The International Victimology Institute Tilburg promotes and executes interdisciplinary research that can contribute to a comprehensive, evidence-based body of knowledge on the empowerment and support of victims of crime and abuse of power.

International Victimology Institute Tilburg

INTERVICT promotes and executes interdisciplinary research that can contribute to a comprehensive, evidence-based body of knowledge on the empowerment and support of victims of crime and abuse of power.

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Confronted with Cambodia’s past and future: observing dark tourism sites in Phnom Penh by Alina Balta

I arrived in Phnom Penh on 27 May and stayed until 3 June. The moment I stepped foot outside of the airport, a moist wave of heat hit me. I had a tough week ahead of me but I could not shake the mix of feelings that washed all over my body: tiredness, fear, excitement, curiosity, and adrenaline. I took a big breath and walked towards the driver holding a plate with my name, hoping for a great week ahead.

My trip to Phnom Penh was planned with the aim to conduct interviews with staff of different sections of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). As part of my PhD, I conduct legal analysis of trials’ transcripts and judgments, and try to understand to what extent such trials may afford reparative justice to the victims under ECCC jurisdiction. Although I do not use interviews as a research method in my PhD, my supervisors and I agreed that doing fieldwork broadens one’s horizon and understanding of the context under research. Therefore, in a week’s time, I conducted several interviews with staff of Victims’ Support Section, Prosecution, Bench, and Public Affairs Section – of ECCC, presented and had fruitful debates with staff of our local partner TPO Cambodia, and visited dark touristic sites inside and outside of Phnom Penh.

All interviews were very interesting, insightful, and revealed information that will be included in my PhD Chapter on Cambodia. In order to paint as broad a picture of the ECCC and its workings, the ECCC staff I interviewed was mixed, both Western and local, with legal and non-legal background. During my time in Phnom Penh I tried, as much as possible, to understand the Court, how it came about, and how it operates and I appreciate this as a fruitful and positive experience. I am grateful to all people who took time from their busy schedules to answer my questions and think along with me on such a sensitive topic – reparative justice after mass atrocities.

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As early as Monday, after my first interview with a Cambodian person, on my way back to the hotel, an interesting realization struck me: instead of staying indoors to read about Cambodia for the rest of the day, I have decided that instead, I would go out and explore the city life, be amongst the locals and attempt to understand their lives and behaviors. That day, in between the heat, sticky skin, smells, and traffic, I managed to arrive at the Royal Palace. I was surprised at the sight of such an imposing architecture: luxurious houses embellished with golden roofs and symbols spanned across a fenced space. Outside of it, tens of merchants were selling flowers, food, and different other products.

That week, after another interview, I went to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek). Although I read a lot about this place and the atrocities that took place there, nothing can truly prepare one for this encounter. Again, the heat does not really help when confronted with such images. The place was quiet and appeared well maintained. At the entrance, tourists receive an audio guide, which details everything about the Khmer Rouge takeover of the city and the conflict that descended upon the Cambodians in between 1975 and 1979. While walking there you get a sense of peace, but it is truly a hair raising experience - knowing that 40 years ago this piece of land witnessed unspeakable horrors. Mass graves are on the premises of the Killing Fields – of men, women – of all ages, and of babies. A few steps further there are bones lying on the ground, which come to the surface when rain digs them out. Maybe the most impressive mass grave is the one of women and babies. Next to it sits a big, beautiful tree, made unwillingly an accomplice to horrible crimes. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were using the tree to smash the babies against it, to kill them. As explained in the audio guide, they did not use bullets – as they were expensive - and, as a result, the victims undergone long, excruciating deaths. The final stop at the Killing Fields was the Memorial Pagoda that hosts the skulls of more than 5000 victims, arranged in layers. I sat on the bench overlooking the pagoda for several minutes reflecting at it: the smell of burning incense, the mass graves, and thunders in the background: what a surreal experience!

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The next day, equipped with more understanding of what has happened under the regime, I walked towards Tuol Sleng, another dark tourism site, located right in the heart of Phnom Penh. A former high school, transformed into a prison, it is the place where under the leadership of Kang Kek Iew or Duch, more than 20.000 people were executed. “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all” was one of the 10 rules governing the everyday workings of the prison. Inside the four buildings, visitors can now see the minuscule rooms where prisoners were being held, boards with pictures of victims right before their execution, and various tools used for torture. Paintings by Vann Nath (a former prisoner) depicting victims during their torture hang on walls. As at the Killing Fields, I was struck by the silence permeating the place. Couple of benches, trees, and chirping birds, two former victims selling their biographies right in the yard of the very place where they escaped death paint a picture that feels mysterious in an unsettling way.

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What impressed me the most about these places is the fact that many groups of young students – 10-14 years old came directly from school to visit the place (as they were all wearing their uniforms). They were all patiently listening to the recordings detailing such a dark chapter in their history. They came to learn. Other Cambodian people came to visit the sites and the mass graves. Although many Western tourists came to learn about the places and showed interest too, the view of Cambodians approaching was different. It seemed like an emotionally loaded encounter of the past with the future.

I came to Cambodia trying to understand how such crimes could occur, looking for hidden details not explored before in all the books I had read. I had hoped that by conducting interviews, visiting the Court and the sites where immense harm was perpetrated, I would come closer to grasping the reasons why approximately 2 million Cambodians were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. I did not succeed at this, as some things may be beyond understanding. Instead, I did succeed at gaining some insights into Cambodia’s culture and its people. I met open people, very polite, humble, and always willing to help. I could read sadness in the eyes of some, and an immense determination to fight for a better life, in the eyes of others. I met young people, genuinely curious to learn about the history of their country, and this bears new hope for the future of Cambodia. It truly was a complete experience, which walked me through the highs and lows of human existence, as well as enriching on both professional and personal levels.