Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The story behind Sala Trapeang Sva

The former memorial at Sala Trapeang Sva (photo Darren Whiteside)
One of the genocide memorials I've never previously managed to locate was on my schedule for yesterday's trip to Tonle Bati, about 30 kms south of Phnom Penh along Route 2. It's called Sala Trapeang Sva (or Kuk Sang) and was a mass burial site and prison in the grounds of a former teacher training college, during the Khmer Rouge regime. I had been told nearly ten years before that you needed to catch a boat to an island to see the site, but this turned out to be misinformation. However, before I tell you the story of my trip, here is an article by Kosal Phat of DC-Cam, that throws considerably more light on this particular genocide memorial:
Very recently, a DC-Cam team made a visit to a genocide site called Kuk Sang (Sang Prison) in Trapeang Sva village of Kandal province, a site that was also visited by the UN Group of Experts during its mission to Cambodia in November, 1998. The team noted that the remains of the Khmer Rouge victims there had been disturbed. Below are excerpts from our interview with a local Patriarch Monk:
Question (Q): We are from the Documentation Center of Cambodia. We are here to see the remains of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime in Kuk Sang. When we arrived, we noticed a proper memorial for the remains. Villagers have told us that you initiated the construction of the memorial. What was the reason for your constructing this memorial for the remains?
Answer (A): One reason I got the idea to construct this memorial is that one member of my family was killed at Sang Prison. Another reason is that I observed the remains in a sad state, just sitting there exposed to the sun, wind, and rain. The remains have decayed and have even been eaten by cows. That inspired me to think that if the remains continued to lie in the state they were in they would certainly vanish and no evidence would be left for younger generations to see. In addition, if Buddhist followers wanted to come to light incense and pay homage to commemorate the souls of the dead, there was not a place for them to do so. So this idea of building a memorial for the remains came to my mind. I started with the idea of gathering Buddhist followers from many localities, including the local authorities such as the District Governor and Provincial Governor. Then, with their contributions, we built this memorial and stored all of the remains inside it. Contributions continued to come from generous individuals until the building of the memorial was finished. Another problem is that when people come, they do not have a shelter. When we had a religious ceremony during Phchum Ben Day (day to pay homage to the dead), it rained and everyone got soaked. But in remembrance of the souls of the dead, the monks ate the offered food in the rain. When we held an inaugural ceremony for the memorial, the governor of Kandal province himself came.
(Q): What is his name?
(A): His Excellency Khoem Bo came and I solicited a contribution from him, which he agreed would be used for the building of an eating hall. However, his contribution was not enough, and I could only build pillars. I think that this project should be carried on gradually every year. The Governor has also told me to keep going, and that he will help.
Q): So you first started to put this idea into motion?
(A): Yes, it was me.
(Q): Did the district authority support this idea initially?
(A): Yes, they supported it. I just started the idea, and was immediately joined by commune, district, and provincial authorities so that we were then able to really take off.
(Q): So the main reason you have is that your father died?
(A): One reason is that my father died, but an especially important additional reason is that I pity people who do not have the ability to build a memorial. They depend on monks who can solicit contributions to build this.
(Q): Why not take the remains somewhere else? Why have you built the memorial in the vicinity of the original site?
(A): Before, there was a suggestion to remove the remains to Koh Sokram pagoda, but years went by, and we never saw any one take the remains there. That is when I pointed out to the district governor of Kandal Stung that if we took the remains away from their original location, we would be separating the evidence from the scene. So I requested permission to build a memorial there. The government has given the land on the left-hand side of the site exclusively to me, while the land on the right-hand side belongs to the state.
(Q): What about the original place?
(A): The original ruined structure is said to be designated as a building for the Royal School of Administration. I do not know when they will begin.
(Q): What will be done with the structure of the former Khmer Rouge prison?
(A): The plan is to demolish the prison and replace it with a new building. This used to be a big prison and where the memorial stood is where the Khmer Rouge chiefs in charge of the prison lived during that time.
(Q): How did you feel, as someone who wishes to see the evidence and scars of the genocidal regime preserved for Cambodia’s younger generations, when the authorities attempted to demolish it and build a new building?
(A): If we could keep the former Khmer Rouge prison where it is, it is very good. But if the district authorities need it, we can not prohibit them because they said if we keep it without using it, we will lose our rights. If for this reason, they build something new, it is good too.

(Q): What year was that when you started building the memorial?
(A): In late 1999.
(Q): Why, in the first place, did you not think of rebuilding the roof of the old structure to shelter the remains from the rain?
(A): I aimed to do so, but the circumstances at that time were that even if we wanted to keep the remains there, the authorities would not let us keep them there. Possibly the remains could be brought somewhere else. I was not able to tell them to keep them where they were. And if I did not move them, the remains would be lost gradually every year until nothing would have been left there.
(Q): What about the officials who made contributions to build the memorial? Did they have relatives who were killed at Sang Prison?
(A): Some did, but others did not have relatives who were killed there because they come from distant places. Most people who died were people from Kandal Stung district.
(Q): Many people here went to the site to light incense. Were many of their family members killed there?
(A): Yes, many relatives of people here in Kandal Stung were killed, but not people in Trapeang Sva village, because in the Pol Pot time, they were the killers. So what we did would not please them, because they wanted to erase the evidence from our sight that would trigger our anger toward them. They do not want us to build this memorial.
(Q): So there are people against your idea?
(A): There are... but they dare not oppose...because the authorities stand behind me. So they are reluctant to do anything against us. If they dare, we have the authorities to protect us.
(Q): So you have their support because many of their relatives died here in the Pol Pot time?
(A): Many people from here died in the Pol Pot time, as we know from people who live nearby and those who made contributions, not to mention many others living at some distance from here. We just spent a small sum of money to disseminate our plan to build. Then people came with their contributions and help.

