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Anatomy of an interrogation: The torture of Comrade Ya at S-21

Anatomy of an interrogation: The torture of Comrade Ya at S-21

Veteran revolutionary: Early in his career Ya (in box) poses with Khmer Rouge leaders Pol Pot (far right) and Son Sen (with glasses). Rmah Hyuk, an ethnic Jarai cadre from Ratanaki Kiri sits in front of Ya.

Kaing Kek Ieuv, alias "Duch." the former head of the Khmer Rouge's S-21

prison, will appear in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal courtroom this month for the first

time. As an insight into how the prison worked, what follows is a chapter from Sara

Colm and Sorya Sim's book Khmer Rouge Purges in the Mondolkiri Highlands, Region

105, soon to be published by DC-CAM.

The charge that I systematically betrayed the Party makes my entire life's work meaningless.

I feel deep hurt and regret because during the war, I survived the enemy shooting,

while now after liberation, in the time of construction and defense of the country,

with the Party holding authority, I am charged with opposing the Party, which is

clearly a deadly accusation. My death will thus have no meaning. All I can do is

call on the Party to kindly seek justice for me."- S-21 victim Ney Saran alias

Ya, in his first confession, September 24, 1976

In early 1976, splits and mistrust began to increasingly emerge within the leadership

of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), particularly over accusations that "internal

enemies" in the Party were plotting with the Vietnamese to sabotage the Khmer

Rouge revolution, assassinate key leaders, and assimilate Democratic Kampuchea into

a Vietnamese-controlled Indochina Federation.

In September 1976 Northeast Zone Secretary Ney Saran - known by the revolutionary

name Ya - was arrested for allegedly for plotting a coup d'état together with

other "CIA agents" and "Vietnamese sympathizers." He was sent

to S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where he was interrogated and tortured under the direct

supervision of prison chief Kang Kech Ieuv alias Duch.

Ya was the first leading cadre in the Northeast Zone, and one of the first Central

Committee members, to be arrested by the Khmer Rouge as they launched internal purges

of accused saboteurs and traitors.

A Communist Party veteran, Ya had played a pivotal role in building a popular base

of support for the Khmer Rouge among indigenous tribal minorities in Cambodia's northeastern

provinces of Ratanakiri, Mondolkiri, Kratie, and Stung Treng during the 1960s.

At that time the Party Center directly controlled the Northeast Zone, where its dense

forests sheltered the headquarters and covert camps of the top leadership. During

their time in the maquis, Ya and other CPK leaders, including Pol Pot, Son Sen, and

Ieng Sary conducted operations from hidden bases in the Dragon's Tail area of Ratanakiri.

As chief of military logistics for the Khmer Rouge, Ya oversaw the transport of weapons,

ammunition, and supplies from Vietnam and Laos to Cambodia via the Sekong River in

Stung Treng and other parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1971 Ya became secretary

of the Northeast Zone, replacing former zone secretaries Son Sen and Ieng Sary.

The purge of Ya was connected in part to growing tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam

over their 1,200 kilometer border, and failed border talks in the first part of 1976-led

by Ya-with Vietnamese delegations in Ratanakiri and in Phnom Penh.

In February 1976 the party Center had dispatched Ya to Ratanakiri to lead negotiations

with a Vietnamese delegation to iron out border disputes. The border was a major

preoccupation of the CPK leadership, with Pol Pot stating in a March 1976 standing

committee meeting: "Negotiations with Vietnam to resolve the border problem

is our current revolutionary task."

In May 1976 Ya went to Phnom Penh to participate in talks with a Vietnamese delegation

about negotiating a new border treaty. The negotiations, which reportedly became

tense at times, came to an impasse over whether to accept French-drawn maps and boundaries.

At Pol Pot's urging, the talks were broken off by the Cambodian side, although there

are indications that Ya was somewhat reluctant to do so. Ya was later criticized

for being too "soft" on the Vietnamese, allegedly agreeing to cede territory

to them and advising that Division troops pull back from the border. These border

talks were the last face-to-face negotiations between the Democratic Kampuchea regime

and Vietnam before full-scale war broke out between the two countries.

Comrade Ya

Ya (center) and Son Sen (far right) escort a Vietnamese delegation arriving at Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh, in May 1976.

As Northeast Zone chief, Ya was well-liked and had a reputation for fairness. Highlanders

who came in contact with him described him as a tall, fair-complexioned man who was

upright, honest, and kind. He had a good rapport with the highlanders; dressing simply,

speaking some of the tribal languages, and eating with the people. "The ethnic

minorities liked him very much," Ya's Khmer bodyguard said. "He taught

them how to plant paddy rice and not cut trees for chamkar (swidden plots). Places

with no place to make ricefield he let them still cut chamkar. He didn't forbid them

from practicing their religion-it was up to them. But when they got sick there were

doctors, so they didn't have to do their spiritual ceremonies."

