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Dissertation Defense for Julie Michele Fleischman
May 4, 2017 @ 10:00 am - 12:00 pm
REMAINS OF KHMER ROUGE VIOLENCE: THE MATERIALITY OF BONES AS SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE AND AFFECTIVE AGENTS OF MEMORY
Date: Thursday, May 4, 2017
Time: 10:00 – 12:00 a.m.
Location: McDonel Hall, Room C103
Student: Julie Michele Fleischman
Abstract: The Khmer Rouge regime, led by the infamous Pol Pot, governed Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Living conditions were severe, and it is estimated that approximately one quarter of the Cambodian population of nearly eight million died from mistreatment, overwork, malnutrition, and violence. Using a biocultural anthropological approach, this research addressed questions concerning individuals executed by the Khmer Rouge regime and the agency (the effect on living individuals) of the resulting skeletal remains.
An osteological analysis of more than 500 crania was conducted at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Choeung Ek) in Phnom Penh. More than 100 original Khmer Rouge execution lists from the detention and torture facility known as S-21—today known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes—were assessed to gather known demographic data for those who were executed and buried at Choeung Ek between 1977 and 1979. To comprehend the incorporation of human skeletal remains from the Khmer Rouge period into the socio-religious framework of modern Cambodia, 13 memorial stupa containing human remains were visited and the caretakers of these memorials were interviewed.
The 508 crania at Choeung Ek were assessed for demographic characteristics and traumatic injuries. Results indicate that the majority of crania were estimated to be male (82.9%) and nearly all were of Asian ancestry (86%). The majority of the individuals were young adults (68.3%) between the ages of 20 and 35 years old, although juveniles and older adults were represented. Perimortem trauma was present on 311 crania (61%), with 179 (58%) having discernable impact locations. Blunt force injuries (87%) were the most common mechanism of trauma and the basicranium (53%) was the most frequently impacted region. When the mechanism and location of traumatic injuries were evaluated by sex and age-at-death categories, no statistically significant differences were found indicating that all victims with perimortem trauma were subjected to similar execution methods regardless of their age or sex.
At the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes, 97 definitive Khmer Rouge execution lists were evaluated documenting the murders of 6,285 individuals. The majority (82.1%) were male, the minimum age was 11, the maximum age was 77, and the average age was 29.1 years. When these archival demographic data were compared to these osteologial data, however, there were statistically significant differences between the samples.
Observational data from all 13 memorials, and interview data from 10 memorials indicated that the human remains were not formally preserved to prevent decay and there was never a clear indication of how many individuals were represented by the remains with the stupa.
The informant’s responses addressed issues such as the identification of the human remains within the memorial, current religious practices conducted at the memorials often in conjunction with caring for the remains, how the remains are displayed for knowledge and/or teaching purposes—although often with a political undertone—and that the memory of the Khmer Rouge period, as well as that of the victims is crucial for modern Cambodians.
This research embraced a holistic approach to move beyond the confines of traditional osteological laboratory research by addressing the social impact of the remains. While the Khmer Rouge period was devastating, the human remains of the victims have not been forgotten; the remains continue to remind all who visit that immeasurable violence occurred in Cambodia but also that Cambodians are resilient and they will continue to memorialize those they lost.