrators and victims in this final bastion of Khmer Rouge terror.

“When you talk of Anlong Veng, people are afraid,” he said. “That is the final chapter of the Khmer Rouge, and it has yet to be written properly.”

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