Kaing Guek Eav, the Cambodian communist prison chieftain known as Duch who was serving a life sentence for his crimes, has died. The commandant of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison compound in Phnom Penh more than four decades ago later described his work as “evil eating evil.” The horrors that he represented, including an ideological rather than religious holocaust, further recede into history.
The Vietnam War was a great tragedy on every level. Decades of war. Millions of casualties. Devastated lands. Futile French attempts to retain a lost empire. Nationalism perverted by communism. A costly U.S. attempt to save an unloved autocracy from brutal dictatorship. Tens of thousands of Americans killed, disabled, and scarred.
Thankfully, the fabled domino theory stopped at two nations, Laos and Cambodia. But the damage done the latter was unfathomable. North Vietnamese forces opened the way for the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists. The KR soon took control of the fight from the Vietnamese and ended resistance by the desperate, squabbling, inefficient, undemocratic Khmer Republic. On April 17, 1975, the capital, Phnom Penh, fell.
No one imagined the terrors that impended for the nation renamed as Democratic Kampuchea. Although the North Vietnamese were ruthless and brutal, they generally sought to “reeducate” rather than slaughter their defeated opponents. In contrast, the French-educated KR leadership was the epitome of deracinated intellectuals determined to create a “new” man and society, irrespective of cost. Observed French scholar Henri Locard: “the entire country was to become in a way one big prison.”
Joseph Stalin killed millions of Ukrainians to industrialize. KR leader Pol Pot, known as Brother Number One, and his acolytes murdered to purify the land. The cities were emptied in order to turn the countryside into a peasant paradise. Alas, more than a few eggs were broken to make this national omelet. Of a population of roughly eight million, up to three million died. The most common estimate is 1.7 million, an incredible 21 percent of Cambodia’s people. Urban dwellers, suspected of ideological treason by their new overseers, also were unprepared to become modern serfs. Perhaps 40 percent of people living in Phnom Penh when the unsmiling KR cadres arrived died. Slaughter on such scale is beyond imagination, a number the numbs the mind and soul. The country became known as the “killing fields.”
Yet, as demonstrated by Stalin, who loosed the Great Terror on fellow party members, including his closest colleagues, and Mao Zedong, who unleashed the Cultural Revolution to eliminate “capitalist roaders” and others lacking sufficient revolutionary fervor, the purge is essential to revolutionary communism. It is never enough to summarily execute officials of the old regime. Faux allies undermining the revolution they purport to support also must be ferreted out and eliminated. That is where Duch came in.
The son of Chinese immigrants, he was a mathematics teacher who joined the Khmer communist movement in 1967. He ran jails in guerrilla-controlled territory, picking up ideas for how to brutally interrogate prisoners from French and Cambodian police manuals. He realized that it was important not to kill prematurely, lest a confession be lost. After the KR’s victory he was chosen to run the notorious Security Prison 21, or S-21.
In May 1976, Tuol Svay Pray High School was turned into S-21, more famous today as Tuol Sleng prison. It was only one of a couple hundred murderous detention centers. The new rulers had many scores to settle. There were three waves of repression. The first was directed against almost anyone associated with the fallen Lon Nol regime. In general, the victims were murdered outside of formal prison. No need to waste space: their guilt was certain.
The second bout of repression began in the latter part of 1975 and was directed against similar classes of people, including professionals and civil servants. Many of these victims had either been denounced by enemies or prisoners or had revealed incriminating details of their pasts when writing their autobiographies for the new rulers. These arrests coincided with establishment of the national prison network.
The final round of brutality began in 1976 and, explained Locard, “swept through all classes of the new society,” including “the Khmer Rouge cadres and military personnel themselves. All categories of the revolutionary society were soon engulfed in the maelstrom of repression as the regime was getting more and more deranged and saw ‘enemies,’ khmang, everywhere.”
Still, Tuol Sleng had unique status “serving” the capital. The facility was home to as many as 30,000 — estimates vary widely — people in less than three years; among its residents were some 80 foreigners, including four Americans. S-21’s purpose was simple: extermination. No one who entered could expect to exit. Only 12 inmates are known to have survived. While heading operations there the trusted Duch was appointed head of the KR’s “special branch” in charge of prisons and international security.
He was good at his job. Seth Mydans of the New York Times wrote of “the vigor, creativity and cruelty with which [Duch] ran his torture house.” The prison-meister’s work ended in January 1979, when a Vietnamese invasion ousted the KR from the capital. Duch fled with the rest of the communist leadership, only to be demoted for having failed to destroy incriminating documents before leaving.
I visited Phnom Penh 20 years ago and toured S-21. It was one of the more moving and horrifying experiences of my life. Tuol Sleng sits in an area scarcely bigger than a football field. The property, originally used to do good, became a center of extraordinary evil. Some 1,700 dedicated KR believers sought to expose and eliminate enemies of the revolution. The exterminators were busy until the end. When Vietnamese troops entered the facility, they found 14 dead victims still shackled to metal bed frames.
Now a museum, Tuol Sleng overwhelms through its photos, of the living as well as of the dead. The Khmer Rouge were nothing if not meticulous. They kept arrest and execution records and filed confessions; they also numbered and photographed incoming prisoners, often in profile as well as in front.
An interesting footnote to Duch’s trial was the testimony of Nhem En, who at age 16 became one of six photographers at S-21. The latter joined the KR in 1961 when he was nine and performed for visiting delegations. By 12 he had been trained to use a weapon. As the North Vietnamese neared Phnom Penh he fled with other KR cadres. He only defected from the KR, which maintained a desultory and diminishing resistance after the Vietnamese invasion, in 1997, two years before the movement disbanded. He was a witness against Duch in the latter’s trial.
