Review of ‘Voices From S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison’

Toward the end, the man who oversaw the security prison that swallowed the lives of 14,000 supposed enemies of Democratic Kampuchea came close to being jailed and tortured there himself. Son Sen, the top Khmer Rouge leader close to Pol Pot who oversaw Duch, the commandant of S-21, escaped arrest only because the Vietnamese invasion in late 1978 shifted attentions of the regime outward, according to Cambodia scholar David Chandler.

In his latest work, “Voices From S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison,” Chandler emphasizes that hunting down enemies from within was the primary goal of the Pol Pot regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. He also shows that anyone in Democratic Kampuchea—from rice field worker to soldier to  ministry official—could become a prisoner at S-21 for any reason.

In doing so, Chandler displays the frightened, confused words of prisoners, interrogators, party cadre and Tuol Sleng guards alike. He writes, for example, of the workers who lived up to one and a half km from the mysterious and secretive building and knew, because of the screams they heard at night, that the former high school had become a place of horror. People would go into the building, they said, but they never came out.

The book is as emotionally exhausting to read as it was, apparently, for the author to research.

“The terror inside [S-21] has pushed me around, blunted my skills, and eroded my self-assurance,” Chandler writes in the final chapter. “The experience at times has been akin to drowning.”

Chandler’s book isn’t just an attempt to document the horrors of the security prison. It’s also an attempt to make sense out of the senseless. It’s a search for meaning and an explanation for why such an institution ever existed.

In doing so, Chandler began his far-reaching research in 1993, when Cornell University and the Cambodian Ministry of Culture were finishing up a massive effort to microfilm the thousands of S-21 documents  left behind in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh.

He looked at many of the 4,000 prisoner’s confessions, memoranda between Democratic Kampuchea leaders and documents found by Tuol Sleng’s archivist since the Cornell project. Chandler also makes use of interviews with prison workers, party leaders and seven of the 12 survivors.

Bizarre examples of the insanity of the regime come out of these papers.

There’s the prisoner who confessed to neglecting to water the plants, and another who revealed he had been planning to fall asleep while on duty. And there’s the unintended understatement made in 1997 by a repentant “Brother Huy,” a prison worker who is probably responsible for the deaths of hundreds of prisoners, that “I don’t feel that [working at S-21] is what my parents intended me to do.”

Any visit to the museum at Tuol Sleng drives home the terror experienced by prisoners. But Chandler’s book shows that prison workers also lived in fear. Some of the most revealing confessions, according to Chandler, were those of 79 former workers of the prison, including 24 interrogators.

The fear extended to party leaders as well. About 500 high-ranking party members—including Minister of Information Hu Nim and 30 members of the party central committee—were imprisoned and put to death at S-21.

Chandler writes that there are no documents that specifically link Pol Pot (who denied involvement in S-21 and told journalist Nate Thayer in 1997 that he first heard about what he called a Vietnamese propaganda tool in a 1979 Voice of America broadcast), Ieng Sary, Ta Mok or Nuon Chea to S-21 executions, although the general “lines of authority” linking S-21 with the Party Center can be proved. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok sometimes vaguely referred to “enemies” who had already been interrogated at S-21, although Chandler writes they never mentioned the prison by name.

So how was it possible that so many people were tortured and killed? What was it that got into the hearts of human beings that made them behave in this way?

While Chandler’s book is about a Cambodian institution, he looked at writings on “disappearances” in Argentina, genocide in the Balkans, the 1965-1966 massacre of suspected Communists in Indonesia and the Nazi Holocaust in his attempt to reach a deeper understanding. He shows convincing similarities to purges in communist China and the 1930s Stalinist show trials in the Soviet Union, which he writes has resemblances “too numerous to be coincidental.”

Near the end of the book, Chandler points out that most of the people who worked at S-21 were very ordinary people. He writes about the ability of young men—particularly poor, uneducated young men—to be impressionable, obedient and violent. He also writes about the cultural effect of the Buddhist belief that nonbelievers are “beyond the pale,” something that may have been put to use by the Khmer Rouge as they convinced each other that their own irredeemable nonbelievers–the designated enemies of the revolution–deserved dehumanization.

But his most striking conclusion is that the terror and destruction that came out of S-21–and from Democratic Kampuchea–is probably latent in us all.

“Most of us, I suspect, could become accustomed to doing something (such as torturing or killing people) when people we respected told us to do it and when there were no institutional constraints on doing what we were told,” he writes.

“Explanations…are embedded in our capacities to order and obey each other, to bond with each other against strangers, to lose ourselves inside groups, to yearn for perfection and approval, and to vent our anger and confusion, especially when we are encouraged to do so by people we respect, onto other, often helpless people.”

Books that give insights into the geopolitics, history and internal mechanics of the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge have their own significance. But this one, although written in Chandler’s dry, academic style, may be the most illuminating book yet on understanding Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.

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