Passion and patience make strange bedfellows but are essential when best-laid plans temporarily go awry.
Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) continues to work tirelessly on his ambitious proposal to reconcile his country’s brutal past with its rich ancient cultural heritage. He is trying to build a multi-purpose centre commemorating Cambodia’s genocide and is doing this in what can best be described as an uneasy present.
Facing numerous setbacks, Chhang, who is also a survivor of the infamous Khmer Rouge era of 1975-79 in which more than two million people perished, remains undeterred.
“We were planning to start building in February this year,” says Chhang. But efforts have ground to a halt.
“The delay is very complicated involving government bureaucracy, and we are working to resolve it now.”
Designed by the late multi award-winning London-based Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, back in 2014, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s design immediately conjures images of a distant future as well as Cambodia’s glorious past. Five towers reminiscent of Angkor Wat rise from the monsoonal mists of the famed and beautiful jungle to inspire yet another allegory — trees of knowledge and life.
“The repression of cultural knowledge during the French colonial era, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime’s ideology as a form of education meant that links to the rest of the world were severed,” says Chhang.
“It was an ideology that almost destroyed us. Today we are still chained to the past, which is why for me, only education can set us free. We should not be enslaved by the past. We cannot escape it; we have to face it.”
The name Sleuk Rith is highly symbolic and refers to the power of leaves, explains Chhang, as he recounts a story of Cambodian intellectuals and activists secretly writing messages on dried leaves during the colonial era to preserve their knowledge and culture.
The symbolism runs even deeper.
There are distinctive parallels between the ancient regional tradition of meticulously writing Hindu then later Buddhist texts on palm leaves, sastra, to the hundreds and thousands of leaves of paper filled with forced confessions delivered under unabated torture, to reams of survivor testimonies painstakingly recorded and collected by the DC-Cam team since it began its work in 1995.
Chhang is quick to mention that within the concept of the power of leaves exists another meaning — plain paper, or that critical moment before the page fills with ideas and feelings, and which allows for the possibility of new versions of the history of genocide.
“When I was growing up, there was no education, and very few had travelled outside of the country,” says Chhang.
“As a result of genocide, Cambodians are now all over the world, and I think, because of that, people have formed a new version of the history of genocide. Each person comes with a different idea, different ways of thinking and different views, so there’s no singular interpretation.”
The new building is meant to inspire reflection, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships broken by the Khmer Rouge’s near four-year reign of terror. However, unlike other memorials and in situ sites scattered throughout the country offering explicit and undeniably invaluable evidence of the atrocities orchestrated by the regime, the Sleuk Rith Institute aims to tell the same horror story a little differently.
“Many young people look at a skull, a shackle or a blood stain on a wall and feel that it is the older generation who are responsible for the mistakes made,” says Chhang.
“They see the past as remote and have problems seeing it as part of their identity. But if you come in with photography, with beauty, with dialogue, you bring them in, and they start to question.”
Reinterpreting the atrocities in any way as ‘beautiful’ immediately calls for a reevaluation of aesthetics, as does the message that is hoped to be shared and retold by others.
Sites like Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison and interrogation center codenamed S-21, and Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ where the majority of prisoners were executed, all serve as important witnesses to the past.
However, it can be argued that they elicit intense feelings of pity, shame and disbelief, which can be counterproductive when trying to understand what happened and to possibly achieve reconciliation through empathy. And not everyone can visit such places.
“The best memorials evoke reflection and commemoration, but are also living, dynamic places that engage with all generations in the community,” says Chhang.
“A memorial should be enlightening, a place where both the younger and older generation can feel comfortable learning about the tragedies of the past to find new ways to heal, and to move forward.”
The centre will not only commemorate the lives lost but also serve as a tribute to the survivors via a museum of memory. It will also be an archive of all documents about the period, a library and an international research center for genocide studies, placing the Cambodian experience in context with other atrocities still being perpetuated today despite global outcries.
While such outcries have sadly done little to lessen the frequency and the impact of genocide across the globe, the fact remains that there are survivors and with them comes the arduous and initially insurmountable task of rebuilding a stable cultural identity that helps to heal. These efforts require hope and relentless optimism.
Architecturally, Zahara Hadid’s futuristic designs embody this kind of optimism, as well as the belief that the past defines the future. The future depends on it, and, so by challenging the more traditional pessimistic practices of memorialising traumatic histories, her designs reach into the future as if to show that this can be, if not already, achieved. In the case of the Sleuk Rith Institute, this can be seen in the shimmering waterways and the warmth of exposed wooden beams that evoke the image of verdant and fertile trees or the themes of the rebirth of knowledge.
By widening the conceptual space for healing, the Sleuk Rith Institute has a profoundly important role to play. It shows that heritage so unequivocally rooted in pain and shame can be transformative through an oddly unsettling yet familiar kind of beauty that has the potential to evoke much-needed empathy and compassion.
“Genocide is part our identity– it is our identity. It just takes a matter of time to accept it,” says Chhang.
Time is a great healer, and after a succession of delays we can only hope that Cambodia will see a building it so desperately deserves — one that will aid a more informed idea of the past well into the future.
Julia Mayer is a Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies student at the Australian National University. She has lived in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea, and has written extensively on traditional arts, performances and cinema in the region. She is also the Asia Correspondent for Metro Magazine Australia.