VOICES FROM S21
Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison By David Chandler
Reviewed by Tom Fawthrop, Published by Silkworm Books, Thailand, and UC Berkeley
Press, USA. Available at Monument Books
N January 1979, two Vietnamese photographers, smelling the stench of blood and recent
death, followed their nostrils to a former primary school now known to the world
as Tuol Sleng, but then known exclusively to the Khmer Rouge leadership as the top
What the photographers saw there shocked and stunned them. They stumbled upon the
decomposing bodies of about 50 recently executed prisoners of S21-executed just as
Phnom Penh was about to be liberated from the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
Chandler's book is a guide to the macabre workings of S21-Tuol Sleng, the national
headquarters of Pol Pot's Santebal (secret police)and their interrogation, torture
and extermination centre.
More than 14,000 prisoners entered S21 to be photographed, meticulously documented,
interrogated and executed. Chandler acknowledges that in reality Tuol Sleng was never
really a prison, because almost nobody came out alive. Like Auschwitz, where the
Nazis exterminated Jews, S21 is correctly described as a death camp.
Given the general failure of the regime of Democratic Kampuchea in all other fields-
low factory output, poor rice harvests, hopeless dam projects, no health system and
little else that worked, by contrast S21 was a showcase of efficiency and success,
with an extraordinary productivity in one particular department - manufacturing confessions.
Tuol Sleng's director, Duch -real name Kang Kech Ieu - was a model of efficiency
in keeping the confessions flowing to the party leaders: confessions that served
the function of confirming Pol Pot's paranoia that all economic setbacks could be
blamed on enemies and treacherous moles sabotaging the glorious revolution.
The confessions varied from a few pages, to several hundred pages in the case of
important cadres deemed to be prime enemies of the state and traitors to the Pol
The secrets of S21 were known only to a few top leaders, identified by Chandler as
Pol Pot, Nuon Chea (Brother No 2), Son Sen (Defence Minister and in charge of Security),
and Ta Mok - as the ones most directly involved with running Tuol Sleng.
Chandler admits giving up on his original aim of using the treasure trove of S21
documents and archives (these were made available to Steve Heder, Ben Kiernan and
other Cambodian scholars thanks to the Heng Samrin government's new Ministry of Information
and Culture) to write a history of the Khmer Rouge regime, because most confessions
could not be corroborated.
The problem with confessions extracted by a wide variety of gruesome torture techniques
is that fact, fiction and fantasy become hopelessly blurred . With interrogation
based on Kafka-esque principles that "if you have been brought here to S21 you
are clearly guilty - now give us a full account of your treasonous activities; do
not hide anything from us" the truth is irrelevant , unless it coincided with
what Duch's interrogation team wanted to hear.
Sorting out the real opponents of Democratic Kampuchea and the serious resistance
from the fabricated confessions designed to paint a complex web of improbable CIA/
Free Khmer and Vietnamese intelligence plots coexisting and cooperating against the
DK regime, cannot be done solely on the basis of S21's archives.
Hence Chandler the historian delves into new and unfamiliar territory as he tries
to uncover the character of S21, the sociology and psychology of Tuol Sleng, how
it functioned, and how to explain one of the worst hell-holes on earth since the
Is S21 based on foreign models? While the Heng Samrin government and their Vietnamese
mentors were understandably eager to draw parallels with Nazi death camps, that only
explains the mass executions, not the voluminous confessions.
The confessions of counterrevolutionaries was a principal characteristic of mass
purges and show trials in the Soviet Union, after Stalin's rise to power.
The Chinese Cultural Revolution also exhibited a fervour for confessions, and exercised
considerable fascination for the Khmer Rouge leadership. During a visit to Beijing,
Pot Pot once chided their only ally for being too moderate during the Cultural Revolution,
and vowed that the Cambodian revolution would be a hundred times better.
In China, victims had a chance to be rehabilitated; the Khmer Rouge dispensed with
Chandler concludes that Tuol Sleng was an amalgam - a slice of Nazism, part Stalinist
and a dose of Maoism, but also uniquely a Cambodian chamber of horrors - a chop suey
of all that's worst in human history.
