The Ghost of Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is quiet now.  Gone are the screams of the dying, the cries of the broken, and the disaffected stares of the condemned.  Tuol Sleng was known as S-21 during Pol Pot’s time and was one of a network of prisons that the Khmer Rouge used to punish “enemies of the revolution”.  More than 14,000 men, women and children entered S-21 only to be erased from the regime’s collective memory.  Their pictures line the prison’s walls.  Their stares contain the emptiness of those that have accepted their fate.  Those of us that walk its mournful halls cannot fully comprehend the magnitude of the psychological devastation meted out by the Khmer Rouge during a four year period from 1975-79, when people were snuffed out like candles in S-21’s drafty rooms.  Most died for arbitrary reasons that included living in the city or owning a business.  The Khmer Rouge was complete in its destruction, as it wiped out family units and disbursed survivors throughout the country.  In a world devoid of information, the magnitude of the genocide wasn’t apparent until years after it ended.

I entered S-21 through the same gate as its victims and the silence overwhelmed me.  It was too quiet.  Our guide was a 40 year old woman that was the only surviving member of her family.  In 1976, at the age of ten, she was sent to a “re-education” camp while her family members were systematically sent to Tuol Sleng and other camps throughout Cambodia.  Her tour was thorough and businesslike; the depth her pain buried deep beneath her slender frame.  Only her eyes gave away her secret agony.  They were the eyes of someone that had seen too much at too young an age….weeping eyes that would not cry.

While the scars of the past have healed, Cambodia is still very much a country in need.  The psychological damage inflicted by years of pain is acute and has led to a plethora of economic and social problems.  Phnom Penh’s cafes, bustling nightlife and throbbing energy mask its inner turmoil, but a short drive outside the city reflects the depths of the country’s economic despair.  After a few days in Phnom Penh, I announced to my colleague Kipp Efinger that “CIPE needs to be here”.  There is much to do and CIPE can make an immediate impact.  My views were reinforced by the representatives of the business community and NGOs we met during our trip.  All of them said in varying ways that “CIPE has something great to offer Cambodia’s private sector”. 

On our last day in country, I snapped a photograph at Tuol Sleng Prison that provided a ghostly reminder of Cambodia’s tortured history.  The photo, taken by accident, is of a female victim that appears like an apparition through the prison’s sunlit corridors.  She is the ghost of Tuol Sleng.  She is the specter of a different time and her image defines the past, when whole families faded into oblivion.

Whether or not CIPE develops a long-term presence in Cambodia, our short time in the country reinforced why our work is so important.  In the 1970’s, Cambodia was the front line for a conflict that claimed millions of lives.  Today, it is the front line for economic reform throughout Southeast Asia.  Fear and hatred defined the past but prosperity will be the foundation of a future in which CIPE can play a dynamic role.