Exhibit remembers ’70s Cambodian genocide

Three years, eight months, 20 days, resulting in over 2 million deaths and one of the worst human rights abuses in history.

The tragedy of the 1970’s Cambodian genocide is remembered through the Cambodian Association of Illinois’ (CAI) new exhibit “Remembering the Killing Fields,” which opened Sept. 15 at the Cambodian American Heritage Museum.

The production took five-years to complete and compiles survivors’ stories with investigative photos and the rusty tools of oppressed workers under the Khmer Rogue regime.

The exhibit not only encourages dialogue with Chicago’s estimated Cambodian population of 3,000, but also seeks a connection with its audience through unique oral histories.

Kaoru Watanabe, the museum’s librarian, said that the CAI interviewed more than 40 survivors, and developed the exhibit around their stories.

“Instead of telling the story in chronological order, which is a difficult thing to do, we decided to form the core around four themes that we hear again and again,” Watanabe said.

The exhibit walks patrons through four major themes of the genocide: Clearing the Cities, Destroying Society, Constant Fear, and the Killing Fields.

Each theme showcases a story about the Khmer Rogue government’s brutal treatment of its workers, their efforts to eradicate aspects of basic society, and the starvation or execution of forced laborers.

One quote tells the story of a woman who refuses to work for the Khmer Rogue after both of her children die in one day, and another said that the workers’ managers did not care if people lived or died.

Sen Chey, a survivor of the genocide and now a Citizenship Coordinator and Senior Homecare Director for CAI, said that the Khmer Rogue’s plan was to produce 1.4 tons of rice per acre. To meet this goal, the Khmer Rogue forced nearly everyone to work in rice fields.

“Many new people lacked any experience in manual labor and became ill and died,” Chey said. “Those new people who survived but were not well enough to work would often vanish. After being taken away to a distant field or forest, they would be forced to dig their own grave and be killed.”

Under Khmer Rogue rule, families were separated, and children were “brainwashed” to only trust the government.

“The brainwash technique was so successful that children would spy on their parents or report on their families during [Cambodian Prime Minister] Lon Nol’s regime,” Chey said. “Children received expanded privileges as their parents were taken away to die.”

Northern Illinois University anthropology professor Judy Ledgerwood, who directed the exhibit, said it has two main goals: to archive aging survivors’ personal stories, and inform Americans about what happened during the genocide.

“Every time you talk to a survivor, you learn new things,” Ledgerwood said, “Every survivor’s story varies.”

NIU funded the exhibit with grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, which awards grants for Asian-American studies and other topics. The Henry Luce Foundation donated $75,000 to the exhibit.

The museum also features a memorial to victims of the genocide: A “Wall of Remembrance” displaying 80 panels of glass, each of which represent 25,000 deaths. An inscription on the memorial advises others to continue their journey with “compassion, understanding, and wisdom.”

Watanabe does not want to dictate how people feel about the exhibit, but rather, hopes that museum patrons find a story that resonates with them.

“The Cambodian genocide is not really known to the public, and should be known to the public,” Watanabe said. “If we can provide opportunities for the general public to learn and take something with them to act on or think about, that would be great.”

The Cambodian American Heritage Museum and the “Remembering the Killing Fields” exhibit can be found at 2831 W. Lawrence Ave. in Chicago. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is available for weekend appointments.