THIS WEEK IN HISTORY
Vol 11, No 1
January 4-17 2002
Pha Thanchan, one of only seven people to survive S-21, the Khmer Rouge’s notorious genocide prison, died quietly at a Phnom Penh hospital on December 29. His death leaves alive just two victims of S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng.
Pha Thanchan was born May 1, 1936, in Cheung Preah Bath village in Cambodia’s northern Stung Treng province. He was the second of three children.
Pha Thanchan met his wife, Ny Chan Lan, on the Laos-Cambodia border. They married in 1963, and the couple lived in Hanoi, where they had three children. He returned alone to Cambodia in 1970 and joined the resistance after Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s appeal for people to rise up against Lon Nol’s coup. In 1976 the Khmer Rouge arrested him. He was blindfolded and brought to Phnom Penh, but until 1979, he had no idea where he had ended up.
“He was taken to Tuol Sleng in 1976,” said his wife. “After he came out of S-21, he came to Hanoi to meet me.” Soon after, the couple returned to Phnom Penh, and Pha Thanchan joined the army fighting the Khmer Rouge.
Pha Thanchan spent the next 20 years climbing the military ladder, but it was his survival in S-21 that proved the most remarkable even to his fellow survivors. Vann Nath, who spent a year in S-21, said Pha Thanchan suffered worst of all.
“Brother Chan was the most seriously tortured of the seven survivors. My skin became like goosebumps when he told me what happened to him,” said Vann Nath. “He was beaten and pushed into a barrel of water. When his stomach was full of water, they would pull him back out and jump on him. I do not understand how he could survive.”
Pha Thanchan’s wife said the Khmer Rouge pulled out his fingernails and toenails, then used electricity to shock him. They also cut the flesh out of his thigh, down to the bone.
It was only for his skills as a typist that the Khmer Rouge kept him alive, using him when Vietnamese prisoners were brought to S-21, Vann Nath said.