Thy, a Lao-Khmer soldier who worked with Ya said, "Ya paid attention to the

ethnic minorities. He trusted the minorities and had more confidence in them. He

said that he could depend on the ethnic minorities like his own back."

The soldier attended study sessions led by Ya at Office N-7 in Srekor, Stung Treng.

"Ya taught us about political work and how to lead the people," he said.

"He explained how we could help the people in the cooperatives, so they wouldn't

fight each other but increase the economy."

Ya was known to bend rules when subordinates committed small mistakes, which elsewhere

might well have resulted in imprisonment or execution. His approach was to use criticism

or re-education as a disciplinary measure, rather than execution.

A Kreung man who worked as a courier (niresa) for Ya recounted how Ya didn't punish

him when several trucks he was sending to the Northeast fell into a river. "If

someone else had been my boss I would have been killed."

Others had a less rosy picture of Ya. An ethnic Lao who worked as administrator at

Office N-7 said of Ya, whom he met in 1973 and 1974: "He was the leader. People

died. Of course he knew what was going on."

Under Ya's tenure a prison system was set up in the Northeast Zone, with security

chiefs dispatched to imprison and execute those who were connected with the former

regimes or who rebelled against the current one. But Ya objected on at least two

occasions to the Khmer Rouge's draconian policies. In meetings of the Central Committee

of the CPK, Ya voiced disagreement with the rapid pace of land collectivization,

the evacuation of the towns, and the policy of execution as opposed to re-education.

In late 1974 Ya sidestepped other Khmer Rouge leaders when he sent a warning to a

subdistrict chief who was about to be swept up in a purge in Ratanakiri under then-Zone

Secretary Um Neng. Ya also differed with the party's views on classes as far back

as 1965, when he argued that Cambodian society was not divided into social strata.


On September 20, 1976, Pol Pot stepped down as prime minister, ostensibly for health

reasons, but also perhaps to throw off guard internal enemies he thought were trying

to assassinate him. That same day, Ya-who had been called down from Kratie to Phnom

Penh-was arrested and sent to S-21.

Ya's long-term Khmer bodyguard, who accompanied him to Phnom Penh, said: "I

don't know why they called him. He told me that if within seven days his study wasn't

over, that I should return to Kratie. He didn't say anything more than that to me-maybe

he didn't realize what was happening."

After the bodyguard returned to Kratie, he received a telegram from Ya. "He

said he could not come back to Kratie because he was moving to work as ambassador

to Hungary. I stayed in the munti [office] with Ya's family. Then a boat came and

took his wife and children away. I wanted to go with them, but the boat driver wouldn't

let me. Two months later I heard the news that Ya had died."

Another of Ya's former niresa, a Kreung, was also stationed in Phnom Penh in September

1976. He had been assigned to Phnom Penh by Ya to work as chief of the Northeast

Zone Commerce Department and was staying with other highlanders at Wat Ounalom:

"When they called Ya to Phnom Penh, he stayed the first day at my place in Phnom

Penh. The next day he went to the police, staying at the palace the next two days.

I talked with him on the phone that day and the next day as well. On the third day

there was no answer from Ya but from Vong [Ya's deputy], who said Ya had work to

do in a far place, a new place."

Ya's First Confession: Denial

Duch, the commandant of S-21 prison, directly supervised the interrogation and torture

of Ya in S-21, reporting each step of the way to Angkar. What he did not report,

however, were Ya's written statements asserting that his confessions had been extracted

after being severely tortured. Those statements remain in Ya's S-21 file to this

day. Ya's confession, which he was forced to re-write several times after being tortured,

together with written responses from Duch and S-21 chief interrogator Pon, comprise

more than 100 pages.

On the evening of September 22, 1976, the Santebal (the Khmer Rouge's internal security

apparatus) met in Phnom Penh and discussed alleged efforts by CPK insiders to destroy

the Party from within, by launching a new party that was supposedly led by Ya, Koy

Thuon, Chhouk and Keo Meas.

The following night, S-21 interrogator Pon told Ya about the meeting, and said that

the Party had instructed the Santebal to temporarily detain Ya. Pon's note about

this first night of interrogation dryly lists the topics about which he had been

instructed to extract information from Ya:

1. Report in writing about activities of betrayal to the Party, [such as] organizing

a new party to serve Vietnam...

