The recent government decision to establish a new prison secretariat, charged with
overhauling Cambodia's penal system, comes at an appropriate time for French scholar
Henri Locard. For over a decade, Locard has studied and visited Cambodia's prisons,
many of which were decrepit colonial relics commandeered by the Khmer Rouge, and
later, the current government.
Some of the hundreds of photos of victims on the walls of S-21 at Tuol Sleng. In his research paper The Khmer Rouge Gulag French scholar Henri Locard argues that the Khmer Rouge used a vast and intricate prison system to execute as many as 500,000 Cambodian detainees.
His historical research has yielded some shocking findings, and some strong opinions,
about the intricate network of the Khmer Rouge prison system and its role in the
Locard has written that sinister torture center S-21 at Tuol Sleng, although it may
have been the most barbaric Khmer Rouge prison, was not the regime's largest jail,
nor the institution where the most Cambodians were killed.
There may have been as many as 150 prisons at least the size of S-21, Locard said
on January 24, and a "reasonable assessment" of deaths caused by the web
of facilities is between 400,000 and 600,000 people. Experts estimate some 20,000
detainees died at S-21 and its attendant killing fields.
"There were prisons everywhere; S-21 was only the apex of the pyramid - the
nerve center of an entire sophisticated network of jails that enmeshed the whole
territory," said Locard, author of Pol Pot's Little Red Book: the Sayings of
Angkar. "A number of [district] or [zone] jails may have been larger and used
as mass execution centers. Possibly 30,000 or 40,000 people may have been put to
death on any single spot during the course of the lethal regime."
Locard said that as many as a third of Cambodia's pagodas were used by the Khmer
Rouge as incarceration centers, and that the entire system served as a tool for execution.
He also claims that most of the prison records from that time were destroyed, systematically
and by neglect, and that the extensive penal network is hardly mentioned in literature
about the Pol Pot regime.
"Contrary to what most people have been led to believe, summary execution was
not the most routine method of Khmer Rouge repression," he said on January 24.
"Rather, it was the arrest and processing of suspects through a secret, but
extensive, prison network."
The prison research undertaken by Locard began in the early 1990s as a result of
his friendship with Moeung Sonn, a Khmer Rouge survivor who spent 18 months incarcerated
in two of the regime's most diabolical facilities. The friendship spawned the French-language
autobiography Prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. Co-authored by Sonn and Locard, the heart-wrenching
story of Sonn and his wife Phally has been published in its first English edition
this week. The book has been described as "essential reading for those who wish
to understand the social system of 'collectives' engineered by the Khmer Rouge."
But for Sonn, the book has been a cathartic revelation of personal tragedy. He was
imprisoned first between 1975 and 1976 and then from 1977 until the fall of the Democratic
"I wrote the book because I want to show the world the tragedy of the Khmer
Rouge," Sonn said on January 25. "The Khmer Rouge genocide gives clues
about the politics behind why Khmers killed fellow Khmers. I want the world to thoroughly
consider the regime and its dictatorial leadership."
Locard and Sonn were both to speak at a public forum "Khmer Rouge History and
Authors: From Stalin to Pol Pot - Towards a Description of the Pol Pot Regime"
held from January 25 to 27 by the Center for Social Development (CSD) and Adhoc.
The forum has gathered leading authors and academics to address formulated questions
about the history of the Khmer Rouge and its social, economic and political dimensions.
"The answers are all in books, but people don't read books," Locard said.
"The only question we really can't answer is 'Who was hiding behind the Angkar?"