Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison By David Chandler
Some 1.5 million Cambodian people were killed or died as a result of policies implemented by the Khmer Rouge during its reign of terror between 1975 and 1979. How do you get your mind around something like that? By making analogies with football stadiums filled to capacity? Statistics simply can’t communicate the reality of systematic horror on this scale.
Historian and Cambodian expert David Chandler spent 10 years working on this, his latest book. Read in tandem with the increasing number of eye-witness accounts from survivors of Democratic Kampuchea, this book is an important aid towards an understanding of what really happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
S-21 was the code name for the headquarters of the regime’s internal security police, or santebal , located in what was an ordinary secondary school prior to 1975. Chandler estimates that some 14,000 people, deemed to be enemies of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, were interrogated and tortured there. Prominent prisoners were killed on site; others were eventually dispatched to the Choeung Ek "killing fields" 15 kilometres outside Phnom Penh. A mere seven inmates survived.
Today most tourists to the Cambodian capital include in their itinerary a visit to S-21, which was transformed into the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes by the pro-Vietnamese regime that replaced the CPK. The place is eerie in its very ordinariness. Metal beds on which prisoners were found dead by two Vietnamese photographers who entered the compound in January 1979 lie rusting beneath photographs of the victims taken at the time. Elsewhere in the building are instruments of torture, paintings by survivor Vann Nath, and unnerving mugshots of prisoners and their interrogators – many of whom were only in their early teens.
What most visitors to the museum probably don’t realise is that a large archive was also found abandoned here by the Vietnamese. It contains around 4,000 confessions written by prisoners as well as records of admissions and executions, interrogators’ notes, speeches and other information. Chandler based his book on this archive, plus documents that came to light in 1996 and 1997 and interviews with eye-witnesses conducted by other researchers.
Such a subject demands serious academic treatment, but it also cries out to be written in such a way that ordinary people – people not so very different from those who perpetrated crimes at S-21 – will be compelled to read it. (After all, those who forget history will be condemned to repeat it.). Chandler manages to achieve both, giving us six well-structured chapters in which shocking and mundane details are woven into a scholarly rigorous and fascinating narrative.
In the opening chapter, he charts the discovery of the prison and it’s impeccably kept archives, its transformation into a museum under the guidance of Mai Lam (the same man who created the Museum of American War Crimes in Ho Chi Minh City) and the recovery and preservation of the documents found.
Chapter Two sets the scene for the horror to follow, describing the physical and operational structure of the prison and giving short biographies of senior members of its staff. The warped nature of some of these individuals – particularly Duch, the party cadre who now awaits trial in Phnom Penh – starts to become clearer after a reading of some of the facts Chandler has unearthed from the archives. For instance: "In Duch’s report on the prison in the first three months of 1977, he takes seven lines to deplore the deaths of ducks and chickens at the prison, and only two lines to report fourteen prisoners’ deaths from torture. In the looking-glass world of S-21, ducks were mourned more than people."
The next section examines the way in which the CPK identified its enemies. The "External" enemies were easy enough to finger: the United States, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and allies of all three. Once the easily identifiable "internal" enemies – town dwellers, intellectuals, people prominent in Cambodian society prior to 1975 – had been captured and killed, the party concentrated on eliminating the so-called "hidden enemies burrowing from within". This was the function fulfilled by S-21 and other prisons of its type across the country. By the time the Vietnamese launched their invasion the CPK had purged its own central committee to such an extent that there weren’t enough senior party cadres left alive to organise an effective defence.
The Kafkaesque arrests, interrogations and the confessions themselves form the next area of study. Chandler notes that people were arrested and "then asked to explain why they had been arrested and therefore why they were guilty".
Extracts are given from the written confessions – which ranged from a few to many hundreds of pages in length – as well as from notes made by interrogators, including the following: "After threatening [the prisoner] with a few words, I had him remove his shirt and shackled his arms behind him, to be removed only at meals. [I thus] deprived him of sleep and let mosquitoes bite."
As Chandler remarks: "There is something unsettling about ‘fine writing’ about pain … [but] writers and readers alike are drawn inexorably toward a subject that is ugly, frightening, seductive and ultimately inexpressible."
It is appropriate then, that Chandler tackles the problem raised by writing abut torture, examining its use in Cambodian history, and, more recently, in connection with the periodic purges and show trials held in the Soviet Union and China.
He has trawled through an incredible amount of material to explain not only what happened at S-21 and how it fitted into the overall operations of the Khmer Rouge, but also to make comparisons with other tragedies. In the final chapter, he canvasses eloquent explanations for S-21, drawing on research done into other unspeakable events and massacres.
One criticism of the book must be levelled at its designers. Given their exemplary detail, Chandler’s notes should be an integral part of the text. Yet they are tucked away at the back as endnotes. For example, in a discussion on the microfilming of records, he mentions the existence of several confessions made by a group of Westerners arrested when their boat sailed too close to the Cambodian coast.
Turning to the relevant endnote, readers learn that research by another scholar "has revealed that the four Americans, who had known each other in high school in California, were caught off the Cambodian coast when they were heading from Singapore t Bangkok to pick up cargoes of process marijuana that they planned to deliver to Hawaii. Because they had a high-school classmate working for US intelligence services in Thailand, it is conceivable that they were taking commissioned photographs of the coastline when they were arrested."
An intriguing piece of speculation, but one which may be overlooked by many – even the most energetic reader will tired of flicking back and forth to unearth other such gems.
A word of advice: Save endnotes for turgid academic texts; an enthralling work of history like this should come with same-page footnotes. But this is a minor point and does not detract in any way from the exceptional scholarship which produced this important book.
Chandler explains that he set out to study the S-21 documents "as a means of entering the collective mentality of the Khmer Rouge and also as a way of coming to grips with a frightening, heavily documented institution." He has certainly gone a long way toward achieving both of those goals.