2. [Describe] the contents of letters written to Chhouk, and how these letters were


Ya's response that night, according to Pon's note, was: "If [you] force me to

answer, force me with torture, I will unwillingly have to make up random answers."

The next day, September 24, Pon conveyed a message from the Party in response to

Ya. In so doing, Pon rephrased Ya's statement from the night before, changing it

to: "If [you] force me to answer, I will answer carelessly and randomly."

Pon then added, "The Party allows you to answer the questions haphazardly if

you so choose, as long as you hold your conscience responsible."

The same day, Ya responded to the CPK permanent committee in a five-page letter.

He said that he did not mean to speak so "randomly" and "irresponsibly"

and that what he actually meant to say was: "I do not betray the Party; I would

like to frankly answer about the truth to the Party. But if you comrades want me

to say [things] that are different from the truth that I know, if you comrades torture

me, I will answer in line with what you comrades tell me [to say]. But speaking like

this is meaningless and useless."

In his letter, Ya listed charges in addition to those noted by Pon the previous night.

He expressed his shock because "those charges meant that my revolutionary life

ended right there, without meaning." He rejected the charges and stated that

he had always been true to the Party. It hurt him beyond belief, he said, to be accused

of betrayal. He had never formed an alliance with the Vietnamese, he stated, but

only contacted them with the Party's approval and under its guidelines, for example

receiving shipments from the Vietnamese in 1972 or conducting the border talks with

them in March 1976.

Duch's Letter to Ya

On September 24, Duch wrote a four-page letter to Ya in response. Unctuously titled

"To Older Brother, with Anticipation," Duch alternated between praise and

pressure in an effort to persuade Ya to confess. Duch acknowledged that Ya had done

much for the revolution and told him that as one of its most senior cadres, Ya was

someone in whom Angkar had placed the greatest confidence. The information Ya would

provide was unimportant; the point was that after confessing to his misdeeds, the

high-level comrade would be able to continue with the revolution, abandoning materialism

and the "traitorous individuals" who had exerted influence over him. The

Party did not need to make more enemies and would forgive those who respected truthfulness,

Duch cajoled.

In a change of tone Duch then threatened: "Angkar has clear views about those

who are stubborn. The Party needs to increase its friends, and reduce its enemies."

Independence, mastery and self-reliance were core Party principles to be defended,

he stated. As the "highest tower of proletarian truthfulness," the Party

considered Vietnam and Russia as "bones stuck in the throat, which needed to

be removed."

Duch continued the menacing tone. He told Ya that the fate of his case would depend

on two scenarios: either he could report everything to Angkar, including the entire

internal structure of Ya's counter-revolutionary party, or he could report nothing.

The trap - and Ya's dilemma - was that he would have to accept the accusations and

underlying assumption that he had been part of a counter-revolutionary party.

Duch pressed on, rejecting Ya's profession of innocence and claiming to have proof

to the contrary: "Our Party makes absolutely no mistakes," he said. "Angkar

knows who is good and who is bad." Duch added that it was regretful that Ya

had denied his relations with the Vietnamese, as well as with traitors such as Chhouk

and Keo Meas. He closed the letter by telling Ya that he must confess as soon as

possible; he was not allowed to lie or blame other people as he had already done.

"Hot Measures"

On September 25, 1976, Duch authorized Pon to proceed with torture. Pon started the

morning's session by interrogating Ya on points extracted from other people's confessions

while beating him with whips of thin rattan. In the afternoon he intensified the

thrashing, lashing him thirty times with tripled electric wire. Ya finally gave a

verbal confession, according to a one-page memo from Pon to Duch written that day.

The next morning (September 26), Duch entered Ya's cell and consoled him. He then

instructed Pon and the other interrogators to chat with Ya about the medicines he

used, to ask whether his wife knew where he was being sent when he was taken away,

and to inform him that his family had now been arrested.

Later that day Pon reported in writing to Duch that with Duch's approval that afternoon

to use both "hot measures" and "cold measures" against Ya, he

had successfully forced Ya to confess. In the early evening Pon had gone into Ya's

cell to threaten him. He asked Ya whether he had known he was going to be detained

and inevitably tortured if he did not confess. He told Ya to be ready to be tortured

at 8 or 9 p.m. Around 10 p.m., when Pon was about to carry out torture with his bare

hands, Ya agreed to confess and asked Pon what he was to report. Pon responded, "Please

write up a systematic account of your traitorous activities from beginning to end."

