Last week our prime minister Justin Trudeau and foreign affairs minister Melanie Joly attended meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Phen Cambodia.
I saw a photo online of them visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which is housed in a former secondary school that was used as a prison and interrogation centre during the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975-1979. It was one of the nearly two hundred torture and execution centres operating in Cambodia at the time.
I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as well on one of my trips to Cambodia. Up to a thousand people were imprisoned there at a time. They were tortured so they would confess to being enemy agents or they would turn in family members or friends who might be opposed to what Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were trying to do.
In the various rooms, you could see the instruments of torture that were used and photographs and artwork on the wall demonstrated what happened to the prisoners in that room. It was very gruesome.
We toured the small cells where the prisoners were kept. They were photographed, interviewed and stripped of their clothing and possessions.
They were chained to pieces of iron bar and slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets or blankets. They weren’t allowed to talk to each other and were fed only porridge and watery soup.
When the Vietnamese soldiers who freed Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 first went into Tuol Sleng they found corpses still in shackles.
They also found thousands of photographs of the people who had been tortured and died there and rooms full of written records detailing what had happened at Tuol Sleng.
Many children were also imprisoned at Tuol Sleng and their pictures are perhaps the most haunting of the hundreds on display.
During his time in Cambodia Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will be contributing millions of dollars towards helping the people of Cambodia build a better future. While looking to back away from trade deals with China where so many human rights violations are taking place, Canada is looking to invest in countries like Cambodia where the prime minister said “a generational shift” is taking place.
I was privileged to witness some of that generational shift on a visit to a high school in Phnom Penh where the students were being given hope for the future. Their experience was very different from the previous generation that had experienced such horrific things.