The seven Tuol Sleng S-21 prison survivors pictured at a post-Khmer Rouge documentation gathering in 1980. From left: Chum Mey (alive), Ruoy Nea Khong (died 1986/87), Iem Chan (died 2000), Vann Nath (alive), Bou Meng (died 1997/98), Pha Thanchan (died Dec 29, 2001), Ing Pich (died 1996).
Pha Thanchan, one of only seven people to survive S-21, the Khmer Rouge's notorious
genocide prison, died quietly at a Phnom Penh hospital December 29. His death leaves
alive just two victims of S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng.
Thanchan was born May 1, 1936 in Cheung Preah Bath village in Cambodia's northern
Stung Treng province. He was the second of three children.
Thanchan met his wife, Ny Chan Lan on the Lao-Cambodia border. They married in 1963
and the couple lived in Hanoi where they had three children. He returned alone to
Cambodia in 1970 and joined the resistance after Prince Sihanouk's appeal for people
to rise up against Lon Nol's coup.
In 1976 the Khmer Rouge arrested him. He was blindfolded and brought to Phnom Penh,
but until 1979, he had no idea where he had ended up.
"He was taken to Tuol Sleng in 1976," said his wife. "After he came
out of S-21 [in 1980] he came to Hanoi to meet me." Soon after, the couple returned
to Phnom Penh and Thanchan joined the army fighting the Khmer Rouge.
Thanchan spent the next 20 years climbing the military ladder, but it was his survival
in S-21 that proved the more remarkable even to his fellow survivors. Vann Nath,
who spent a year in S-21, said Thanchan suffered worst of all.
"Brother Chan was the most seriously tortured of the seven survivors. My skin
became like goosebumps when he told me what had happened to him," said Nath.
"He was beaten and pushed into the barrel of water.
"When his stomach was full of water they would pull him back out and jump on
him. I do not understand how he could survive."
Thanchan's wife said the Khmer Rouge pulled out his fingernails and toenails, then
used electricity to shock him. They also cut the flesh out of his thigh, down to
It was for his skills as a translator and typist that the Khmer Rouge kept him alive.
Vann Nath said that the Khmer Rouge would use him when they brought in Vietnamese
"He told me the translations were not easy," said Nath. "These were
not normal translations - they had to be precise; no mistakes. He said he spent his
days waiting to be executed, but the Khmer Rouge needed [him]. If he made a mistake
he would be tortured the same as the other prisoners."
Thanchan's son, Chan You Ra, said his father would hide the salt from his meal of
rice in the wall. At night he would apply it to the wound on his leg to try and heal
Ny Chan Lan said that even when the Khmer Rouge tortured him during interrogation,
he would not reveal he had been a soldier. If he had, they would have killed him.
"He did not tell them what he had done in his past - he told them he was a photographer.
The Khmer Rouge suspected he had been a resistance fighter."
Thanchan's capacity for hard work after his release saw him climb the ladder in the
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. His family asked him to slow down.
"We asked him to stop working," said Chan You Ra. "We said: You are
old, you should relax. However, he still kept working. That was his nature."
The last official function he attended, in his capacity as a Lieutenant-General and
advisor to the Ministry of Defense, was a demobilization ceremony in Stung Treng
December 20. On his return to Phnom Penh he fell ill.
"On the 28th he was sent to hospital," said his wife, "but he died
the next day. For several years he needed medicines to treat the leg torture injury."
His doctor said his death was down to five causes: among his illnesses were diabetes,
and a gastric ulcer likely caused by the medicine he was forced to take to treat
the leg wound inflicted inside S-21.
Thanchan was cremated January 2 at Wat Langka in Phnom Penh, days before the 23rd
anniversary of the liberation of S-21. A military honor guard was in attendance as
were many high-ranking RCAF military. Co-Minister for Defense Tea Banh lit the funeral
Cambodians are still waiting for the proposed Khmer Rouge trials, which are under
final discussion between the government and the United Nations. For Thanchan, as
for so many others, said Vann Nath, any trial will now come too late.
"A few months ago I met with Thanchan and we discussed the Khmer Rouge trial,"
said Vann Nath. "Chan said there should be no pardon for what they had done
to him. It should not be tolerated - there should be a trial. We have wanted
a trial since 1981, but no one paid attention. I am still waiting. I believe that
those who have died would feel regret that they have seen no trial," said Nath.
The only other survivor of S-21 still alive, Chum Mey, agreed.
"The trial must be held," he said. "Without a trial the next leader
would follow the same steps. The children of the next generation would be still brutal.
Vann Nath and I want to draw up a document for the next generation to tell what happened."
When Thanchan was interviewed by Lionel Vairon in 1995, he spoke of the confusion
that plagues survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
"Yes, what happened under Pol Pot was 'Communism', but it was of a 'fascist'
kind, and it surpassed fascism. In fascism the Germans never killed their own people,
they only killed foreigners. They killed French and Poles and so on. Pol Pot on the
other hand killed his own people, three million of them. The fascists never did this."