A project in the remote northwestern district of Anlong Veng – the final Khmer Rouge stronghold – is attempting to foster peace-building and heal the wounds of Cambodia’s brutal past through dialogue and education. Editor Marissa Carruthers speaks to the director of Anlong Veng Peace Centre to find out more. Photography by Enric Catàla.

What is the Anlong Veng project?
Anlong Veng is predominantly home to former Khmer Rouge cadre, as well as 14 historical sites relating to the Khmer Rouge. The most prominent is Ta Mok [Brother Number Five, also known as The Butcher] Museum, Pol Pot’s grave and Ta Mok’s house, which was a Khmer Rouge meeting place that has been converted into our centre [Anlong Veng Peace Centre]. Anlong Veng is a historical place and is a good starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about the Khmer Rouge. It is a place to learn about how Khmer Rouge members lived at that time and how some still believed and followed Khmer Rouge leaders during the war, even though they knew there was a genocide. People need to understand the complex history, and that is what we aim to do.

How did the project start?
In 2001, a sub decree was drafted by the government and it mentioned the need to preserve the remains of those who died during the Khmer Rouge and to preserve Anlong Veng as a historical tourist site. We [the Documentation Centre of Cambodia] were given the task to carry out research and documentation in the area. We set up a small team of less than 10 people and started interviewing former Khmer Rouge members, survivors, as well as Khmer Rouge members in nearby districts, to get the whole sense of what was going on during the war. From then, I worked with more than 10 RUFA architect students to help convert Ta Mok’s house into the Peace Centre. We renovated the house and have developed Pol Pot’s grave by adding information, including time lines about the Khmer Rouge movement and Anlong Veng’s community history. We also have a walking map to the other sites, which are hand drawn by the students.

Why are projects such as this important?
History is important and our main objective is to promote memory, justice and reconciliation. We don’t want to change people’s positions, however, what we do is tell them more about what happened inside the country, from both sides. We try to bring people from different areas to visit the site so each side can narrate their own experience. We give both sides a voice, a chance. To try and understand about the Khmer Rouge history in general, we can talk to anyone in this country because everyone went through it. When we talk about victims only, we only look at one side. When we talk to former Khmer Rouge members, it means we are trying to understand the other side of the coin. Anlong Veng has this uniqueness and enables us to do that. Through dialogue and education, we hope both sides can come to terms with the past and reconcile with each other.

What work is being carried out now?
The students are working on designing another three sites, including where Pol Pot was temporarily held under house arrest and Son Sen’s grave. This month, we will train tour guides for this, and we will produce two generations of tour guides by the end of the year. We will then follow up with training so visitors can hear about the history in a non-biased manner. We are compiling a history book and that combined with talking to people is powerful. History writing is one thing, talking to people is another, when we talk to local people only, it’s going to be really biased because so many cadres still appreciate the rules of Ta Mok at that time. They think he was a good man, he built roads and schools. They don’t look back at the Khmer Rouge regime and how it took control of the whole country so we try to provide balanced information for everyone.

Who is visiting the sites?
The site is more about education, and we bring a lot of students from Cambodia and abroad. The students often engage in a dialogue and bring back information to put into writing that is published in local newspapers or the DC-Cam magazine. We want to try and bridge the divide because this is a very isolated community. Youths who have visited have changed their attitudes towards former Khmer Rouge members by us facilitating discussions. Before, they say they are evil and monsters but when they visit and talk to them, they realise they are human beings too. We have found former Khmer Rouge members feel their experiences are being heard and acknowledged, and this helps psychologically.

What does the future hold?
We are also the eyes and ears of the people there. There are a lot of social injustices taking place and Anlong Veng still faces challenges in terms of deforestation and land grabbing. There are a lot of issues we need to pay attention to there and take proactive measures. We are also looking at the economic development of the area and are developing a masterplan for the district. We’re in the process of working with governors and people in London on this and the first draft will be presented to the Prime Minister soon. Anlong Veng is an important historical and educational hub, and we need to drive this forward. We want to develop the area and attract more visitors. People can easily travel from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng in one day and this would benefit the whole district in general.

To find out more about Anlong Veng Peace Centre, visit dccam.org.