An American band has sparked outrage for naming themselves after a Cambodian genocide concentration camp, where the Khmer Rouge murdered thousands of Cambodians in the mid-1970s.
The band faced backlash when internet sleuths discovered them while searching for Tuol Sleng after a controversial VICE article featuring manipulated photographs of the victims made headlines last week, according to AsianFeed.
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The band also used a painting made by the late Cambodian painter and peace activist Vann Nath as part of its promotion.
The painting, which is said to be in the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, depicts a man shooting an infant mid-air in what is known as the Killing Fields, according to Khmer Times.
AsianFeed claims to have received reports that say the museum denied giving the band permission to use the artwork for their album cover and merchandise.
NextShark reached out to Dr. Raksmey Arun Roeum, a Cambodian American public health educator who said her parents are survivors of the genocide.
“The wounds of this atrocity have yet to be healed,” she said. “The Cambodian communities, worldwide, are still in the mental, physical, and emotional state of recovery. Those who survived the genocide are still very scarred and traumatized from it.”
Dr. Roeum, whose life work stems from her early experiences as a refugee, added that “more than 99% of Cambodians have lost someone during the genocide.”
“S-21 was the location where many innocent men, women, teenagers, kids, and even babies were captured, imprisoned and tortured. The name is the location that is connected to the painful past immersed in blood and tears. It symbolizes horrific and atrocious acts inflicted upon the prisoners and it should not be utilized, advertised or glorified for entertainment.”
Bonnie Tang, a Cambodian American Director of Special Projects for a New York City Council Campaign, told NextShark, “It’s disgusting and insensitive that others want to ‘humanize’ and exploit our traumas. It’s Cambodian New Year and my people are dealing with this triggering bullsh*t!
“History keeps repeating itself—our narratives, our communities, and our people continue to be ignored. When will our voices finally be heard?” she went on to say. “When will the collective history of Asian Americans finally be included in our textbooks?”
Tang lost six of her uncles in the genocide that resulted in the deaths of around 2 million people.
Despite the backlash, the band refused to change its name.
One of the members posted a deleted video, telling those who were offended to “go f**k yourself.”
“This morning, I awoke to a s**t storm of angry Cambodian Americans, who decided that the name, logo and album art of Tuol Sleng was offensive and needs to be removed from the face of the earth,” the member said in a TikTok video, Khmer Times reported. “They demanded that we issue an apology as well as change our name. On behalf of the other members of Tuol Sleng, as well as myself, I present the following retort: go f**k yourself.”
The band also posted a photoshopped picture that showed members standing next to the former Cambodian prime minister who led the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot.
Though Instagram took down their original account, the band appears to have started a new one under @tuolsleng.death. In a recent Story, the band said that the websites Bandcamp and Bigcartel also took down the listing for their album.
One of their posts features the AsianFeed report along with their response in the caption. “Shoutout to ‘Asianfeed’ for attempting to run a smear campaign against the band and our members,” it reads in part.
The band consists of members Alex Vargo, Bill Cunniff, Nick Tinelli and Andrew “Big Otis” Jenkins.
Jenkins, the band’s vocalist, said in a reuploaded video that the situation has gone “way too far,” adding they were just making music and not making fun of anybody.
He went on to defend the band, saying the members are not racist.
“We ain’t changing sh**, we’re doing this for us,” he concluded.
In their most recent update, Cunniff explained that the reason for choosing the name “Tuol Sleng” was “not because we envy or honor the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge” but to acknowledge what happened as “a [sic] intensely horrific event, and seek to portray it as such. … We do not endorse rape or genocide or any of that; we write about awful and disturbing things solely because they are awful and disturbing.”
As for Vann Nath’s artwork, the band said they decided to remove it from their merchandise.
“We are no longer selling products with this art, and any rerelease of the ‘Culling the Seed’ EP will feature different art,” the drummer of the band said. “Vann Nath’s story is incredible, and I’d like to think that our use of his work introduced many unfamiliar with the genocide to the horrors that took place at Tuol Sleng.”
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Cunniff also apologized for telling people to “go f**k yourself” in response to the outrage.
“As far as telling those offended to go f**k themselves, I will own up to it and acknowledge that my doing so was juvenile,” he said. “The ignorance of my action was made clear to me by members of the Cambodian community; I do not expect your forgiveness but I will apologize.”
“Cambodia is a unique country with a troubled past, but with a rich culture that I would encourage anyone to study and admire,” he concluded.
Many of the commenters expressed their support for the band.
NextShark reached out to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for further comment and will update this story accordingly.
Feature Image via Getty