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Tuol Sleng: prison-museum of Cambodia's genocide

A visit to the Khmer Rouge's death chamber seeds reflection on past and present alike. 

Vicken Cheterian
6 October 2018
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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, 2017. Wikicommons, Bjørn Christian Tørrissen. Some rights reserved.

It is a July day in Phnom Penh, the hot and humid air making it difficult to breathe. The streets leading to Tuol Sleng are noisy and crowded: tuc-tuc drivers' call for potential clients mingles with the smell of street-vendors' grilled fish. Soon, these fall away as the visitor reaches a former school building that would serve as the major prison under the Khmer Rouge regime which ruled Cambodia from 1975-78. Now it is a museum where foreign tourists are queuing to be confronted with the horrors of the Cambodian genocide and the ambiguities of its legacy.

The history of Cambodia has puzzled me for a long time. Movies such as Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields and those by Rithy Panh only added to my bewilderment. Cambodia was the trigger for the China-Vietnam war of 1979, conducted between two supposedly fraternal socialist countries. Most incomprehensible was the violence the Khmer Rouge unleashed against its own people: emptying cities and towns, expelling people to the countryside for rice production, exterminating the nation’s intelligentsia. Perhaps I could find some answers, and if possible make sense of this senseless violence, by seeing for myself the photographs of Khmer Rouge victims?

I was especially puzzled by the fact that Khmer Rouge cadres photographed their victims at their arrest and then after killing them, in between torturing them to record their detailed confessions. More widely, how did Cambodian society manage questions of memory and denial, of victim and perpetrator, of how to manage life after genocide? I wanted to learn its lessons.

At the entrance of Tuol Sleng, known under the Khmer Rouge as as S-21 prison, the visitor is confronted with a poster – in Khmer, with French and English translations – announcing the facility's ten “security regulations”. Number six says: “while getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” Even under torture it was forbidden to express one’s suffering.

There are also two striking wall posters. One shows a scene from April 1975, days after the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and forcing its entire population into exodus towards the rice fields, suffering and death. The other shows 10 January 1979, the day Vietnamese forces entered Tuol Sleng and saved four children, two of them toddlers who died soon afterwards. The beginning and the end of Khmer Rouge rule: three years and eight months of horror.

Next comes a vast room with a single metallic bed, to which prisoners were chained. Beside it there is a box in which the prisoner had to satisfy his or her needs, and at the far side of the room the interrogator's table. Later I learn that this is a VIP cell for high-ranking prisoners: lower ones were kept either in collective rooms chained to the ground, or in individual cells not larger than two metres in length and width.

The museum is filled with photographs and posters of the prisoners. Men and women look directly at the camera lens, some in horror, others in defiance. Some seem unable to understand what is happening to them, and why their compatriots, the comrades of their own victorious party, could inflict such horrors onto them. Others seem to have understood and defied their fate. Some are mere children; most are young people. There are pictures of mothers holding their babies, all condemned to die. There are two sets of pictures: when the prisoner is brought in under arrest, and when he or she has died under torture.

As I was watching these victims of the Khmer Rouge, I thought that the museum of Tuol Sleng was not only about the past, that something similar is taking place in our times. The pictures of “Caesar” came to my mind – thousands of Syrian prisoners killed under torture after being kidnapped by Assad forces in Syria. Only a few days later I would hear the news that hundreds of peaceful demonstrators arrested in 2011, at the start of the Syrian protests, were declared by the Syrian authorities to have died several years ago. 

Of the 18,000 who had been inmates of Tuol Sleng, only seven were saved in 1979 when the Vietnamese army liberated the prison. The number who entered its doors and survived is probably under fifty. In other words, almost all those sent there were condemned to death. Many died under torture, or succumbed to hunger and disease.

Those who survived, whether having “confessed” or not, were taken to Choeung Ek, and a path of land where an old Chinese cemetery was located, and killed by having their heads crushed – in order to save ammunition. This is the place known as the "killing fields," just one among 20,000 sites in Cambodia where mass graves are identified.

Henry Kissinger and Pol Pot

Cambodia's tragedy was largely a side effect of the Vietnam war. The then prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had tried to keep the country outside the conflict, was overthrown in 1970 by the pro-American general Lon Nol. The United States airforce was by then pounding forested areas in eastern Cambodia to prevent arms and fighters passing from North Vietnam to the Vietcong guerrillas. This was the great strategy of Henry Kissinger, who is considered by many a war criminal. Around 250,000 tons of bombs were dropped, leading to an estimated 500,000 Cambodian casualties.

American war crimes are only part of the Cambodian tragedy. What followed is even more sickening. In the days before the US's chaotic withdrawal from Saigon, the related vacuum of power in Cambodia opened the door to Khmer Rouge forces who entered Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. Many in the capital, its population swelled to as many as 2 million by a flight from rural areas, initially viewed these cadres as liberators, at least hoping that their victory would put an end to the war.

But within a few days, the Khmer Rouge ordered the entire population of the capital and other urban centres to be deported towards the countryside in order to build an agricultural “utopia” based on collectivist rice-field cultivation. Under the Khmer Rouge, towns were abandoned. The population of Phnom Penh fell to a mere 20,000, composed only of party leaders, soldiers, and a handful of factory workers.

Cambodia's people paid an enormous price for such experimentation. Many thousands died of hunger, sickness, exhaustion from work or harsh conditions. Khmer Rouge thugs executed many others: estimates put the death-toll between 1.3 million and 1.7 million deaths. Minority groups suffered disproportionately: all the ethnic Vietnamese who had not escaped the Khmer Rouge were killed, half of the ethnic Chinese, 40% of Thai and Lao, and 36% of Cham. Buddhists monks were decimated: out of approximately 50,000 monks only 800 remained after Pol Pot’s regime (some had escaped to neighbouring Thailand). Yet the majority of the victims were ethnic Khmer, whether urban and educated or peasant and illiterate.

Pol Pot also turned against his former allies, the Vietnamese communists. In fact his regime, with his racist antagonism towards the Vietnamese and his agrarian utopianism, cannot be understood through a socialist narrative. He even ordered his weak armed forces to attack Vietnam, triggering a war that led to his downfall. The Khmer Rouge regime literally collapsed in front of a concentrated Vietnamese assault: in two weeks, beginning in late December 1978, Vietnamese troops had taken Phnom Penh.

“It took military action to stop genocide,” says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia. “I do not think there could have been any other way to stop it. That is why the Vietnamese were here,” he concludes. The Vietnamese were also the first to discover the S-21 and decided to make a museum out of it.

But in Youk Chhang's view, S-21 or Tuol Sleng cannot be an adequate memorial for the victims of the Cambodia genocide. “Over 80% of the victims of S-21 were Khmer Rouge themselves. It was one of 196 prisons,” yet the only one which survives as a museum. “Tuol Sleng is the most efficient Vietnamese propaganda,” he exclaims. “The Khmer Rouge did not document all victims, they were documenting 'their' victims at S-21 because these were ex-Khmer Rouge.”

This was part of the paranoia of Pol Pot, who feared conspiracy within his own party and leadership. More than thirty of the victims at S-21 had once been members of the Khmer Rouge's central committee, who were “purged” in the classic Stalinist tradition. Could this explain why there are very few Cambodians visiting Tuol Sleng, and most of the visitors are foreigners?

640px-Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum_(11958297023).jpg

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, 2005. Wikicommons/Clay Gilliland. Some rights reserved.

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