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Phnom Penh Now

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Photo: Bobby Fisher

Now that people have television, however, and DVD’s, and karaoke, it is a lot harder to hold on to tradition. To make a living, dancers have to perform in hotels for the tourists, or at official functions for rich politicians, where they are little more than exotic ornaments, part of the opulent décor, like the faux-classical roofs on the flashy postmodern skyscrapers. On some occasions they are not even required to dance, just to pose with trays of party favors. "The problem," John said, "is no longer how to recover from the past, but how to recover from the present."

It is an all-too-common story, of course. The same thing has happened in many parts of the world. Traditional culture is for the poor, who know nothing else, or for the cultivated rich, but it is not to the taste of the newly prosperous. That even those working in textile factories or selling souvenirs to tourists can afford a pirated DVD with the latest movie starring Brad Pitt is progress of a kind. It would be patronizing to deplore such access to the wider world. But I am filled with great admiration for Sophiline and her dancers, struggling against the odds.

I asked our driver, a rather dour man named Vessna, what he thought of the classical dancers. He was born in a village but had moved to the city with his wife, who worked in one of the textile factories along the road to the international airport. He liked the dances well enough, he said, but he preferred more modern entertainments, such as television and MTV. Vessna was a man of few words. He had learned English in the 1990’s in order to drive UN personnel around town. When he did speak, he came to the point quickly.

We drove to Tuol Sleng, the former torture prison, now a museum. Vessna had been there countless times but never wanted to go inside. It is located in a posh neighborhood, in what had once been a good high school. Outside the prison, still fortified with barbed wire fences, are several guesthouses and cafés with that Lonely Planet vibe: Eric Clapton songs, fresh fruit juices, silks in time-honored designs. I saw expensive-looking houses behind gold-painted gates. "Government officials," Vessna said. Then, after a short pause: "Many were in the Khmer Rouge before."

The architecture of Tuol Sleng is sober but not unpleasant, an example of the Modernist optimism of the 1960’s: four three-story white concrete buildings with balconies, set around a spacious garden with palm trees, plants, and an exercise bar. The old schoolrooms are bare, with brown-and-white checkered floors. Some of the rooms on the third floor were divided into tiny brick cells, not high enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down in. Inside the bare schoolrooms are steel bed frames, rusted around the edges, and enough bolts for shackling several people at a time by their feet. Various instruments of torture are exhibited in these cells: pliers, whips, manacles, hammers, water tanks. On the walls are photographs of corpses, some barely recognizable as human. There are also paintings by the Cambodian artist Vann Nath, showing scenes of torture and killings. These were painted from memory. After being tortured to the brink of death, he was put to work on portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader. His artistic skills were the only reason he survived.

Despite all the photos and grisly exhibits, the mind is unable to conceive what it must have been like to have been a prisoner in Tuol Sleng, being forced to make detailed confessions that corresponded with the paranoid visions of the jailers before being killed. The most haunting images are not the torture pictures, but those of the victims’ faces, like passport photographs from hell. Most of the people put before the camera, and subsequently killed, had themselves been in the Khmer Rouge and fallen victim to one of the periodic purges. Many were young, a few of them children, like the vicious guards who were barely 15. Most look numb with terror. Some Khmer Rouge peasant cadres, who had been suddenly accused of spying for the CIA, just look bewildered. And others smile, perhaps to ingratiate themselves, to buy time, or perhaps as a vestigial reflex, smiling for the camera.

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