Tuol Sleng: The Prison-Museum of the Cambodian Genocide

At the entrance of Tuol Sleng, which was known as S-21 prison under the Khmer Rouge, a visitor is faced with a poster that publicized the ten “security regulations” of the prison, in Khmer, with French and English translations. Number six says: “while getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”

It was a July day in Phnom Penh, the hot and humid air made breathing difficult. The streets leading to Tuol Sleng are noisy and crowded: tuc-tuc drivers call for potential clients and street food vendors fill the air with smell of grilled fish. Foreign tourists are queuing to buy tickets to enter the museum. Inside this building that once served as a school, and later as the major prison under the Khmer Rouge, a visitor is confronted with the horrors of the Cambodian Genocide and the ambiguities of its legacy.

History of Cambodia puzzled me since long. Movies such as “Killing Fields” and that of Rithy Panh only added to my bewilderment. Cambodia was the trigger for the China-Vietnam war of 1979, a war between two supposedly brotherly socialist countries. What puzzled me most was the incomprehensible violence Khmer Rouge unleashed against their own people, emptying cities and urban centres, sending them to the countryside for rice production, and exterminating the nation’s intelligentsia. I wanted to see myself the photographs of the Khmer Rouges victims, may be I could find some answers. Is it possible to make sense of the senseless violence of the Khmer Rouge? Why did they torture their victims to record in detail their confessions obtained under duress, to photograph them at their arrest, and after killing them? How did the Cambodian society manage questions of memory and denial, victim and perpetrator?  Finally, I wanted to learn their lessons on how to manage life after genocide. 

At the entrance of Tuol Sleng, which was known as S-21 prison under the Khmer Rouge, a visitor is faced with a poster that publicized the ten “security regulations” of the prison, in Khmer, with French and English translations. 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. A large wall poster is from January 10, 1979, the day Vietnamese forces entered Tuol Sleng and saved four children, two of which were toddlers that succumbed soon afterwards. Another wall poster shows a scene from April 1975, days after the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh, forcing its entire population on exodus to rice fields, suffering and death. The beginning and the end of the Khmer Rouge rule, a total of three years and eight months of horror. 

We enter a vast room where there is only a metallic bed, to which prisoners were chained. Next to it there was a box in which the prisoner had to satisfy his or her needs. The interrogators table is at the end of the room. Later I understand that this is a VIP cell for high-ranking prisoners, while others were kept either in collective rooms chained to the ground, or in individual cells not lager than two meters. The museum is filled with photographs and posters of the prisoners: men and women look directly at the camera lens. Some look at you in horror, while others in defiance. Some seem unable to understand what is happening to them, how come their countrymen, the comrades of their own victorious party could commit such horrors to 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: those taken at their arrests; others after the prisoners had died under torture. 

As I was watching the 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 few days later I was going to hear about the news that peaceful demonstrators – hundreds of them - arrested in 2011, at the start of the Syrian protests, were declared dead several years back by the Syrian authorities. 

From the 18 thousand estimated inmates of Tuol Sleng, only seven were saved in 1979 when the Vietnamese army liberated the prison. The total number of those who survived S-21 is estimated today to be less than fifty. In other words, all those who were arrested and sent there were condemned to death. Many died under torture, or succumbed to hunger and diseases. Those who survived, whether having “confessed” or not, were taken to Choeung Ek, to a field where an old Chinese cemetery was located, to be killed by crushing their heads – in order to save ammunition. The place is known as the Killing Fields, one among 20’000 sites where mass graves are identified. 

* * *

Cambodia tragedy was largely a side effect of the Vietnam War. Prince Souhanouk who had tried to keep the country outside the conflict, was overthrown by a pro-American general Nul Long. American aviation pounded with 250 thousand tons of bombs eastern Cambodian jungles (more than the US bombs thrown on Japan during WWII) to prevent arms and fighters passing from North Vietnam to the Vietcong fighters. This was the great strategy of Henry Kissinger, who is considered by many a war criminal: the bombing led to an estimated 500’000 Cambodian casualties. 

American war crimes are only part of the Cambodian tragedy. What followed is even more amazing. In the aftermath of withdrawal from Saigon, US forces withdrew from Cambodia opening the door to Khmer Rouge who entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. They were received by many of the 2 million inhabitants of the capital as liberators, hoping that Khmer Rouge victory would put an end to the war. Only few days later 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, by cultivating rice fields. Under the Khmer Rouge the population of Phnom Penh dropped to a mere 20’000, composed by party leaders, soldiers and a handful of factory workers.

The price paid by the population was enormous. Thousands died out of suffering adverse conditions, out of work exhaustion, hunger or sickness. Khmer Rouge thugs executed many others: estimates put the casualties at 1.3 million. Minority groups suffered disproportionately: 100 per cent of ethnic Vietnamese who had not escaped the Khmer Rouge were killed, 50 per cent of ethnic Chinese, 40 per cent of Thai and Lao, and 36 per cent of Cham. Buddhists monks were decimated: out of estimated 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, urban and educated or illiterate and peasants, very much like the social identity of Khmer Rouge leadership. 

Pol Pot also turned against his former allies, the Vietnamese communists. In fact, his regime cannot be understand through a socialist narrative, neither his racist antagonism towards the Vietnamese, nor his agrarian utopia. He ordered his weak armed forces to attack Vietnam – which triggered a war that led to his downfall. The Khmer Rouge regime literally collapsed in front of the Vietnamese assault: in two weeks the Vietnamese troops had taken Phnom Penh.

“It took military action to stop genocide,” said Youk Chhang, director of 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. It was also the Vietnamese who were the first to discover the S-21 and decided to make a museum out of it. 

For Youk Chhang, Tuol Sleng or S-21, is not 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 surviving 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 they were ex-Khmer Rouge.” It was part of the paranoia of Pol Pot who feared conspiracy within his own political party and leadership. More than thirty of the victims at S-21 had once been member of the Central Committee of the Khmer Rouge, “purged” in the best Stalinist traditions. Could this explain why there are very few Cambodians visiting Tuol Sleng, and most of the visitors are foreigners? 

(To Be Continued)


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