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Analysis: Surviving the Khmer Rouge

FOLLOWING the odour of decayed flesh on January 10, 1979 – 32 years ago on Monday – the invading Vietnamese soldiers drove towards a barbed wired compound that served as the Khmer Rouge regime’s highest level security center.

At the security centre, code named S-21 (“S” for Santebal, the Khmer word meaning “state security organisation” and “21” for the walky-talky number of former prison chief Nath), prisoners were brought in, often handcuffed, to be photographed, interrogated, tortured and executed.

Most prisoners taken to S-21 were Khmer Rouge cadre, including high level officials such as ministers and their families. They were accused of collaborating with foreign governments, spying for the CIA and the KGB, and hence betraying Angkar.

Prisoners were also believed to be have conspired with others and thus were forced to reveal their “strings of traitors”, which sometimes included more than 100 names.

The interrogators at S-21 based their technique on a list of 10 security regulations which included “while getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all”.

Although prisoners often had no idea why they had been arrested, interrogators forced them to confess their crimes. If they did not confess, they would be subjected to physical and psychological torture. However, after having confessed, they were marked for execution.

Initially, prisoners were killed on the grounds of the prison, but as the volume and stench of the corpses rapidly increased and became unbearable, prisoners were then trucked en mass to an open field 15 kilometres away known as Boeung Choeung Ek, or “Crow’s Feet Pond”, to be killed. That place is now commonly known as the Killing Field.

Waiting at the field was a group of about 10 young men led by Teng. Teng, in his early twenties, and his team of teenagers lived in a two-story house that was built on the field in 1977.

They were informed ahead of time of the number of prisoners that would arrive at Choeung Ek so they could dig the graves in advance. According to former S-21 prison guard Him Huy, it was Teng and his team who executed the prisoners once they arrived.

The Tuol Sleng prison, S-21, located in Phnom Penh, was a microcosm of the terror, paranoia and brutality that took place across the country under the reign of the Communist Party of Kampuchea from April 17, 1975, to January 6, 1979.

The prison was one of 196 prisons that existed, although Khmer Rouge leaders claimed that Democratic Kampuchea had no official prisons. The shocking figures commonly associated with the prison – 14,000 killed and seven survivors – rank the prison as one of the most lethal in the 20th century.

There is, however, not a clear consensus on these figures among experts. Recently, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal offered their own numbers based on its criminal case involving Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the former head of S-21.

The number of prisoners taken to S-21 ranges from the Tribunal’s conservative estimate of at least 12,273 to a scholar’s high estimate of approximately 20,000. The number of survivors has received less scrutiny however, with most Western media generally accepting the figure of seven survivors. This figure of seven has been repeated for more than 30 years now, giving S-21 its notoriously brutal image.

The origin of this number comes from a 1981 film titled Die Angkar (“The Angkar”), produced by Studio H&S of the former East Germany. In this film, the photograph of seven survivors of S-21 was shown.

This photograph has since been featured in notable works including the book A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 (1998) by S-21 survivor Vann Nath, who has served as a primary source of information for experts and scholars.

There is some speculation, however, that seven survivors were intentionally shown to parallel the 7th day of January, the “day of victory” in which Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime.

After several years of research, however, the Documentation Center of Cambodia estimates that at least 179 prisoners were released from 1975-1978 and approximately 23 victims survived after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge regime on January 7, 1979.

The release status of the 179 prisoners (of which 100 were soldiers) is based on numerous Khmer Rouge documents and interviews compiled primarily by Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum senior archivist Nean Yin. Most of the 179 who were released have disappeared and only a few are known to have survived after 1979.

Of the 23 who survived after 1979, more than half have disappeared or have died. Several of the survivors who are alive today have recently made the news: Norng Chanphal for being a witness to Case 001 of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Vann Nath and Chum Mei for being featured in documentary films, and Bou Meng for having a book published about him.

In addition, one survivor of S-21 is now applying for civil party status for Case 002 of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. DOCUMENTATION CENTER OF CAMBODIA
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Dacil Q Keo and Nean Yin work with the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

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