11 March 2002. Thanks to B.


Cambodia skull map dismantled

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) --Skull by human skull, officials have dismantled a key icon of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Buddhist monks chanted and prayed Sunday for the souls of some 300 Khmer Rouge victims whose remains became part of a map of Cambodia made of human skulls and displayed publicly since 1979 as a testament to the regime's brutality.

The map, held together by wire, was taken apart after the Buddhist ceremony and the human remains placed in a wooden case enclosed by glass.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian and foreign visitors to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum had viewed the grisly, 12-square-meter (129 square feet) wall installation of skulls and bones. A Buddhist shrine will be erected at the site.

"It left a strong and powerful impression on me," said tourist Rosalia Comtreras, a 36-year-old dental researcher from Toluca, Mexico, who viewed the map of skulls during the religious ceremony.

"I can't understand why people do this to each other," she said, her voice trailing off as tears ran down her cheeks.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died during the 1975-79 rule of the radical Maoists due to disease, starvation, overwork and execution.

Leader Pol Pot died in 1998 but many of his top lieutenants live freely in Cambodia after reaching defection deals with Prime Minister Hun Sen's government.

Chey Sopheara, director of the museum, said natural decay of the skulls made it clear it was time to dismantle the map.

"We chanted and prayed for their souls to rest in a peaceful world," Chey Sopheara said.

"By removing the skulls, we want to end the fear visitors have while visiting the museum."

Debate over appropriateness
The museum is located at a Phnom Penh high school the Khmer Rouge used as its chief prison and torture center, known as S-21, or security office 21. The grim site was preserved by the conquering Vietnamese army that deposed the Khmer Rouge and occupied Cambodia for 10 years until 1989.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has been gathering evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities for eight years, said he supported the removal of the skull map, which he viewed as sensational "propaganda."

"Propaganda doesn't serve the truth," Youk Chhang said at Tuol Sleng. "Cambodians and foreigners should be educated about the tragic past but publicity like this is not necessary. Scientific explanation does more to help people understand."

The empty place on the wall will be replaced by a large, color map of Cambodia, identifying many of the mass graves and prisons that were used by the Khmer Rouge. A large photographic reproduction of the skull map will also be displayed.

The removal of the icon of atrocities follows years of sporadic debate inside Cambodia over the appropriateness of public display of remains of Khmer Rouge victims found at 'killing fields' memorials around the country.

King Norodom Sihanouk has said the remains should be cremated in Buddhist tradition. Hun Sen has countered that memories of Khmer Rouge evils must be preserved to remind future generations about Pol Pot's evils.