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Tuol Sleng - the death camp the West chose to ignore

Tuol Sleng - the death camp the West chose to ignore



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

secret S21.

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

Pot revolution.

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

Nazi period.

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

such sophistication.

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

of S21.

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

the world.

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.


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