Chinese advisors lead KR cadre in martial arts training on a Phnom Penh rooftop during the DK era
THE Embassy of the People's Republic of China has reacted furiously to new, controversial
evidence suggesting direct involvement of Chinese advisors in the operations of the
Khmer Rouge's notorious Toul Sleng "S-21" interrogation and torture center.
The evidence is contained in a yet-to-be released report by genocide investigators
of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC CAM) in which a former S-21 cadre nicknamed
"Peou" has testified that a special "catching unit" deployed
to arrest "party enemies" destined for S-21 was given both training and
direct assistance by Chinese advisors.
Between 1975-1979 more than 14,000 people passed through Toul Sleng, code-named "S-21"
by the Khmer Rouge. There they were tortured and forced to write confessions implicating
themselves and others in treasonous activities, before being murdered at the "killing
fields" of Choeung Ek.
"The 'catching cadres' were trained in special fighting techniques by Chinese
trainers, and these trainers sometimes joined in the raids to make arrests,"
the report dated October 2000, titled Victims or Perpetrators? The Testimony of Young
Comrades at S-21, says of Peou's testimony.
Peou described the elite unit as consisting of 42 guards with a special headquarters,
eight "catchers", 10 drivers and two nurses under the supervision of S-21's
Deputy Director Kheum Vat.
According to Peou, on at least one occasion the unit's Chinese advisors actively
participated in the arrest of Khmer Rouge cadre bound for S-21.
"Peou remembers that on one raid in 1977 more than 10 Chinese trainers assisted
in the arrest of East Zone cadre who worked under Sao Phim," the report reads.
In a phone conversation on November 23, Chinese Embassy spokesman Wu Ching Shen dismissed
the DC CAM report as "groundless and untrue ...[and] written with bad intentions".
Wu requested that the Post not publish a story related to the DC CAM report, warning
that doing so would put the Post at risk of unspecified "negative effects".
DC CAM Director Youk Chhang, however, is convinced of the truth and accuracy of Peou's
"I'm sure that what [Peou] told me is true ... I don't generally believe what
a lot of ex-KR tell me, but I believe this guy," Chhang said, adding that Peou's
allegations were first made during an interview on December 27, 1999, at his home
in Kampong Chhnang and repeated during a second interview held on the grounds of
the former torture center in early 2000.
Cambodia scholars and genocide researchers do not share Chhang's assurance about
the validity of Peou's claims, however, noting that Peou rejected the report's contents
earlier this month when journalists sought to have him corroborate his account.
"The interview upon which that assertion was based has recently been thrown
into some doubt by some additional follow-up work, and should now be placed firmly
in the category of unconfirmed rumor rather than documented fact," said genocide
researcher Craig Etcheson.
"These tantalizing hints of direct Chinese involvement in Democratic Kampuchea
internal security matters deserve further research, but as things stand now, they
remain only hints."
Historian David Chandler, whose 1999 Voices From S-21: Terror and History in Pol
Pot's Secret Prison is the first scholarly work to specifically focus on the workings
of S-21, told the Post that the lack of additional witness and participant accounts
of the Chinese links to the "catchers" cast doubt on Peou's assertions.
But like Etcheson, Chandler emphasized that the full story of possible Chinese involvement
in S-21 still remains to be told.
"I suspect the Chinese may, however, have visited [S-21] and been photographed
there ...[They] certainly didn't disapprove; they had similar places (less murderous,
but with the same kinds of prisoners) in China," Chandler told the Post by email.
"But my instinct is to say that S-21 was a Cambodian institution pretty much."
Chhang attributed Peou's recent recantation of the account of the catchers' Chinese
trainers to "the mentality of ex-KR".
"These people are living in guilt, so their minds are insecure," Chhang
explained. "The questions [Peou] was asked or the environment of the interview
may have made him feel threatened or reluctant [to tell the truth]."
DC CAM archival photos of Chinese trainers drilling Khmer Rouge cadre in martial
arts techniques on the roof of a Phnom Penh building some time between 1975-1979
also lend weight to the validity of Peou's story, Chhang says.
"[His story] needs further investigation and cross-checking ... So far he's
the only guy we've found from that unit," Chhang said.