This year marks the 14th anniversary of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum’s archives being acknowledged on the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. The occasion is a poignant reminder of Cambodia’s tragic history and the international recognition of the archives’ crucial significance.

During his July 31 address, museum director Hang Nissay highlighted the wide-ranging materials contained within the archives. He drew attention to the victim “confessions”, biographies, photographs, film negatives, Khmer Rouge diaries, and magazines that form part of this invaluable record. This extensive collection was awarded a place on the UNESCO Memory of the World register on July 31, 2009, in Bridgetown, the capital of the island nation of Barbados in the southeastern Caribbean Sea.

Nissay said that while no major commemoration took place this year, the museum shared a video message on social media to honour this landmark anniversary. The lack of fanfare this year, he explained, was due to the museum staff’s tight schedule.

“We only had a one-anniversary celebration in 2010 with the participation of the management. We plan to hold a large commemoration next year on the 15th anniversary,” he said.

The museum’s inclusion on the UNESCO Memory of the World register has been highly significant, according to Nissay. It confirms the value of the historical record the museum offers and its international recognition as a true account of Cambodia’s past, rather than a fictional portrayal.

“Following the inscription of the archives on the UNESCO Memory of the World list on July 31, 2009, Cambodia has greatly benefitted. The recognition has led to improvements in human resource training and financial resources,” he said.

“It has especially facilitated advanced training in document preservation and digital archiving, allowing us to share experiences with relevant institutions.”

UNESCO too paid tribute to this milestone on its official website.

“We commemorates the 14th anniversary of the inscription of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum Archives on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, an international initiative to safeguard and preserve the documentary heritage of humanity,” it said.

“In 2009, it was recognised as documentary heritage of international significance, for housing the largest evidence of the prison system during the Khmer Rouge regime.”

In collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) Cambodia, an archive of over 700,000 pages from the museum has been preserved. Furthermore, nearly half a million pages have been digitised, greatly enhancing access to this vital documentary heritage.

Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s notorious security prison also known as S-21, is remembered as a brutal interrogation and torture centre during Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea regime from 1975 to early 1979. The school building-turned-prison was the site of horrific atrocities against more than 18,000 inmates and their families, the majority of whom were members of the Khmer Rouge themselves. Victims were systematically tortured and killed either onsite or at the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, S-21 was recognised as a significant piece of evidence for the crimes committed under the regime and was converted into museum, a sombre testament to a significant chapter in Cambodia’s history.

Recognising the historical importance of the documents housed within the museum, UNESCO included the archives in its Memory of the World Register in July 2009. This inclusion is not just an acknowledgment of the past but also a commitment to preserving these documents as tangible evidence of the Kingdom’s tragic past.

The purpose of the inclusion is multi-faceted. It serves to ensure the preservation of these documents for future generations, allowing the public to study and understand the depths of Cambodia’s historical tragedy. It also plays an essential role in education, painting a clear and unflinching picture of the dark past to serve as a warning against the repetition of such atrocities.

Moreover, it carries a hopeful message for the future. By studying the past and understanding its horrors, the younger generation can be encouraged to become messengers of peace. Informed by the evidence contained within the museum’s archives, they can carry the lessons learned into the future and work towards a more peaceful world.