Second Confession: Admits to Vietnamese Contacts

The next day, September 27, Ya outlined in eight pages how he had allegedly been

co-opted by the Vietnamese. The confession described how the Vietnamese influenced

the activities of the Pracheachun Group, which primarily consisted of old-hand resistance

fighters from the Issarak period, and at the Chamroen Vichea School in Phnom Penh,

where many Cambodian communists taught in the late 1950s and 60s. When Keo Meas fled

to the maquis, Ya replaced him at the Pracheachun Group, where he and Chhouk allegedly

continued to advance Keo Meas' pro-Vietnamese agenda:

I see [now] that Chhouk and I had been directly influenced by Keo Meas. At that time,

I respected Keo Meas. I did what Keo Meas told me to: contact the Vietnamese, translate

Vietnamese documents; that is, all of us were partial to the Vietnamese.

After Ya became secretary of the Northeast Zone in 1971, Ya wrote, he received letters

from Vietnamese officials requesting permission to transport goods and war materiel

by way of the Mekong, Se Kong, and Se San rivers and Highway 19. While Ya said that

he did not meet the Vietnamese at that time, he stated that he had not done enough

to remove the Vietnamese who were stationed in Stung Treng and who shot people's

pigs and cows. He permitted the immense transport of commodities and ammunition from

Cambodia to Vietnam, but the Vietnamese did not transport international assistance

to Cambodia, he wrote.

Ya closed his second confession by stating: "I live and conduct activities of

the struggle in accordance with the line and the organization of only one CPK. I

do not have a second, or a third traitorous party." He ended the letter with

a line of high respect to Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, and So Phim from "a real communist

soldier, ready to die."

Third Confession: Alleged Accomplices

On September 28, 1976, Ya wrote three pages describing his allegedly subversive relations

with Chhouk, secretary of Region 24 in the East Zone, starting with their first meeting

at the Party congress in July 1971.

On September 29, after reading what Ya had written about Chhouk, Duch ordered Pon

to get more details on Ya's conversations with Chhouk. In response to written questions

from Pon, Ya added several small points, for example that during their first meeting

in July 1971, he and Chhouk talked about building the counterrevolutionary force.

Ya was then asked to sign his name on Pon's question sheet to certify his answers:

"I read and answered [the questions] this morning. There was no force [on me]

as I was writing." Duch signed his name on this third confession set, with a

note: "Already sent three copies to Angkar, both originals and carbon copies."

Fourth Confession: Internal and External Co-Conspirators

Following another order from Duch, Pon wrote up a new list of questions, asking Ya

to elaborate on his co-conspirators inside the country other than Chhouk, as well

as foreign allies outside the country. Ya first wrote about East Zone Secretary So

Phim, stating that in early 1976 Phim told him that the Vietnamese had provided weapons

for a traitorous force created by Chhouk, Chakrei and Phim.

That night Ya wrote on Pon's cover sheet of questions that he had read and answered

Pon's questions without being forced. He added, "But please note that my answers

from September 28, 1976 on, were after I had already been severely tortured."

The next morning, September 30, using a pen with red ink, Duch crossed out the reference

to torture and wrote in the margin of Ya's note: "Do not write these words that

I have crossed out in red. You don't have the right to report on such issues to Angkar.

I have the right. I already reported. I reported clearly. Do not play tricks and

deny this." Duch marked up the rest of Ya's eight-page confession, crossing

out large sections, and writing neat but emphatic comments in the margins. Pon quickly

rewrote a new cover sheet to the confession, this time without Ya's comment about

having been tortured and Duch's reprimand in red. Pon pre-dated the cover sheet to

September 29, 1976 and had Ya sign only his name to affirm its authenticity.

September 30: Reasserts Innocence

On September 30, 1976, Ya withdrew statements in earlier confessions in which he

had "admitted" that he was guilty of traitorous links with the Vietnamese.

In this statement, he re-asserted his innocence in regard to all contacts he had

with the Vietnamese, explaining these contacts were made only with approval from

Angkar. This clearly angered the Santebal. Duch rejected Ya's explanation and told

Pon that he would not report Ya's denials to Angkar. Since "cold measures"

were not working on Ya, Duch again authorized Pon to use "hot measures"

against him. The next day, October 1, Duch re-affirmed that Pon could use "the

hot method for prolonged periods" and even beat Ya to death:

I already reported to Angkar at ten minutes before 9:00 this morning about the contemptible

Ya with the documents you provided and with your report about his feelings. Angkar

decided that if this contemptible Ya still hides his traitorous network and activities,

Angkar will kill him. Do not allow him to play games with us anymore. He says one

word and then denies an entire book. Angkar considers this as looking down on the

Party, not only on our state's Santebal committee. Thus, with this contemptible Ya,

you can use hot and severe measures for prolonged periods. Even if you slip and kill

him, you will not be guilty of violating Angkar's discipline.

