Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
As I stepped off the mini-bus at the entrance to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I couldn’t take my eyes off the barbed wire fencing atop the double wall of corrugated iron. It was intimidating. And I was free to leave this former high school turned prison at any time. That was not a choice for the more than 17,000 Cambodians who were imprisoned here during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror from 1975 – 1979.
The Khmer Rouge regime was a group of communists led by Cambodian-born Pol Pot. Under his leadership more than two million Cambodians were imprisoned in forced labor camps, worked or starved to death, and executed because of their social class or for various other reasons.
One of the biggest of these labor camps was S-21 (Security Office 21) in Phnom Phen where the Tuol Sleng Museum is located. It is on the grounds of a former high school called Tuol Svay Prey. The museum’s exhibits depict the sordid and inhuman living conditions endured by the prisoners. During his four year reign of terror, Pol Pot earned a reputation as one of the world’s worst mass murderers.
I couldn’t image anyone escaping the barbed wire enclosure of S-21. I was later to learn that no one did.
The Khmer Rouge came into power in Cambodia during the Vietnam War and the prolonged civil war that followed it. Although they presented themselves as a party of peace, Pol Pot, their leader, was looking to destroy everything attached to Western decadence. His goal was to “be the first nation to create a completely Communist society . . .” and to do it quickly.
Having seen how agrarian tribes on the outskirts of Cambodia’s jungles lived free of the trappings of religion, money, education and social institutions, he was determined to impose that philosophy on the entire country.
Tired of internal fighting, naive, poorly educated people in the countryside bought into Pol Pot’s vision for a rural utopia and willingly supported his regime. Pol Pot recognized that most of the rural people were illiterate and could be easily influenced. However, to achieve his real goal of eliminating everything that smacked of capitalism, he had to deal with the educated elite class of people such as doctors, students, teachers, technicians, foreigners, and Buddhist monks.
Pol Pot himself was highly educated and from the elite class. He was from a relatively prosperous farming family and had relatives in the Cambodian royal court. He was educated in private school, went to Buddhist school and received a government scholarship to study in France. In a former life he was a teacher and played the violin.
Some believe that Pol Pot saw the inequities in Cambodia’s society and believed that it was caused by western style capitalism and fueled by America’s role in the Vietnam War which was also fought on Cambodian soil. And a revolution to transform the entire country into an agrarian society may have been one way of bring equality for everyone. No one is certain how such a noble goal turned into such a murderous genocide.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh. The regime’s security forces closed the hospitals, schools, factories, banks, stores, markets and everything else that symbolized a capitalist society. Soldiers marched the capital city’s nearly two million inhabitants into forced labor camps such as S-21.
There they were separated from their family members, detained, interrogated, and forced to perform manual labor for more than eighteen hours each day. Some of the first to be exterminated were “rich” intellectuals and anyone expressing skepticism about the regime.
Interrogation, brainwashing and extermination were the job of the youthful but self-righteous regime guards who themselves were terrified of making mistakes and becoming one of prisoners themselves. The guards were illiterate 15 and 16 year old peasant boys who carried rifles that were bigger than they were. Brainwashed into believing that what they were doing was right, the guards told prisoners that they had to be dedicated to fight against the enemy and that lack of dedicated meant that they themselves were the enemy of the revolution.
Prisoners were killed for simply being able to read or for violating any of posted security regulations which included taking a moment to think before answering guards’ questions or crying out when punished. They were also encouraged to spy on fellow prisoners, to reveal information useful to the guards and denounce each other if they saw incidences of rulebreaking. The people who survived were those who kept hidden their professional background and personal information.
Estimates of up to 30,000 prisoners were held at S-21 from 1975 until early 1979 with up to 1500 – 2000 in residence at a time. In the four year span, the Khmer Rouge dutifully created lists recording each prisoner who entered the gates and maintained dossiers containing individual detailed biographies on each inmate.
Everyone entering the prison was photographed. Most of the photographs were destroyed when the Khmer Rouge left in 1979; however, more than 6,000 of them survived. Many of them are on display in the museum.
Also on display is one of the beds to which prisoners were shackled. Although some changes have been made to accommodate tourists, one of the blood speckled walls was left as a stark reminder of the lives lost in this prison.
A metal shell box used during the Vietnam War to ship American ammunition was used as a toilet. There is also a shower facility where prisoners were hosed down on an infrequent basis. Many of the classrooms on the first floor were subdivided into tiny individual cells while the second story classrooms were used for mass detention.
More than 17,000 of the prisoners were worked to death, died of starvation, infection or torture or were killed for simply speaking to another inmate or speaking out of turn to a guard. Many of the women prisoners were raped. Others attempted suicide by throwing themselves from the upper stories of the building.
The tall wooden frame formerly used for exercise by the school’s students became a gallows. The prisoners’ hands were tied behind their back and they were hung by their feet and interrogated until they lost consciousness.
In the shade near the gallows are 14 gravesites of some of the last victims killed at the prison before prison staff fled in 1979.
There is also a display of shackles used to restrain prisoners to the concrete floor or wall or to their bed. Some prisoners were shackled together along a single long metal bar.
Another display contains the instruments of torture used by the guards to extort confessions or to entice prisoners to implicate others, sometimes falsely just to end the torture. After a confession, prisoners was usually sent to the nearby Choeung Killing Fields for extermination.
There is also a cabinet that contains skulls of some who were murdered at the prison. Of the nearly 30,000 Cambodians who entered S-21, only seven survived. Two of those survivors were artists who created propaganda for the Khmer Rouge. They later created ghostly looking paintings of some of those who were killed at the prison. A few of those paintings hang in the museum.
Under Pol Pot’s murderous regime, almost all of Cambodia’s leadership class was exterminated and nearly two million people, a quarter of its population, were killed. Without a doubt, the Khmer Rouge leader ranks among the world’s leading genocidal mass murderers.
The prison leadership staff fled when the Vietnam army invaded in 1979 leaving behind some of the youthful guards along with a bevy of evidence of their atrocities.
From the jungles of Cambodia, Pol Pot continued to lead his insurgents until 1997 when he was put under house arrest. He died at the age of 73 in a tiny thatched hut in the mountains of northern Cambodia on the eve of his capture and trial for crimes against humanity.
After completing our tour of the museum, we reboarded the mini-bus for the short trip to the Choeung Killing Fields. I couldn’t help but think about the thousands of Cambodians who took a similar ride without knowing that it was the trip of no return.