At one point, the site in Phnom Penh known as Tuol Sleng was a high school. Then, when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, it was converted into what was politely dubbed a “security prison” — in reality a brutal extermination center where the regime imprisoned and butchered thousands of its “enemies” amid the larger tide of the Cambodian genocide. Today, it is a memorial and museum.
As of this past weekend, however, it is the site of two Pokémon Go gyms. The news has outraged museum staff and survivors of the camp, who have watched tourists and locals alike stumble onto the grounds of Tuol Sleng “just to catch the Pokémon,” as one employee put it to the Cambodia Daily.
“People that I was guiding played it,” Ros Chenda, a tour guide at the museum, told the newspaper. “It is so hard to stop them, because it’s their opinion and they are very emotional. Some people played after crying over the setting.”
Situated on a street corner in the middle of Cambodia’s capital, Tuol Sleng is a popular destination for tourists curious about the genocide that killed as many as 3 million people — an estimated quarter of the Cambodian population — between 1975 and 1979. So extensive was the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of carnage that people were often killed simply for wearing eyeglasses — an apparent marker of intellectualism that supposedly posed a threat to the regime’s vision of agrarian socialism. The museum is uncompromising in its honesty about this. The former cells, built around a central courtyard, contain prisoners’ mug shots and grim markers of the conditions in the camp; others contain the skulls of its victims.
It is unclear how or why Pokémon Go includes the site on its game-play map. The museum’s director, Chhay Visoth, said that he was unaware of it; had he known individuals were catching Pokémon on the grounds, he “would not allow them to come here,” he told the Cambodia Daily.
“They should not come to play here. It is not O.K.,” said Chum Mey, who survived the prison. “This place is very sorrowful and full of suffering.”
The establishment of Pokémon Go venues in potentially tactless locations is not without precedent. Last month, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked its guests to not play the game within the building; New Yorkers were outraged when they saw people looking for Pokémon at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. (Pokémon have since been removed from the site.)