Politicization of the two most important genocide memorials in Cambodia

By Kate Cheatham

Getting to Travel to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to conduct research for my senior thesis was an incredible and invaluable experience. My thesis was on the politicization of the two most important genocide memorials in Cambodia (Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek), and on memory and justice in the wake of the Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979). I spent much of my time in Phnom Penh visiting these memorials, taking notes on the way that the museums framed the genocide and how they constructed a politicized version of the event. Analyzing the physical space and the language used at the memorials was incredibly important to my thesis, and getting to do so completely transformed it for the better.

Besides visiting the genocide memorials, I also went to the Documentation Center of Cambodia while I was in Phnom Penh, an NGO dedicated to promoting  “memory” and “justice” in the wake of the genocide. I only did a small amount of archival research there, but found the experience very worthwhile. Getting to talk to people actively involved in the process of national reconciliation (though educational initiatives and though involvement in the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunals) helped give my research valuable context, and made it very clear to me the ways in which the Genocide continues to affect Cambodian people and society today. This understanding inspired me in my research and reminded me of the importance of doing work to challenge politicized historical narratives (like those at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek) that detract from social healing and true national reconciliation.