Travelling exhibition about S-21 resumes mission after hiatus

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The Three-Colour Building mobile exhibition about S-21 at Westline International School in Tuol Kork district in 2017. SUPPLIED

In a bid to raise awareness about the history of S-21 and the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, back in 2014 the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum set up a mobile exhibition called Three-Colour Building that has travelled to public and private schools in the capital, provincial towns and rural parts of the provinces on its mission to educate schoolchildren.

The exhibition has been deemed a great success by its organisers at the museum, having travelled all over Cambodia for much of the past eight years, allowing thousands of students to view it and learn about this important part of their country’s history.

Unfortunately, however, it was cancelled for the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, however, it has made its return in 2022 and resumed its mission of educating schoolchildren all over the Kingdom.

“In 2022, the museum has cooperated with Kdei Karuna Organisation with funding from UNOPS to bring the exhibition to schools in five target provinces, including Hun Sen Chanthnal High School in Kampong Speu Province, Kampong Chhnang High School in Kampong Chhnang, Samdech Chuon Nath High School in Kampong Cham, Net Yang High School in Battambang and Preah Norodom Sihamoni High School in Kampot Province,” said Ny Samnang, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum’s director of exhibitions.

“Three-colour building” refers to the site of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former Preah Ponhea Yat High School campus, which was built in 1962 and renamed Tuol Svay Prey High School in 1970.

From 1975-1979, the former school was the Khmer Rouge’s Security Prison 21 or S-21, which served as a detention, interrogation, torture and execution site for those the regime labelled as traitors or enemies.

At least 18,133 people are known to have been imprisoned and tortured there and then executed, first at S-21 itself and then later – because they had run out of room to bury anymore bodies there – at a site 15km outside of the city called Boeung Choeung Ek.

The museum is a valuable resource for educators tasked with the often difficult and sensitive job of teaching Cambodian children about the tragic history of their country, but not every teacher is able to bring their students to the capital to visit it.

Thus, the mobile exhibition Three-Colour Building was created to bring that educational experience on the road so that students all over Cambodia could benefit from it.

Nhen Sokleap a teacher of history at Samdach Choun Nath High School in Kampong Cham province organised a visit by the mobile exhibition to her school when he found out it was making its return this year.

“This exhibition is very important for the younger generation because it gives them a better understanding of Khmer history and what happened at S-21 during the Khmer Rouge regime. It is a powerful way of teaching that history,” she said.

After attending the Three-Colour Building exhibition, Lim Seang Leng, a 12th grade student at Samdech Chuon Nath High School at that time, said she appreciated the need for her generation to learn these lessons.

“Keeping alive the memory of the history of the Khmer Rouge through exhibitions is very important because it can help people my age to better understand this history by seeing the realities of what happened in places like S-21 and this is a factor that motivates us to all work together to prevent any future recurrence of these horrible events,” she said.

Lon Tha, a teacher of Khmer history at Russey Keo High School in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district, was also appreciative of the exhibition and supported it as a valuable and insightful experience for her students.

“I think that it is very important to continue educating the younger generations to explore their country’s history in detail and to understand what happened to their grandparents or older relatives, and educational exhibitions like this should be organised more often,” he said.

During the exhibition, students are educated about the history of the Khmer Rouge, the atrocities committed at Security Prison 21 and other similar sites elsewhere and the role of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today in documenting what took place.

From 2014, when it was first exhibited in Battambang’s Samrong Knong Secondary School and Phnom Sampov Pagoda – in collaboration with the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum of Japan – through 2018, the mobile exhibition was constantly on display at high schools in the capital and the provinces, educating thousands of students each year.

“In 2019, we paused the mobile exhibition because the team was busy organising a non-permanent exhibition for the 40th anniversary of the museum’s opening and in 2020 and 2021, the project was not implemented due to the Covid-19 crisis,” said Samnang, adding that his team was excited to have the mobile exhibition back on the road and visiting schools again this year.