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A project to digitise the records kept at the most infamous and lethal of the Khmer Rouge’s detention centres, Tuol Sleng, is due to be finalised and made public this September. Indexing and digitising more than 400,000 documents belonging to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the project was performed by Digital Divide Data (DDD) in partnership with UNESCO and The Brechin Group, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the Korean International Cooperation Agency, KOICA.

The horrors of Tuol Sleng were discovered by two Vietnamese photojournalists in January 1979, the day after the fall of Phnom Penh brought an end to the Khmer Rouge’s reign. The Vietnamese army quickly realised how important the prison’s extensive records could be in the propaganda war to win the support of the Cambodian people and international community. They immediately sealed off the site and started to comb those records looking for incriminating evidence against the Khmer Rouge. They also decided that the site should become a museum of genocidal crimes.

The current archive collection of more than 400,000 documents includes 6,000 of the haunting mugshot photographs of those whose silent gazes never really leave those who visit the museum. Other artefacts include typed and handwritten “confessions”, interrogators’ notes, lists of executed prisoners, study notebooks, staff records, records of weekly self-criticism sessions among prison workers, Khmer Rouge periodicals and copies of speeches by Khmer Rouge officials.

From these records, it was possible to determine that 14,000 people had been tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng — including some who had returned to Cambodia well into the Khmer Rouge’s time in power:

The keeping of records of such horrors may seem anomalous, but for the Khmer Rouge it responded to an essential need to justify the regime’s economic and political failures. The regime needed enemies and it needed evidence against them to prove that the failures were their fault. The records — forced, prefabricated, sometimes ludicrous, confessions — were that proof. In the end though, the records became part of the mountain of evidence filed against a handful of Khmer Rouge cadres including Kang Kek Iew, Tuol Sleng’s overseer.

Keeping the Books on Murder

DDD’s work has taken almost two years to complete and included training of museum staff in digitisation techniques, document preservations, database management and indexing skills. It is also projected that the project will lead to the Museum’s participation in two international conferences on Genocide, Memory and Peace in a move to connect with world memorial places.

Digitisation will also help to shed light on some of the stories of those whose murders were orchestrated by proportionately the most lethal regime of the 20th century. Understanding their stories will hopefully help to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again.

Notwithstanding the enormous trove of records left by the Khmer Rouge at centres such as Tuol Sleng, there were 196 similar such centres dotted around Cambodia, we still don’t know exactly how many people were killed or worked to death by the regime. Most estimates settle on around 1.7 million, a quarter of the population at that time.

Democide is a broad term that describes the murder of any person or people by their government. Estimates vary, but according to the man who coined the term, government-sanctioned murder accounted for the deaths of more than 260 million people over the course of the 20th century, six times more than the number killed in battle. Even in the context of such horror, the Khmer Rouge made themselves the most lethal regime the 20th century, perhaps any century, has seen.