Unfortunately, many genocides occurred during the twentieth century. One of them was the Cambodian Genocide, which took place between 1975 and 1979. Approximately, 2 million people died. In the United States, Chicago is the only place that currently has a memorial to this Genocide (although Long Beach, California is currently working on one). This is interesting, since most Cambodians in the United States actually live in California and Massachusetts, not Chicago.
Chicago’s National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial opened in 2004, but falls under the authority of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, which was founded in 1976. This organization was founded during the Genocide, with the purpose of assisting Cambodian refugees who came to resettle in Chicago. Today, the organization provides healthcare assistance and community programming for the approximately 5,000 Cambodians living in the Chicago area.
The Cambodian Heritage Museum is open to the public whenever the Cambodian Association of Illinois has its regular office hours. However, it does not hurt to call ahead of time. Unlike many museums, your participation is essential during your visit. All visits include a tour, in which your guide describes the Cambodian community and Genocide based on what you already know and want to know. Artifacts do not play a major role in the Museum. Instead, they are used as ways to discuss different aspects of the Genocide.
When I visited the Cambodian Heritage Museum, the associate director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, who is also the main overseer of the Museum, provided me with a personal tour. First, she had me watch a brief video about the Cambodian Genocide, and then we went through the exhibit together. Although she is one of the few staff members at the Cambodian Association of Illinois who is not Cambodian, her passion and love for the community is quite evident. She was a wonderful tour guide, and provided me with a very personal and informative experience. Prior to my visit, I hardly knew anything about the Genocide, so she provided a very helpful overview.
The Cambodian Genocide is linked with the Vietnam War. During that time, Communist forces from Vietnam spread their ideology into neighboring Cambodia. Then, a Communist regime, also known as the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia, and the Genocide soon followed. Many people were murdered outright, especially Cambodia’s intellectuals and artists. By removing the intellectuals of a society, a government removes its strongest resistance. However, that action indirectly caused the deaths of many more people. If a country has murdered all of its doctors, who is going to treat illnesses appropriately? In order to make the country equal, the Khmer Rouge tried to make everyone become farmers, and brought many people from the cities into the rural areas. Many more deaths occurred due to lack of food, the poor conditions of the newly-created labor camps, and the outright murder of dissenters.
At the very back of the Cambodian Heritage Museum is the actual memorial to the Genocide. On it are etched the names of the dead family and friends of Cambodian refugees now living in the United States. During my tour, I was told how, in Cambodia, most memorials to the Genocide are rooms with thousands of human skulls. However, for this Chicago Memorial, the community did not want to recreate the horror of what occurred, but wanted to provide a calming environment to commemorate the tragedy.
Sources and Further Reading
“About.” Cambodian Association of Illinois. https://cambodianassociation.org/about (accessed November 23, 2019).
“Cambodia.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://www.ushmm.org/genocide-prevention/countries/cambodia (accessed November 23, 2019).
“History.” National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial. https://www.cambodianmuseum.org/what-we-do (accessed November 23, 2019).
Kopsa, Andy. “How Cambodia’s Day of Remembrance for Genocide Victims Has Always Been Complicated.” Time. May 20, 2019. https://time.com/5591061/cambodia-remembrance-day-history/ (accessed November 23, 2019).
Rhee, Nissa. “The Cambodian Association of Illinois Celebrates 40 Years by Looking Ahead.” Chicago Reader. May 26, 2016. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/cambodian-association-illinois-khmer-rouge-kompha-seth/Content?oid=22237231 (accessed November 23, 2019).