Pon gave Ya a copy of Duch's letter, and noted in the margin: "Brother Ya, please

read this and think it over carefully." At the same time Pon asked for more

details of the relations between Ya and Chhouk, such as their first meeting and his

reasons for betrayal. Pon also asked Ya to clarify who was leading who in the traitorous


Fifth Confession: Admits to "Traitorous Networks"

On October 1 Ya came up with more pages, although they did not contain much substantive

information. After submitting this confession, he signed Pon's letter again and wrote:

"I read and answered. When I wrote, there was no force." Ya repeated events

he had already described, but added to each event a likely made-up side story to

make it look traitorous, in compliance with his torturer's instructions.

For example, Ya wrote that in 1964 two Vietnamese agents persuaded him to oppose

and undermine the CPK, by allowing the liberation of Vietnam to happen before Cambodia.

Ya claimed that in 1970 Vietnamese stationed along O Tang stream in Ratanakiri convinced

him to support the idea of an Indochinese Federation. In 1973 when he received Prince

Sihanouk in Siem Pang, Ya claimed to have made time to see a Vietnamese agent who

convinced him that the Vietnamese liberation should happen first. In the border negotiation

of March 1976, Ya said that he secretly met a Vietnamese official who offered to

support Ya on his own. Duch sent this confession to Angkar the following day.

No Judge, No Trial

While it has never been proven that Ya and others were plotting a coup d'état-the

charge may have been fabricated as a way to eliminate popular leaders who had reputations

for being fairly lenient - at least one of Ya's niresa, a Khmer from Takeo, believed

the accusations. His explanation of why Ya was executed is a classic example of adopting

the torturers' mentality - believing someone is guilty because they have been arrested,

or forced to confess:

"Ya was an ordinary guy. I worked with him for many years; many people liked

him. He was trained by the United States and served the CIA - North Vietnamese officials

knew about that and complained to Pol Pot who arrested him. When Hu Nim and Hou Yuon

were arrested he was not yet arrested but they worked with him.

Maybe Ya was [part of a] U.S. network - he used to joke with me about the US. I knew

for sure when Pol Pot arrested him and he made a confession. I didn't read his confession

but when the Khmer Rouge caught Ya, Khieu Samphan read it in Olympic Stadium for

Khmer Rouge cadre to listen to. Khieu Samphan read it from 7 a.m. until 11 a.m. and

said he still wasn't finished. He said we could make our own conclusion. We don't

know if Ya was forced to answer but at the time I believed it. For three days Khieu

Samphan read confessions of all the people who'd betrayed Pol Pot. Ya's confession

was very important - the others were not so important and were shorter.

Ya had a plot to overthrow Pol Pot. He'd organized special soldiers to overthrow

Pol Pot. They were caught by Khmer Rouge soldiers, who questioned and tortured them.

After they caught Ya and tortured and interrogated him, they got his confession."

In a 1997 interview shortly before he died, Pol Pot told reporter Nate Thayer that

certain people had infiltrated the ranks of the Khmer Rouge leadership with the aim

of overthrowing Pol Pot: "These men joined and led the Democratic Kampuchea

Party but they weren't real members....[I]n 1976 and 1977 this group hatched a plot

to carry out a coup and topple me, the party leader, and kill me. This group was

involved with the Vietnamese. I don't remember everything, but I have documents to

prove the plot." He paused to remember some of the names of these alleged traitors

and added: "There was... someone called Ya. Ya had been a Vietnamese agent since


Ya's Kreung niresa believes that Ya was set up by his deputy, Vong. "They didn't

get along. Vong reported that Ya had relationships with Vietnam because at that time

Ya was on the border, solving the problem on the Vietnam border. Vong went to Phnom

Penh one day before Ya for a meeting at the palace. The next day Ya arrived."

Ya's Khmer bodyguard said he did not know why Ya was arrested: "They said he

had joined the CIA, the KGB. I don't know about that, if he was or not. I never heard

him say anything [indicating that he was an agent]."

Ya was executed a week after his last written confession. Of the arrests of Ya and

Keo Meas, David Chandler has written that it is unlikely that the two Party veterans

were plotting against Pol Pot: "It is more likely that Pol Pot moved against

the two defenseless senior Party figures to terrorize the clients they had built

up over the years. ... In [S-21 Chief] Duch's mind-and probably in Pol Pot's-Keo

Meas and Ney Saran fitted into a pattern of conspiracy stretching back to the 1950s."

Ya's execution was followed by the arrests of other key figures in the Northeast

Zone. Most of those named in Ya's confession followed him to S-21, where they eventually

met the same end.


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