Skulls held within the Choeung Ek stupa. Afp
Skulls held within the Choeung Ek stupa. Afp

The ethics of exhumation

To dig or not to dig? Experts are polarised on whether the possibility of making important forensic finds is worth disturbing the bones at Choeung Ek.

Beyond the stupa stacked high with skulls and the simple wire fence that rims one of the Khmer Rouge’s bloodiest killing fields, a number of mass graves lie untouched.

And according to archaeologist Voeun Vuthy, for now they will remain that way, despite his scientific urge to investigate.

Under oath before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal last month, Vuthy, who is also a director within the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said he had identified three to five mass graves he wanted to unearth near Choeung Ek killing field, a request that has been denied by the government.

“My team was not allowed to do the excavation, they rule they cannot allow us to dig any more,” Vuthy later told the Post.

“They said it was because it is not good [to excavate] under the Buddhist religion. [The deceased] are in a good place already and should not be disturbed.”

The revelation that his own ministry would not permit further exhumation was a frustrating blow.

“It’s very hard for my group to research; we need to excavate a pit, we want to show the structure of the filling-in when they were killed,” Vuthy says.

Unveiling this stratigraphy of death might bring to light more answers about the methods of the brutal regime, which reigned from 1975 to 1979, but it would also give Cambodian researchers a chance to take more charge of the forensics of their gruesome past; the exhumations in the 1980s were carried out only with the assistance of Vietnamese forensic specialists, or informally by desperate people looking for clothing in the years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Vuthy’s team of researchers has been analysing the already-unearthed crania of people executed at the hands of the regime.

Those studies yielded results; by examining the trauma imprinted on the bone, Vuthy has been able to determine how they met their ends.

Him Huy, one of those who carried out the killings, has told the Khmer Rouge tribunal and several interviewers since that victims were murdered with a blow to the back of the head and a slice across the throat.

Vuthy’s research, however, has shown that crania bear 1,686 marks that were caused by bullets, and almost 1,000 marks from being pierced with bayonets weapons Huy has never admitted to using.

Exhumations at Choeung Ek have not always been for research purposes: More than 80 of a suspected 130 mass graves in the vicinity were dug up with the mingled motives of memory, education and political expediency.

And the debate surrounding whether to excavate more sees opinion divided along surprising lines.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), said there are some 20,000 such mass graves dotted across the kingdom.

DC-Cam identified several undisturbed graves at different provinces for the tribunal, but Chhang thinks that there is already enough evidence to see those most responsible for crimes against humanity jailed for life.

“There are plenty of memorial sites with piles of victims’ bones to study from. I personally do not want to disturb any graves. I feel like it belongs to one of my sisters who died brutally [at the hands of] the Khmer Rouge. I want her to rest in peace,” he says.

On the other hand, activist Buddhist monk Bun Buntenh has advocated excavation and preservation for study purposes.

“After they concretely study them, then they should dig them up and keep them on display for the public to respect and learn from those unwanted lessons,” he says.

But for historian Henri Locard, who last year testified before the tribunal as an expert witness, the practice of putting skeletal remains on display was inextricably entwined with politics.

Voeun Vuthy under oath at the ECCC last year. Photo supplied
Voeun Vuthy under oath at the ECCC last year. Photo supplied

“As to exhibiting human skulls and other bone remains for the populace and the tourist to gloat on, this has never been done originally for historical purposes. Or even as signs that there was a prison-extermination centre nearby,” he says.

“No, this was just, in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea [PRK] days, a main component of the revisionist image of the Democratic Kampuchea regime.”

It showed, he said, a perversion of communism to the point where it was “genocidal”.

“Just as the world public opinion has been aghast by films showing heaps of bodies found in the Nazi concentration camps after the fall of Nazi Germany, so skulls and bones have been meticulously collected and exposed for all to witness the horrors of ‘Polpotism’.”

Beyond the act of digging itself, a fraught debate exists about what to do with human remains once they are above ground. In a 2010 article titled Buddhist cremation traditions for the dead and the need to preserve forensic evidence in Cambodia, Wynne Cougill tackled the competing claims of study and spirituality.

At first, she writes, the bones were viewed as evidence of crimes and were indeed used to justify the Vietnamese-backed PRK control of the country at a time when the United Nations continued to consider the Khmer Rouge the legitimate government.

And while memorial efforts were generally supported by the government - Hun Sen issued a directive in 2001 ordering authorities to cooperate with preservation - the religious community and the people, it was the late King Norodom Sihanouk who began raising objections and calling for mass cremations of the bones.

“Many Cambodians believe that cremation and other rituals for the dead help ease the deceased’s transition to rebirth,” Cougill writes.

“In the case of especially inauspicious deaths, such as by violence or accident, it is widely believed that the dead person’s spirit or ghost remains in the place where he or she died.”

Cougill goes on to quote a researcher who said “to have uncremated remains on display is considered by some to be a great offence, and tantamount to a second violence being done to the victims”.

King Sihanouk’s views saw the removal of a gauche map of Cambodia crafted from 300 skulls of the dead with rivers rendered in blood-red paint from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Also in line with his wishes, a DC-Cam exhibit of 10 skulls in 2004 was placed in a private room, not on public display, after weighing their social function as a reminder with the King’s wishes, driven by spirituality.

“Although the spirit no longer lives in the bones, people feel the bones should not be sealed so the spirit can access them,” Chhang wrote in a note on the exhibition at the time.

“Ideally, families should cremate the remains of the dead and store the ashes in a stupa to liberate the victims’ souls for reincarnation.”

But as identifying individuals has so far been elusive, Locard sides with the late King, especially when considering the image Cambodia projects in the future.

“I really am of opinion that digging, or examining more remains, will not be of much use, as researchers have already found what weapons were used to slaughter victims. And that some bear traces of torture,” he said.

He added once the tribunal concluded, there should be mass cremations for those bones, which he hoped would mean Cambodia would “stop being identified to these ghastly skulls that stare at us from their empty sockets”.

But for Vuthy, unearthing more remains is not for show; it’s about scientific substance. The denial to excavate further means certain answers may always be buried.

“We are researchers; we are interested in the science we work for our research, not for other reasons. We are only thinking of finding out the real evidence,” Vuthy says.