This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of prisoners from Auschwitz. Present in many of the narratives and memorial speeches is the refrain “never again,” imploring the world to never allow something so evil to happen again. This refrain carries with it a reminder that forgiveness and forgetting cannot co-exist; to remember this part of history requires one to never forget the horror and injustice even while advocating for forgiveness and reconciliation. (read: What True Forgiveness Means)

The memories of the holocaust therefore serve important purposes in the course of justice and reconciliation, especially when the events and experiences recounted are deemed accurate and authentic by fellow victims and commentators of WWII. This emphasis on authenticity creates a  monopoly on the way the holocaust is remembered, and often in very specific ways, to ensure that the overarching narrative remains ‘accurate’ and truthful to the victims and survivors.

This brings us to the delicate discussion of trauma and its representations. As we have seen in many testimonies and trauma sites established in the wake of massive traumatic events, aesthetics or derivative narrative is often not a priority when one is documenting the atrocities of conflicts and the sufferings of fellow countrymen. The sense of duty to fellow survivors and those who lost so much necessitates straightforward and ‘as it is’ recounts of the trauma. Moreover, many of these testimonies serve to complement ‘fixed’ narratives and together, they help to move tribunals forward in any way possible. After all, the insistence on a specific way to remember such events comes from a need to ensure that the dead are remembered, and that justice will be served. For as some Cambodian-American scholars have insisted,[1] any inaccuracies or deviance from the familiar narrative can prevent meaningful understanding of the horrors committed by the ruthless regime. To these scholars, an inaccurate representation of life during these violent events is no different from fabricated stories that lack “pedagogical value” and this deviance from the consented narrative reveals the storyteller’s “lack of personal moral value” since her/his story disrespects “the experiences of survivors” and “offends the memory of lost loved ones”.[2] In more serious cases, ‘inaccurate’ testimonies can even undermine the process of justice and reconciliation.[3] Considering how these testimonies can undermine the struggles of fellow victims, it makes sense to ensure that narratives of violent occupations, genocides and mass killings remain consistent in their representations of violence of such magnitudes.

Similarly, the memorialisation of nation-wide trauma in museums and sites where grave violence took place is meant to ensure that memories of these events are accurate and preserved. To quote Patrizia Violi,

Trauma sites exist factually as material testimonies of the violence and horror that took place there. The fact that they still exist, more or less as they were, implies a precise choice on the part of the post-conflict societies regarding which traces of the past ought to be preserved and in which ways.[4]

Moreover, the attention to maintaining a ‘discourse of authenticity’ in these trauma sites ensures that a narrative of good vs evil or them vs us is maintained. This desire or even demand to remember a traumatic event in a specific way is understandable, even if it may be problematic in its obfuscation of equally valid accounts that differ from the main narrative. But what happens when governments of post-conflict societies actively fetishise memories of national trauma in order to absolve themselves of the crimes against their people? If the memorialised violence is meant to elicit an empathy that inspires moral responsibility,[5] would a memorialised violence and its narrative work in a post-conflict society in which victims and perpetrators continue to live and work side by side, with many perpetrators remaining in positions of power? Does a fetishised memory of the traumatic event negate the governments’ roles in the perpetuation of violence against their own people decades ago?

In some parts of Southeast Asia, the memorialisation of civil wars and genocides presents a curious case for national trauma and its fetishised remembrance. The establishment of war museums such as Tuol Seng Museum (S21) in Cambodia, Pengkhianatan PKI (Communist Betrayal) Museum in Indonesia, and the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam not only legitimises specific narratives of these events but also enables the visual memories and trauma to be contained within a specific space such that they encourage some sort of reconciliation without undermining the very governments that have enabled the violence in the first place. A common feature in these museums is the presentation of evidence and objects that are not set in context for visitors who are less familiar with these conflicts. In S21,the rows of photographs of victims and display of torture equipment ‘as it is’ enables the past to be “actualized as a continuous, never-ending present” every time one visits the exhibit.[6] Contrasted with displayed drawings of Khmer Rouge cadres engaging in gruesome killings, these photographs actively remind visitors and fellow Cambodians of an obvious (and very much constructed) difference between victims (real people) and killers (painted and deferred in representation). This is made all the more insidious when the ‘victims’ being remembered in S21 were Khmer Rouge cadres and their associates persecuted for treason or the equivalent.[7] This fetishisation of the purported difference between victims and perpetrators encourages survivors to accept that their tormentors are also victims of the regime, and that the experiences of these prisoners are representative or even more symbolic than theirs. 

