A Khmer Rouge superior would tell a person at a work camp that he had to go to a meeting that night or that Angkar needed his services elsewhere.
In thousands of cases, that person would never return.
For years, Meng-Try Ea had been haunted by the question of what exactly had taken place after his four uncles had left and later died during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I would ask my mom but she could not answer,” Meng-Try Ea said.
“Nobody knows what happened between the time a loved one was taken away and killed. What happened in between?” he asked.
Looking for answers, Meng-Try Ea researched the imprisonment and execution system in the Khmer Rouge’s Southwest Zone where his relatives were evacuated after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.
His study revealed a complex structure in which every “security center” operated on a set procedure to “crush the enemy,” and detailed reports on each prisoner were transmitted from one administrative level to the next.
His findings, described in his book “The Chain of Terror,” recently published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, also show that execution orders came from lower-ranking supervisors in spite of claims to the contrary made by former Khmer Rouge.
Through interviews with 125 former prisoners and 18 Khmer Rouge security staff along with data archived at DC-Cam where he works as a researcher, Meng-Try Ea uncovered a system designed to keep people in the dark, and thus vulnerable.
Jailed for reasons they would learn only during interrogation, they faced hard labor at best depending on the facility and the nature of their alleged crime.
Tactics included starving prisoners and keeping them in filth, shackled in rows on the ground, with containers to pass on to each other to relieve themselves.
“I got ill from the constant flea bites and yet got used to it, but the white lice that came out of the sleeves and seams really itched and were difficult to stand,” said Keo Mao, who was jailed at the Tram Kak district re-education center in Takeo province and is quoted in the book.
“There were diseases; there was a lack of hygiene; there was dysentery, constant lice, starvation and fatigue, a regular weakening” due to torture, said Sang Sim, a former Khmer Rouge guard at that center also quoted.
The Southwest Zone consisted of four regions that included some districts of Takeo, Kandal, Kompong Speu and Kampot provinces with a population of about 1.5 million people in 1977, Meng-Try Ea writes.
DC-Cam has so far identified more than 6,000 mass graves in the zone and, while the number of people killed remains unclear, evidence on four of its security centers shows that at least 153,000 people were executed there, he writes.
The zone’s secretary was Ta Mok, the hard-line Khmer Rouge military leader who, unlike Ieng Sary in 1996 and Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea in 1998, never surrendered to the Cambodian government. He was captured in March 1999 and has been imprisoned ever since, awaiting the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
The Southwest Zone’s security network consisted of 225 subdistrict centers, 21 district centers, three regional centers and one zone center supervised by Ta Mok.
No crime was too small to warrant punishment, especially when people used to live in cities or were educated.
“The enemy destruction begins with the breaking of [rice] stalks,” stated the Khmer Rouge publication Honorary Red Flag in April 1978.
Anyone arrested and brought to a security center was considered an enemy opposed to Angkar, as the faceless Khmer Rouge leadership was known, and no longer a Cambodian, Meng-Try Ea writes.
The procedure was as follows: People accused by local units or village chiefs of being “free,” having stolen food or worked slower than expected were taken to subdistrict centers.
They were interrogated and usually sent to hard-labor camps for “reforging” through work from dawn to dusk.
Interrogations at those centers, whose accounts were sent to district committees, tended not to involve heavy beating or extensive torture, and rarely led to execution, according to Meng-Try Ea. Once deemed “re-educated,” some people could be sent back to their work camps.
But if they did not seem to “reforge” or if they fell into “enemy” categories such as former police officers or Lon Nol soldiers from the early 1970s and their families, they would be transferred to district re-education centers.
At those centers, light offenders were unshackled during the day so that they could work, while serious offenders—former landowners, teachers, people who had criticized Angkar or fell into enemy categories—stayed permanently shackled, taken away only for interrogation or execution.
Prisoners often died in their cells at night.
“The Khmer Rouge did not take the body away immediately; they left the corpse until dawn or the next afternoon when the light offenders returned from work and could carry it away for burial,” Meng-Try Ea writes.
Interrogation and torture sessions followed a set pattern, starting with coaxing the prisoner into confessing and giving names of “traitor contacts,” and then torturing him or her.
“Watch over him closely. Don’t allow him to die. Don’t let them hear one another. Maintain secrecy,” said the directives.
The order to “smash” a prisoner was taken by the region committee and carried out by district and region chiefs.
Mao, a former Tram Kak district-center prisoner, told that the senior Khmer Rouge staff would have a party before an execution, drinking and eating from dawn until mid-afternoon, then start killing the prisoners two or three at a time.
“The cadres told them to kneel, and then clubbed them from behind, slit their throats with long swords and, dead or alive, pushed the bodies into the pit and covered them up right away,” said Soy Sen, another former Tram Kak prisoner.
Two of the region security centers served as execution facilities for Khmer Rouge people arrested and former policemen or Lon Nol soldiers, while the third one was basically a hard-labor camp for their families.
At the zone security center, located at Sanlong mountain in Takeo province, most prisoners were former Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families, such as troops stationed along the Vietnamese border brought in on Ta Mok’s order in 1976, Meng-Try Ea writes.
The center included two execution sites and a hard-labor camp. Chhoeun, jailed because her brother Nhin had been a Lon Nol army officer, said there were daily rounds of executions.
Most prisoners were killed at the region centers, with only a few sent to S-21, the Khmer Rouge’s secret police headquarters also known as Tuol Sleng, where more than 14,000 were tortured and killed.
The fact that execution orders came from the region security level was a revelation, Meng-Try Ea said in an interview. “I did not expect low-level district and region prisons to have played such an important role in the killing.”
This raises the question of people to be tried in the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal, he added.
Observers estimate that, among the estimated 1.7 million people who died during the Khmer Rouge regime, between 527,000 and 680,000 of them were executed.
Since some of the district and region security centers executed more people than Tuol Sleng, shouldn’t the people “most responsible” for the killings also include region and zone chiefs? And shouldn’t they stand trial? Meng-Try Ea asked.
After all, Meng-Try Ea said, “S-21 did not take half a million lives alone.”