(Q): The death of your father at Sang Prison partly motivated you to build that memorial. Were you aware of how your father was killed?
(A): No I was not. I did not know because I was small, but my mother told me that he only worked as a plumber but the Khmer Rouge said my father was a high-ranking officer in the Khmer Republic regime. Then they took him from Sang to be killed.
(Q): How do you know that he was killed?
(A): There are people who saw and told me, and the Khmer Rouge cadres who took my father to be killed are still alive.
(Q): What are their names?
(A): They are Roeung and Mao. They controlled this prison. Many Khmer Rouge killers from Trapeang Sva are still alive.
(Q): A moment ago someone mentioned about stealing skulls and remains. Is that true?
(A): There was no stealing of skulls! But shackles were stolen. Before there were many shackles, youngsters stole shackles to sell. A few years ago, I saw a lot of shackles but when I was there to remove the remains, I found few shackles left there. Skulls were eaten by cows and bones were scattered around. I once gathered the bones to keep them where they were. Before the election in 1993, the remains were taken care of and provided with shelter. Trea sub-district took good care of them. But since the election, concern has diminished.
(Q): So the remains that you have collected and stored are all there were, and nobody cremated anything?
(A): No, I brought all the remains.
(Q): Do you believe that by doing so, you can keep the remains for long?
(A): I am not so sure, but they are not exposed now. They may continue to decay, but it will take a long time, unlike when they were exposed to the wind and rain. If they remained in those circumstances much longer, they would have quickly been turned into earth.

(Q): What about Hatred Day of May 20? Did the district authority go and organize a ceremony there?
(A): We did. Many people from Kandal Stung district went there.
(Q): So from now on, do you think that the celebration of Hatred Day May 20 will take place at the memorial?
(A): Yes I think so. The last food offering ceremony took place there, and the provincial governors also came.
(Q): Among the reasons that you have set forth-first the death of your father, second, concern about losing the remains, third, concern about a shelter for holding ceremonies-which is the most important that so inspired you to build this memorial?
(A): The second reason-worry of losing remains-is the most important reason. My father is gone and I cannot get him back. But the loss of the remains is what I have worried about the most. Because if people say “many died there”, but there are no remains there, how can we believe? So preserving the remains is the most important reason. I am not conceited. Many people have contributed their money. I did not build this on my own. I do not want to lose the evidence, so that people from various places can come to pray and pay homage to the dead. And I will request the district governor that this memorial for the remains should exist forever. And I am thinking of having monks stay there and for people to come and pay homage because some souls of the dead have made their parents or children dream of them, and told them that they are wandering around and have not reincarnated in another world. I want to have monks meditating there so that the souls of the dead will rest in peace. In Buddhism, when someone dies and their mind is still with this world, then their souls wander around. The remains are a legacy for the younger generation so that they may know how vicious the Khmer Rouge regime was, because the young did not experience the regime. I experienced this regime. Some lived through this regime as children but they still do not believe; how can those who did not live through believe? What can they base belief on?
(Q): If they want to demolish the old prison, would you dare to oppose them?
(A): No, I wouldn’t.

(Q): There are many big mass graves at the site, what do you think the local authorities might develop the area into? Because I think that if they clear up the area for development, then they may erase all, including the mass graves?
(A): Yes, all will be gone. The whole area will be developed. There are many graves at that site but I do not know how many are on the land that was given to me to build the memorial. Before, piles of victims’ remains were taken from those mass graves, not just 5-6 cubic meters like this. Only about 30-60 mass graves have been excavated. There are many more left to be excavated-some with 2 bodies each, some with 5 bodies each and some others with 6 bodies each. The sub-district chief told me that there are many small pits with victims’ remains there.
(Q): If they erase everything, what will you think?
(A): Personally, I want to keep the killing site just the way it is. But the authorities think that if we leave the land like that, and do not develop it, then we will not gain any benefit. Their idea is different from ours. It would be great, if they could think like us and we could preserve it like that in Japan (Hiroshima). We could put a fence around it so that the younger generations could come and see.
(Q): So if one day, someone in authority comes to you and orders you to burn all the remains, and they say it is not worth keeping the remains, what will be your reaction?
(A): I would not dare to oppose them at all. I could only request that they do not burn them, but give them to me. Please do not touch the remains because I have a stupa for them already. If they do not want that, I can bring them to my pagoda here. But if they still insist that the remains be burnt, I dare not oppose them. In my opinion, if they do not want us to keep the remains there, I would like to keep them in my pagoda so that people can come and hold religious ceremonies for their dead relatives.
(Q): When you built the stupa, were you thinking of your father?
(A): I did think about my father. I prayed that “when I was small, I could not fulfill my duties in return for your raising me. But now that you are dead, I am only able to build this memorial for you to lie in. I can only light incense and pray when I have food.”
(Q): Were you born here in Kandal Stung district?
(A): Yes, I was born here; I was a monk in Moha Montrei pagoda in Phnom Penh for about a year. Then I was asked to come back to this pagoda in my native village because my predecessor was too old. And the villagers invited me to be Patriarch and I have been here for 6 years. I think that in the eating hall at the memorial, after the roof is built, I will have pictures of the Khmer Rouge tortures and atrocities committed against the prisoners at Sang Prison painted on the ceiling and walls for the younger generations to see how heinous the Khmer Rouge were.
Reproduced as part of an article entitled Necessity Of Preserving Physical Evidence - by Kosal Phat. Link: DC-Cam.

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