Before delving into the atrocities of Phnom Penh’s S-21, the Khmer Rouge tribunal will this week debate Kompong Speu province’s M-13, another prison camp that prosecutors say had much to do with Kang Guek Eav’s descent into abomination.
Although crimes at M-13 fall out of the tribunal’s jurisdiction, prosecutors at the Extraordinary Chamb-ers in the Courts of Cambodia hope the testimonies of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, and witnesses will sketch the ideological and technical parentage of S-21. Scholars hope those testimonies will add to the history books.
“I think it is significant to understand how S-21 came about and how Duch transformed himself into who he was under the Khmer Rouge and who he is today,” said Youk Chhang, director of the nonprofit Documentation Center of Cambodia.
From July 1971 to January 1975, Duch chaired Office M-13, a pris-on in Kompong Speu province where the Khmer Rouge held, interrogated and executed people captured in the regions they had already “liberated.”
That much is known—and little else. Few have visited the remote site of M-13, in Thpong district’s Omlaing commune, and in scholarly research, M-13 was always overshadowed by its more famous cousin, S-21, Youk Chhang said.
An article published in October 2001 in the DC-Cam magazine, “Searching for the truth,” argued that the number of people killed at M-13 could be as high as the tens of thousands, but the figure is only speculation.
“The only person who has been there that I know of is François Bizot,” wrote historian and journalist Philip Short in an e-mail.
Bizot is a French ethnographer who was detained at M-13 for three months in 1971. In his memoir “The Gate,” published in 2000, Bizot describes his detention and his odd relationship with Duch, whom he both feared and befriend-ed. Duch secured Bizot’s release but also ordered a pair of his colleagues and friends, Lay and Son, executed.
“The Gate” depicts the prisoners at M-13 shackled together at the ankles in long rows, deprived of food, barely washed and living in squalor, images now associated with S-21. Condemned prisoners were taken to the forest, ordered to dig their own graves, and executed with the blow of a baton or shovel to the neck, Bizot wrote.
Of torture, Bizot said little as he was not himself subjected to it, but he does describe a small cabin where prisoners were hung by the wrists and lashed with a rattan switch.
“But the existence of corporal punishments, which hung over our heads, was never evoked. There again, we did not see anything, we did not hear anything. No prisoner dared allude to it,” he wrote.
ECCC prosecutors argue that M-13 was a precursor to S-21, and that the torture and detention methods Duch learned and honed at M-13 were transferred to S-21.
“Duch took command of S21, and, by his own admission, understood, based on his experience at M13, that he was capable of performing this work better than his predecessor,” Duch’s indictment reads.
“Duch said that S21 borrowed heavily from security center M13 with respect to interrogation techniques,” it adds later.
Presenting M-13 will be instrumental in showing that there was “a real plan, a real intent” in establishing S-21, Youk Chhang said, adding that that the thousands of cases of torture and executions were not a mere accidental by-product of the regime, but rather a policy of the Communist Party of Kampuchea even before it took power.
Duch’s testimony could also bring to light M-13’s place in the Khmer Rouge security apparatus, explained historian Henri Locard, who said he spent two hours Sunday writing questions with a civil party lawyer.
“For my part, I only have questions,” Locard said. “We know so little that from 1970 to 1975 no journalist said that the Khmer Rouge were imprisoning the population…. Until recently, we thought the Khmer Rouge had only one prison, S-21.”
Duch is scheduled to testify today and Tuesday, followed by at least four witnesses.
“We will certainly learn a lot about M-13 since Duch has said that he will answer every question…. [Duch] has told us several times that he was absolutely sor-ry,” Locard said. “He’s going to prove [today] whether he is sincere or not.”