It is the photographers’ images of the living that most haunt Tuol Sleng. Men and women. Boys and girls. Babies. The photos lined the walls of four rooms.
Faces of people. Once alive, now dead. A few look angry, even defiant, seething hostility evident in their eyes. Others look confused. Many radiate anxiety and panic, eyes wide at the fate they saw before them. One seemed to be crying, almost begging for his life.
But most look dead. They could still think and breathe. Their hearts still pumped blood through their bodies. However, their eyes were listless, cold, lifeless. Their oppressors had crushed the humanity out of them and casually tossed it aside.
One picture was particularly unnerving. A man sporting the number 162 sat with vacant, desolate stare. He knew only too well that his life would soon be over. The way he likely died is not for the faint-hearted.
Tuol Sleng was technically an interrogation center. Guilt was known ahead of time, otherwise a person would not have been detained. “Everyone who was arrested and sent to S-21 was presumed dead already,” Duch testified at his trial. But people usually failed to admit their guilt, so interrogation required torture. And torture often meant death.
Duch lived in obscurity until an Irish photographer tracked him down in 1999, leading to his arrest and trial. He had converted to Christianity. When confronted, he showed guilt and admitted responsibility — but still sought an acquittal.
At trial his conduct oscillated, but he appeared forthright in many of his admissions. “I never believed that the confessions I received told the truth,” he allowed. “At most, they were about 40 percent true.” Moreover, reported the New York Times, “he said he believed that only 20 percent of the people whose names had been extracted through torture were genuine opponents of the regime. Those people were in turn pursued, arrested and tortured until they, too, produced the names of imagined accomplices.” As a result, observed Duch, “The work expanded” with additional arrests and interrogations.
And what work it was. On view are the implements of coercion, seemingly one for every occasion. Axes and knives to slice. Clubs and hammers to batter. And shovels if the other tools were not punishing enough. There are spare metal bed frames and wooden slabs to which inmates were secured and tortured. Unassuming boxes holding scorpions that were placed on prisoners. And electrical wires used to shock inmates. Even seemingly innocent objects were used to inflict pain and death. Simple tubs in which to drown rather than bathe occupants — the Full Monty rather than waterboarding. There even was a high bar for suspending inmates.
Although death was the ultimate end, the jailers thoughtfully strung barbed wired around open areas in the cellblocks to prevent prisoners from jumping to their death. You would die, but only when the party believed the time to be right. And that typically was only after you confessed. As Martin Stuart-Fox and Bunheang Ung explained in their book The Murderous Revolution, enemies “were never simply arrested and shot: authorities had first to obtain confessions which would justify their arrest, and thus confirm the omniscience and justice of Angkar [the Communist Party] in arresting them.”
If there was any justice at Tuol Sleng, it was that KR cadre were among the victims. This revolution, like so many revolutions before it, consumed its own. Several former ministers and other high-level officials ended up at S-21 and are immortalized on the walls as among the facility’s guests. Several members of Tuol Sleng’s staff ended up as prisoners. Even two of Duch’s brothers-in-law were purged, one of whom was imprisoned and killed at S-21.
Some prisoners died at the prison. As burial space disappeared, however, most were sent to what became known as the “Killing Fields,” named after the village of Choeung Ek, around 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh. The slaughter was daily; the number of victims varied, peaking at about 300 in May 1978. The process was gruesome. The museum detailed the process: prisoners “were told to kneel down and then they were clubbed on the neck with tools such as cart axle, hoe, stick, wooden club or whatever else served as a weapon of death. They were sometimes stabbed with knives or swords to save using bullets, which were deemed to be too expensive.” Duch explained that the party dictated the execution method: “usually, we slit their throats. We killed them like chickens.”
Choeung Ek also is a brutal commemoration of death. A white monument juts up 40 feet or so, dominating the surrounding fields and trees. From a distance it looks like it could commemorate most anything — a military victory, important statesman, or historical event. But this monument is different. It is filled with skulls.
When I visited, only 86 of 129 mass graves had been excavated. The 86 had yielded 8,985 victims, whose skulls and bones are stored in the 17-level monument. Atop the holes of varying sizes were signs listing the number of bodies — 450 in one mass grave that was about 20 feet by 10 feet, for instance. “Many holes, same, same,” explained my guide.
But there was more. Stub your toe on the path in between holes and you weren’t likely to find a stone. It is more likely the tip of a leg bone or a jaw poking through the dirt. The bodies of foreigners were burned to eliminate any evidence. However, similar precautions were not necessary for Kampuchean criminals and traitors.
Duch was never a senior political figure, but his death shows how the actuarial tables are finally bringing justice to murderous Kampuchean communists. Most of the leaders are gone. Pol Pot died in 1998. Other top level officials passed, far too peacefully, while on trial. Among the original leaders only Khieu Samphan, who succeeded Pol Pot as KR leader in 1985, is still alive — defending the KR even while serving a life sentence. He received his doctorate at the Sorbonne for a thesis entitled “Cambodia’s Economy and Industrial Development.” Needless to say, there wasn’t much industry in Kampuchea when he served as Chairman of the State Presidium, or head of state.
The tortured at Tuol Sleng and dead at Choeung Ek were mostly innocent, victims of totalitarian egalitarianism, in which life means nothing and the collective means everything. Alas, the world is full of monuments to incredible evil cloaked with the rhetoric of humanity. Few are more appropriate or moving than tragic remembrances of the unique form of communist madness that consumed and destroyed Cambodia 45 years ago. The Cambodian people continue to suffer today. It will take more time for this ravaged country to recover from the madness known as the Khmer Rouge.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.