When the Khmer Rouge prison Tuol Sleng, in Phnom Penh, was liberated by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979, the guards killed all but a handful of prisoners to try to prevent them telling of the horrors perpetrated there.
Chum Mey, pictured above, is just one of thousands who were imprisoned here. He is also just one of a very few to have survived the experience – to have lived to tell that story. I want to now tell you his, and theirs.
Visiting Tuol Sleng isn’t for the faint hearted. I started this day thinking that it might feel inappropriate to take photos here (and at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which we also visited). But then I found myself thinking the opposite – that it was important not only to take but to share them. I understand however if you would prefer not to see them, or read about the atrocities; in which case you are welcome to stop reading this post at this point.
Chum Mey’s story
Chum Mey was a mechanic before his imprisonment here. He survived his ordeal by proving useful to the Khmer Rouge, helping to repair the typewriters used to note details of their interrogations. He had the sense to carry out his repairs very slowly in order to prolong his life.
After many years in which he felt unable to revisit the prison, he now comes regularly; as does another survivor, an artist whose skills were used to create accurate paintings of Pol Pot and the high-ranking officers from photographs . They tell their stories to visitors either in person or through the books that each has been assisted to write.
We bought Chum Mey’s book and he was pleased to be asked to pose for a photo which we were urged to share, along with his story.
But first, some background history for those who, like me before our visit, aren’t aware of all the details of the horrors of this darkest of periods in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge started as a military organisation, acting as the armed wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, the name the party used for Cambodia. Operating primarily in remote jungle and mountain areas in the northeast of the country, near its border with Vietnam during the war there, the Khmer Rouge didn’t initially have much support in the cities. But when they joined forces with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had been deposed as leader of the country in a military coup, their support began to grow. People initially saw them as potential liberators from the hated right-wing military regime; and many joined to fight with them in the civil war that ensued.
After five years of fighting, the Khmer Rouge coalition had gained control of increasing amounts of territory and held the advantage. In 1975, their fighters invaded Phnom Penh and took over the capital, thus bringing the civil war to an end.
Under Khmer Rouge rule
The Khmer Rouge now ruled the country. But instead of reinstating Norodom Sihanouk they handed power to their own leader, Pol Pot, while Prince Norodom was forced to live in exile. Pol Pot had studied in Paris where he had been strongly influenced by the French Communist Party. And he greatly admired the rural tribes he had encountered during the civil war, who were self-sufficient and lived on the goods they produced through subsistence farming. He saw them as communes in that they worked together, shared in the spoils of their labour and were untainted by what he saw as the evils of money, wealth and religion.
Pol Pot declared 1975 to be ‘Year Zero’ for the new nation of Kampuchea and isolated the country from the global community. He tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages and create an agrarian utopia, forcing millions of people from the cities to resettle on communal farms in the countryside. He also outlawed the ownership of private property and the practice of religion. But the workers on these farm collectives began suffering from the effects of overwork and lack of food. Thousands died from disease, starvation, over-work or abuse from the ruthless Khmer Rouge guards overseeing the camps.
The regime also executed thousands of people it considered to be enemies of the state. These included intellectuals and those who might create a revolutionary movement. It is said that some were executed for merely appearing to be intellectuals, e.g. by wearing glasses or being able to speak a foreign language.
During this time, hundreds of thousands of educated, middle-class Cambodians were tortured and executed in special centres established in the cities. The most infamous of these was Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. In total an estimated 1.7 to 2.2 million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s time in power.
The end of the regime
The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations. It was only in the years that followed, as Cambodia began the process of reopening to the international community, that the full horrors of the regime became apparent.
It may seem weird that today they are the focus of some tourist activity. But if you want to understand present day Cambodia you have to know something of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. We were very glad that we had chosen to visit Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, and to have the opportunity to engage more deeply with the horrors that our hosts had lived through. It also felt like an important gesture in a way; the Cambodian people clearly want us to see and understand their recent history.
I will talk more about the Killing Fields in another post. Today I want to focus on what Chum Mey lived through – and survived.
Tuol Sleng aka S-21
Tuol Sleng was originally a high school. It was commandeered by the Khmer Rouge in March/April 1976 to serve as a prison and interrogation centre, Security Prison 21 or S-21 for short. Between 1976 to 1979 an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned here; at any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. These prisoners were repeatedly tortured and intimidated into naming family members and associates before being executed; meanwhile those named were in turn arrested, tortured and killed.
At first most of the victims were those regarded as enemies of the regime including soldiers who had fought against them during the civil war. Others were former government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. But later, the party leadership turned on its own ranks and purged thousands of party activists. Their families were brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered, including some of the highest-ranking communist politicians. The official reason given for their arrest was espionage; but it seems likely that these men were seen as a threat by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot – potential leaders of a coup against him.
The prison was liberated by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979 but not before the guards had killed all but a handful of prisoners, to try to prevent them telling of the horrors perpetrated here. Chum Mey was one of that handful who escaped.
Visiting Tuol Sleng
Van, our guide, told us that she didn’t feel able to show us around, and I noticed as we explored that no other guides were doing so either. This is all still too raw for Cambodians. It was clear that she found it very unsettling to visit these places, even while at the same time feeling it was important that visitors are shown them and are taught about the country’s recent past.
Instead she gave us a detailed explanation before leaving us to look around on our own. She described how the different buildings of this former high school were used by the Khmer Rouge. The cells of one were used for their brutal interrogations and torture, while others were used to hold people imprisoned during their period of questioning and until they were sent to the Killing Fields.
Van told us about some of the worst atrocities. These included hanging people by their ankles from a sort of gallows until they became unconscious, then dunking their heads in the slops from the toilet boxes to revive them – only to be left again to fall unconscious if they couldn’t give an acceptable answer to the questions.
And nobody could. Partly because they didn’t understand what crime they had committed and what was expected of them. And partly because the young, brainwashed interrogators were persuaded that the Khmer Rouge never arrested the wrong people; everyone arrested was guilty of something and was an enemy of the regime, regardless of what they said. The interrogations were simply a means of torturing people ahead of their inevitable death.
Touring the museum
We looked around the four main blocks. Some are left empty apart from the objects found there when the prison was liberated (a metal bed, shackles, toilet box) and a photo of the inhabitant killed and left there by the fleeing Khmer troops. In others there are harrowing photos of the former prisoners, hands tied behind their backs and with a haunted expression; and of their young interrogators, most with blank expressionless stares.
I have in the past visited other buildings where the very stones seem to hold the ghosts of past events – Alcatraz, Ellis Island (before it was done-up as a tourist sight), the Ark in Bukhara … But perhaps none more so than here. The almost-empty cells, the bleak corridors, the strands of barbed wire; all seem haunted by the part they played in the terrors suffered by those who were held and tortured within these walls.
I could understand completely why Chum Mey couldn’t bear to come back here for so long; and also why he had finally taken the brave step of confronting its ghosts, so that he could share his story with us.
I am sharing that story with you, as he wanted us to – the story of one very exceptional person around the world.
I visited Cambodia in 2020, just before COVID-19 shut down the world