Likewise, the graphic photographs of victims, the dioramas and the display of war equipment used by the Americans in War Remnant Museum in Vietnam paints the American soldiers as the only perpetrators of war crimes during the American-Vietnam War, all the while maintaining a conspicuous silence on the motivations and actions of the North Vietnamese cadres. And despite the museum’s many name changes from “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes” to “War Remnant Museum” by the government to display objectivity and improve diplomatic relations with the United States, the narrative remains unchanged. Meanwhile, the narrative preserved in Pengkhianatan PKI recounts a a failed coup by the communist party on the night of 30 September, when six generals were kidnapped, tortured and murdered and disposed of in the unused well still memorialised in the museum. Much like the paintings of violence displayed in S21, the dioramas of the supposed degrading tortures and murders of the generals installed in the museum reinforce the narrative that communists are solely responsible for the deaths of the generals and the months of nation-wide mass killings in which more than half a million died. Yet, the narrative told by the dioramas stops with the murder of the generals and omits the bloodshed that comes with the persecution of communists across the country. In reality, the persecution and mass killing of communists and their sympathisers were committed by soldiers and citizens compelled to choose a side during that period. This hunt for those ‘responsible’ for the generals’ murders created an environment in which anyone thought to be communist or to be affliated with communists deserves to be tortured or killed since they are evil and “unclean”—  a label many survivors still carry with them decades after the killings — while those who participated in the killings remain unpunished. The museum, and its dioramas, thus serves not as a trauma site where horrible things were done to innocent people but as a garish reminder that it is where so much violence, mass killings and continual stigmatisation started.

To be fair, many trauma sites and memorials of violent history are curated so as to ensure we never forget the blatant disregard for human lives, and this is no different from the way the evidence and memories are preserved in the museums listed above. However, this monopoly of memories of national traumas and the naming of these trauma sites with words such as “genocide” and “betrayal” enables the fetishisation of violence and rhetoric of fear in everyday living and discourses in these countries. Given these fetishised memories of nation-wide violence often conflate victims of internal strife and purges with victims of the general population, a one-dimensional picture of good vs evil, perpetrators vs victims, and them vs us is reinforced such that there is no mistaking who is the common enemy: forces who defy the nations’ doctrines and have never belonged to the many communities victimised by these evils. As such, markers of the genocide – such as S21 – enable and contain ‘fixed’ narratives of the violence within their boundaries, and by that extent, contain the process of justice and reconciliation without implicating other surviving perpetrators such that that once outside of these museums, these perpetrators are no longer ‘evil’ and can readily reintegrate into the very society they had previously sought to destroy.

The curation of these national traumas in such specific orders and the disregard for war and its complexities is paradoxically an acknowledgement that mass violence happened and a denial that it is anything more than the work of those vilified in the museums and/or tried in criminal or martial courts. We see this being reinforced with the rhetoric employed by various political figures on the anniversaries of these violent events. The calls to never forget often rely on the people’s fear of a return to that dark time rather than on their own desires for meaningful reconciliations. To focus on the violence and sufferings despite repeated calls for reconciliation and forgiveness is counterintuitive but it serves the exact purpose of using pathos (with terms like ‘never forget’ or ‘evil will consume us again’) to reinforce the narratives of what happened so long ago and to absolve those guilty of these crimes against humanity.

With that said, we should heed trauma studies scholars who remind us to recognise that a good testimony provides more than just one-dimensional presentations of victims and perpetrators; a good testimony must also acknowledge the complexities of human behaviours and motivations. Accurate testimonies require truths that not only tell of what happened and how it happened, but also give justice to both victims and perpetrators in their representations. Similarly, accurate narratives of genocides and mass killings should acknowledge the complexities of the people’s motivations and the roles they played in these traumatic events. In this context, there is no doubt that we should acknowledge that the victims memorialised in these museums may not be as innocent as they are portrayed and accept that we have been prejudiced with our remembrance of these violent events and national traumas. The question then is if it is fair to assign any symbolic value to say, the prisoners of S21, or to those depicted in the War Remnant Museum, in order to make them representative of those who lost their lives during the various periods of civil unrest. Are these prisoners ideal symbols of the nation’s collective trauma during the wars? Ought we to preserve what is left of them in the rows of photographs displayed in the museum as if they are innocent victims instead of assigning blame to them? Can we excuse or ignore the crimes of these cadres who were persecuted during the purge? Is it ethical for us to ‘rank’ the victims according to who we think deserves more sympathy and empathy and therefore allow them to become legitimate victims of the violence?

Given this – for the lack of a better word – selfish motivation driving the preservation of the narratives about these mass killings and genocides, an impression that any attempt to remember these events differently automatically invalidates these collective traumas has been created. It is time for us to reflect on our fetishisation of certain memories and narratives of violence and national traumas, especially when we acknowledge the nuanced differences inherent in the remembrance of such violence and trauma.

[1] Sody Lay, “The Cambodian Tragedy: Its Writers and Representations,” Amerasia Journal 27.2 92001): 171-182, DOI: 10.17953/amer.27.2.k3117w408801u10w

[2] Ibid., p181.

[3] While the Cambodian-American scholars are specifically concerned with the representations of life during the Khmer Rouge regime, their concerns with memories, accuracy, and truths are definitely useful to our discussion of fetishised violence in Southeast Asia.

[4] Violi, Patrizia, “Trauma Site Museums and Politics of Memory” in Theory, Culture & Society 2012 (SAGE) . Vol 29.1: 36-75. DOI: 10.1177/0263276411423035 pp37.

[5] Silke Arnold-de Simine. Mediating Memory in the Museum. 2013. pp 36.

[6] Violi, “Trauma Sites”, p55.  

[7] Ibid., “p51.