Every morning when Touch Sreng opens the door to his small shop in Tlork village, the first thing he sees is an old stupa. The stone stupa’s roof leaks and its walls are cracked and inside are a thousand human skulls, victims of a little-known Khmer Rouge prison.
The prison was called Wat Tlork, after the pagoda here in Svay Chhrum district, about 13 kilometers from the provincial capital of Svay Rieng province. At its height, it held thousands of prisoners, nearly as many as the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, which is now a museum.
Touch Sreng, who is 48, said he wants this stupa to become a marker of remembrance too, similar to Tuol Sleng or the stupa at its sister site, in the Choeung Ek “killing fields” outside the capital.
“If the stupa can look like the Chheong Ek memorial, with transparent glass, the people and passengers would like to see it, thus making them remember the Khmer Rouge genocide,” he said. “But so far some people do not even know what this stupa is. Some say it is just a family stupa, though it is in fact the stupa of our community.”
The stupa occupies perhaps 2 square meters and on it hangs a broken wooden door. The roots of a nearby Bodhi tree have begun to uproot it.
Rath Nan, a 48-year-old farmer living next to the stupa, said she has a growing concern over the aging structure and she fears its skulls may be decaying and could be lost.
“I want the stupa turned into a museum, with a larger size and better appearance than it is now,” the mother of four said. “I want it with glass so that people in the village and from afar can clearly see the skulls.”
The prison was the largest in Svay Rieng province, and it was surrounded by 41 mass graves. Villagers call it “the Tuol Sleng of Svay Rieng,” after 932 skulls were found here in 1982. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people were killed here and buried and the site is under the jurisdiction of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
On specially occasions like Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year, people in this village and others come to pray for the deceased. Travelling visitors also often stop by to photograph the stupa and chat with villagers to learn what happened here under the Khmer Rouge.
Srey Saphon, chief of Tlork commune, said local government has a plan to turn the stupa into a museum and hopes to add a library to keep Khmer Rouge-related documents.
“We will build a moderate museum and a library to keep documents, like photos we can collect from the Khmer Rouge time,” he said. There is no timeframe for the conversion so far, he said, and he was looking for funding for the work.
Sok Samin, chief of Tlork village, said after a recent village meeting the majority of more than 800 families here had suggested the stupa be converted into a museum.
“Most villagers want the memorial bigger and better,” he said, “for the next generation to be aware that the Pol Pol regime killed people, undertook the mass killings with no tolerance.”