"A SOCIETY CANNOT KNOW ITSELF IF IT DOES NOT HAVE AN
For the recent water festival celebration, I decided to leave Phnom Penh for the beautiful beaches of Sihanoukville. I reluctantly booked a hotel that was rumored to have ghosts. A local once said to me, "don’t ever go there, it is haunted." I thought to myself, of course, I would never stay there. But I did.
As we pulled up to the Independence Hotel, (7 story hotel or Ghost Hotel as the locals call it), I was captivated by the beautiful ocean views and pristine modern accommodation. But part of me also felt extremely anxious about the rumors and questioned the sanity of my decision to stay in a haunted place. The hotel was rumored to have been used by the Khmer Rouge as a torture center. New windows, bright curtains, and retro decoration strived to erase its’ dark past.
Yet, I was determined to overcome my fear. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this tragic fact. The country is full of ghosts. Full of restless spirits wandering aimlessly without peace, without a final resting place to heal and move on. The sad reality of it is, there is no part of Cambodian land that is without the scourge of the Khmer Rouge brutality. These lost souls still ache for some semblance of justice, still yearn for peace, and still seek a dignified tribute.
It has been over 35 years since the Khmer Rouge regime fell. When refugees started flocking back to Phnom Penh, the city was in shambles. The people had to pick themselves up from the apocalypse they just endured. The blood was still fresh in Toul Sleng, where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed thousands of prisoners. Millions of bodies were robbed of a proper burial with monks blessing their spirits to help them transition to the next life.
Instead, these bodies were dumped into mass graves like slaughtered animals. Some of these bones were placed into a glass case at the genocide museum exploiting and showcasing the brutality of the regime and their victims. Unfortunately, this became one of the main tourist attractions to our country, along with Angkor Wat. But it was difficult to find another way come to terms with such atrocities when everyone was still still haunted by the nightmare. Until now.
Sleuk Rith Institute
The Sleuk Rith Institute* aims to give all victims of the Khmer Rouge, what other memorials in Cambodia have yet to date—a graceful tribute, a place to heal. The distance of time has given way for a more contemplative place. Instead of propping up images of torture, pain and suffering. The Institute seeks to provide a sacred space to promote understanding, reflection and reconciliation of our wounds.
For the dead, it gives them a dignified memorial, a final resting place where their souls can come to find peace. For the survivors, it provides a calming space to reflect and reconcile with the pains of the past. For the younger generation, and academics learning about genocide, it teaches important lessons from one of the gravest mistakes of humanity.
The founder and creator of the Institute is Youk Chang, the Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM), an organization whose mission is to document the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. Like millions, he suffered under the regime. At 15 years old, the Khmer Rouge arrested him for picking mushrooms for his pregnant sister and sent him to prison. He only escaped death when an older prisoner asked that Mr. Chhang’s life be spared in exchange for his. He survived and that prisoner didn’t. He went to the U.S. for over a decade but was still haunted by the memories of the past. He was driven by his anger at the Khmer Rouge to return back to Cambodia, to work towards bringing them to justice and to preserve the collective memory of the society. But with age and wisdom, he is now driven by the need to help all Cambodians find peace, healing and reconciliation. This is the mission of the Sleuk Rith Institute.
DC-CAM’s work has been instrumental in the United Nations sponsored Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT). The organization has compiled extensive evidence to help prosecute the remaining living members of the Khmer Rouge regime. However, many Cambodians view the tribunal as a waste of time and money. Most importantly, they believe it will not achieve any justice. The recent convictions of Noun Chea (Brother Number 2) and Khieu Samphan (Head of State) of crimes against humanity with a life sentence is certainly short of the justice many Cambodians would have liked to see many years ago. Yet, where the tribunal lacks in providing justice, the Sleuk Rith Institute seeks to fulfill in other important ways.
Set on a 68,000 square meters of land, the Institute will be situated on the current campus of Beng Trabek High School in Phnom Penh. Designed by internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid, Mr. Chhang’s vision was to create a space where the next generation could learn from the atrocities of the past in a meaningful way, and to promote healing and closure for a society who has been scarred by it for too long. By design, the Institute is not meant to evoke melancholy, despair and anger, but instead reflection, renewal and healing.
The Institute will have five main buildings made of graceful wooden structures that are interwoven to house a research center on genocide studies, a graduate school for disadvantaged students, a museum, an archives and a library. The Institute will also include a memorial park where the community can gather to reflect, commemorate and reconcile with the past.
It is a massive contemporary architectural undertaking, the first of its kind in Cambodia. The United States, through USAID, is a key donor. A campaign is under way to raise funds for the Institute with a projected completion date of two years once breaking ground, with the goal of construction starting in 2015. The Sleuk Rith Institute is accepting donations large or small. Villagers across Cambodia have been giving as little as 1,000 riel (equivalent of .25 cents) to contribute to the Institute. To Mr. Chhang, the amount is not important, but it is symbolic. By giving any amount, rich or poor, it gives all Cambodians a sense of ownership, that this place belongs to them.
The designs of the Institute are breathtaking and inspirational. Once realized and built, it will be even more awe-inspiring. Instead of evoking feelings of anger and revenge, it seeks to stir up reflection and reconciliation. Instead of exploiting the bones of the dead, it will have a dignified tribute to the fallen. And instead of following in the footsteps of others, it will be the global leader in research and policy development on genocide and crimes against humanity.
At the entrance of the Sleuk Rith Institute, there are a series of diamond shaped pendulums that are suspended in mid air. For some, these diamonds represent tears, to others it represents lightness and a hopeful future. For me, it represents spirits that have found the light. That they no longer have to be haunted by the traumas of their past. They finally have a dignified tribute, a serene final resting place where they can find peace and solace. Where they, like the living, can heal, and move on.
With the passage of time, modernity can hide the traumas of the past with new buildings, and new décor. But the ghosts will linger, perpetually haunting us until we help them find a way to ease their suffering, to restore their dignity and to help them find peace. I believe this place can help them in their journey.
*Sleuk Riths are dried leaves that have been used for centuries to document history and preserve culture, and reflects their beauty as vehicles of knowledge and their strength in advancing social memory and human dignity.
*View the 3 minute video below to see the amazing design of the Sleuk Rith Institute.Video courtesy of the Sleuk Rith Institute.