Mid week in Phnom Penh we set off on foot to explore around our neighbourhood and discovered some pleasant parkland featuring a massive statue of the current Cambodian monarch and some contemporary art installations. This part of the city, the main administrative zone, was planned on a large scale featuring long boulevards and tree lined avenues. It was obvious from the many cranes dotting the skyline that the city was experiencing something of a building boom and that this part of the city was meant to showcase increasing prosperity and a view to a positive future. In the case of Cambodia, this is especially important given the dark history of its recent past. It was this part of the nation’s history we wanted to educate our kids about prior to heading to the south of the country to enjoy the natural beauty of the coast and gulf islands.
There are dark places in this world, preserved as permanent reminders of what zealous ideology, despotism and terror look like when put into perverse practice. Our visit to the Camp 21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh was a glimpse of what such horror looks like. This important institution was established so that no one is able to claim ignorance about the lurking danger embodied by those claiming to have acquired fundamental truth about social problems and their solutions. Operated by the Khmer Rouge for four barbaric years in the 1970’s, this former school turned detention centre and then torture facility, provides the basic lesson that totalitarianism needs to be feared and undermined every time it is espoused. Knowing for certain who enemies are, what needs to be done about them, and how to gain the societal means and permission to carry out those solutions is surely the most destructive thinking ever undertaken by humans. This allowed National Socialists to carry out the holocaust in Europe, sparked a genocidal rampage by Hutu extremist in Rwanda and set the medieval minded Khmer Rouge upon the people of Cambodia. The result in each case was unimaginable suffering and death at an incomprehensible scale.
These were insurmountably challenging issues but the museum provided important context and explanations of the various artifacts and sickening facilities. It made subsequent conversations with our two youngsters more manageable though no less explicable when they inevitably and rightly asked, “but why did this happen?” We wished we had something even close to an adequate answer to such a question. We wish we had some final synthesis or pithy commentary that would make sense of this dark underside of humanity. But we didn’t. We left feeling perplexed and unsettled, at a loss with how to process all the disheartening information we had just taken in.