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Can “Dark Tourism” Help Cambodia Heal?

The jungle hideout where genocidal dictator Pol Pot made his last stand could become the country's next grim attraction.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Deep within the Dangrek Mountains of northern Cambodia, on a cliff at the end of a rugged jungle path barely wide enough for a motorbike, stands Pol Pot’s house. Blanketed in moss and moldering in the tropical swelter, the two-story ruin is a monument to two decades of neglect. The air, heavy and humid, buzzes with cicadas.

A man emerges from the overgrowth and begins picking leaves from a handful of green shrubs. “For my rabbits,” he explains. A former government soldier who fought for 22 years against Pol Pot’s guerrillas, Kuch Khemara owns the area’s only restaurant, located four miles back up the path. Like others in the remote mountain region of Anlong Veng, he hopes that sightseers will one day flock to this old building in the jungle, bringing a much-needed economic boost to one of Cambodia’s poorest districts, the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge.

The idea of tourists making a pilgrimage to a genocidal dictator’s jungle hideout might seem distasteful. But such destinations are already a major part of Cambodia’s tourism industry. Besides the Angkor Wat temple complex, the biggest tourist draws in the country are the infamous “killing fields,” where hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were murdered from 1975 to 1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, housed in the former S-21 Prison, where thousands were detained, tortured, and killed. Together, the sites sell hundreds of thousands of tickets a year, introducing visitorsmany of them foreignersto the Khmer Rouge’s brutal excesses.

Destinations like these are part of a worldwide market known as “dark tourism,” which promotes travel to places associated with death and suffering. There has always been a ghoulish fascination with death and destruction; visitors have flocked to the ruins of Pompeii for more than two centuries, and after Pan Am Flight 103 crashed near Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, curious onlookers flooded the roadways to the wreckage site, tying up traffic and hampering emergency services. Some tourist sites use biased narratives to rewrite history: For years, a display at the Cottonlandia Museum in Greenwood, Mississippi, explained how plantations “employed” slaves to harvest crops. But from Hiroshima and Ground Zero to Chernobyl and Auschwitz, memorials to atrocities can play an important role in the process of healing and national reconciliation. Sites like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and Remembrance Park in Buenos Aires attempt to harness “the power of social memory to come to grips with past abuse,” says Louis Bickford, a human rights scholar and the former director of the International Center for Transitional Justice, who has studied memorials in Cambodia and elsewhere.

Now, an independent research group in Cambodia hopes to jump-start the country’s process of reconciliation by attracting tourists to the mountains of Anlong Veng, where Pol Pot made his last stand. There are already more than a dozen historical landmarks in the area, including the villa of Ta Mok, an infamous commander known as The Butcher, and the spot where Pol Pot was cremated on a pile of old tires following his death in 1998. Supported by $100,000 in grants, much of it from the U.S. government, the Documentation Center of Cambodia is working to restore the sites and provide visitors with historical context. In July, DC-Cam opened the Anlong Veng Peace Center in a former meeting house for the Khmer Rouge’s top brass. Out front, a display features a comprehensive timeline of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, in English and Khmer. Inside are collections of academic literature about the regime and its victims.

Those involved with the project hope it will help Cambodia confront its violent history. To date, the country’s reconciliation process has been fragmented at best. For the most part, the government has followed a simple principle: Don’t look back. “We must dig a hole and bury the past, and look ahead into the twenty-first century,” Prime Minister Hun Sen once proclaimed. Nearly two-thirds of Cambodians are younger than 30, and parents rarely talk to their children about what they endured during the “Pol Pot time.” Khmer Rouge history was not taught in schools until 2007, and some youth doubt that the slaughter took place at all. “They simply don’t believe that Cambodians could kill other Cambodians,” says Matthew Trew, a Canadian anthropologist who has studied tourism and post-conflict recovery in Cambodia. “I’ve talked to people who you show the bones to, and they say, ‘Oh, these are chicken bones.’”

When the past is acknowledged, the government often uses it to sow fear and resentment, rather than trust and understanding. The Cambodian People’s Party, which has ruled the country in various guises since the early 1980s, has exploited the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities to maintain its grip on power. The party offers a stark message: With us, peace; without us, chaos. The sentiment gains a national audience every May 20a holiday originally called the Day of Anger, but now rechristened as the Day of Remembrancewhen communal visits to the killing fields are broadcast on government-aligned media channels, complete with dramatic reenactments. By politicizing the past, the holiday winds up inflaming old animosities and further alienating former Khmer Rouge fighters. “People in my town, when they hear that a man is former Khmer Rouge, they are afraid of him,” says my translator, Vanna Chea.

DC-Cam hopes to change that. The group is training dozens of tour guides to escort visitors to Anlong Veng’s historical sites, and it hosts “peace tours” for Cambodian students that feature group discussions and written reflections. But its most ambitiousand controversialeffort is one that goes to the heart of reconciliation: It has recruited former Khmer Rouge soldiers to speak with visitors about their experiences.

Youk Chhang, the director of DC-Cam, believes that such face-to-face interactions with Cambodia’s longtime boogeymen will help foster forgiveness and understanding. While he does not advocate excusing Khmer Rouge crimes, he hopes to show that the regime’s former soldiers are human beings, many of whom acted out of fear or ignorance. As with the most effective efforts at reconciliation, the goal is not to provide simple answers, but to ask difficult questions. “Can Khmer Rouge be peaceful?” Chhang asks. “Can Khmer Rouge be integrated? Can Khmer Rouge be part of us?”

Those who meet the former killers often come away with a more complex understanding of their country’s past. Sen Vicheth, a sociology student who has volunteered to run the Peace Center for three months, used to feel nothing but dread toward the ex-militants. Now his view has softened. “They are just normal people,” Vicheth says. “They just got orders. They had no choice.”

Yet it’s clear that Cambodia still has a long way to go before it truly comes to terms with its brutal past. As a sinking sun breaks through the clouds over Anlong Veng, I speak with Nim Nam, an ex-militant who took up arms with the Khmer Rouge in 1986, at the age of 20. His motivation, he says, was to join Pol Pot’s call “to fight Vietnam.” Most of his time was spent in the jungle, exchanging fire with government troops. He received little food and no pay, but he remains happy to have taken part in what he views as the defense of his country. Yet the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rougethe mass starvation, torture, and executionsare something he seems unable to acknowledge. As we speak, Nam looks down at the dirt, averting his eyes. On the most important subject of allthe legacy of Pol Pothe offers no opinion. Whether the Khmer Rouge leader was good or bad, Nam says, “I cannot judge.”