And how to explain the source of such evil? Chandler's answer is less than convincing:
"we need look no further than ourselves" as he cites a range of sources
from the German holocaust to the "Dirty War" in Argentina to support his
notion that ordinary people can become transformed into evil killers in the context
of a hierarchy of respect and obedience. So are all ordinary Khmers in some strange
way complicit in and responsible for Pol Pot's nightmarish rule?
The book's strength is that it makes perverse sense of the system of torture and
confessions; it is much weaker in trying to fathom the Khmer Rouge's demented pysche,
and the motive forces that drove them into such a frenzy of killing.
Beyond his impressive analytical grasp of S21's killing machine, there are important
gaps in the book, with only a few brief pages devoted to the post-79 history of S21
as a genocide museum, and as part of the 1979-1991 Cambodian conflict - history too
recent for Cambodian scholars, who are often more comfortable writing about the ancient
kings of Angkor?
Western governments, who publicly profess a great concern for human rights, had few
moral qualms about their staunch support at the UN in 1979 for the very people who
ran the Toul Sleng torture chambers, - instead of siding with the victims and survivors
From 1979 till 1982 the US, Britain and West Germany led the Western bloc of nations
to accept the credentials of the Pol Pot regime at the United Nations, cynically
embracing "the regime of Democratic Kampuchea as the legitimate representative
of the Cambodian people" and thereby endorsing the killers of S21, one of Pol
Pot's most important political institutions.
In 1979 the Heng Samrin government, backed by Vietnam, set up the genocide museum
at Tuol Sleng with the stated purpose according to the official brochure from the
Ministry of Information "that it will serve as a historical lesson so as to
prevent this genocidal regime from happening again".
While countless thousands of Cambodians openly wept when confronted by the Tuol Sleng's
vivid documentation - many recognising relatives who had been incarcerated - Western
governments belittled and ignored the Cambodian trauma and its memorials, its mass
graves and its preservation of S21.
The global recognition for the victims of Adolf Hitler and the genocide shrine at
Auschwitz, and an international consensus of "Never Again" in 1945, was
not bestowed on post-Pol Pot Cambodia.
The Phnom Penh genocide museum was not something that US, British and French embassies
were keen to talk about in the 1980s as they focussed their attention on promoting
a Contra-style war from the Thai border based around the Khmer Rouge forces in the
CGDK (coalition between KR and non-communist armies based along the Thai border)
waging war against Phnom Penh.
In the propaganda war of the 1980s, the museum was denigrated by Washington, by the
Khmer Rouge and by their Sihanoukist and KPNLF allies as a "tool of Hanoi propaganda"
in a psy-war effort to challenge the authenticity of the exhibits.
The UN stood by in shameful silence with Washington and Asean calling all the shots.
The UN Commission of Human Rights in Geneva failed to send a single human rights
investigator to Phnom Penh during the 1980s. It was only in 1997 that a resolution
before the UN General Assembly finally brought belated recognition that a genocide
had taken place in Cambodia - fully 18 years after the proof had been revealed to
It is true that a Vietnamese museums expert, Mai Lam, played a major part in training
Cambodian survivors in how to set up and run Tuol Sleng as a historical museum. And
some Cambodians are infected with a visceral suspicion and implacable hostility towards
all things Vietnamese.
Even today some Sam Rainsy party leaders and other oppositionists dismiss Tuol Sleng
S21 as a "CPP museum" that has nothing to do with them, as if documenting
genocide is a partisan political activity.
But the work of the Cambodian Documentation Centre, and Chandler's book, help to
validate the importance of S21's legacy as a genocide museum and its precious archives
- a legacy that should transcend political propaganda and divisions.
The long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal under the gaze of an international media scrutiny
will, hopefully, at last bring to Tuol Sleng recognition both inside and outside
the country that the S21 museum is the heritage of the nation, and one of the world's
important genocide sites.