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Cambodia: Human Skull Exhibition Opens - 2004-02-26


A photo exhibition of human skulls has begun in Phnom Penh, to illustrate the brutality of the old Khmer Rouge government. The exhibit was toned down after the country's king protested plans to show the actual skulls, but organizers say it still displays the trauma of the 1970's regime.

The organizers originally planned to display the skulls of 10 victims of the Khmer Rouge, along with descriptions of their executioners' methods. But King Norodom Sihanouk protested the exhibition at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The monarch, currently in Beijing for medical treatment, posted a letter on his Web site Monday that lamented the way bones of Khmer Rouge victims have been left out and exposed around the country. He wrote that those killed by the regime from 1975 to 1979 have been mistreated, "never to have peace and serenity." He said their remains should be cremated in nationwide religious ceremonies.

Over the years, skulls and bones dug up from thousands of mass graves from the Khmer Rouge period have been displayed at former killing field sites and pagodas around Cambodia. Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Center, which organized the latest display. "We honor the King's wishes, so we transformed them into photographs, which contain the same information, the same image," he says. "In fact the photographs are much clearer because you're closer up. So while we honor the King's wishes we also believe that this is too important to missed: To educate the public."

Beneath the photos are the forensic details of the deaths, which Mr. Chhang says speak even louder than survivors of the regime. "When you see the scar [where] the machete cut human flesh into two pieces and it's still there, it's frightening. And clearly it's there, I mean it's the facts that human language cannot describe," he says. "When you see it you know, you can understand the brutality that the Khmer Rouge has inflicted on us in the past 24 years."

Nearly two million Cambodians were executed or died from torture, overwork, starvation and disease under the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian government and the United Nations are establishing a genocide tribunal to bring the regime's surviving leaders to justice.

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