Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison

Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison

Language: English

Pages: 251

ISBN: 0520222474

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


The horrific torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge during the 1970s is one of the century's major human disasters. David Chandler, a world-renowned historian of Cambodia, examines the Khmer Rouge phenomenon by focusing on one of its key institutions, the secret prison outside Phnom Penh known by the code name "S-21." The facility was an interrogation center where more than 14,000 "enemies" were questioned, tortured, and made to confess to counterrevolutionary crimes. Fewer than a dozen prisoners left S-21 alive.

During the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) era, the existence of S-21 was known only to those inside it and a few high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials. When invading Vietnamese troops discovered the prison in 1979, murdered bodies lay strewn about and instruments of torture were still in place. An extensive archive containing photographs of victims, cadre notebooks, and DK publications was also found. Chandler utilizes evidence from the S-21 archive as well as materials that have surfaced elsewhere in Phnom Penh. He also interviews survivors of S-21 and former workers from the prison.

Documenting the violence and terror that took place within S-21 is only part of Chandler's story. Equally important is his attempt to understand what happened there in terms that might be useful to survivors, historians, and the rest of us. Chandler discusses the "culture of obedience" and its attendant dehumanization, citing parallels between the Khmer Rouge executions and the Moscow Show Trails of the 1930s, Nazi genocide, Indonesian massacres in 1965-66, the Argentine military's use of torture in the 1970s, and the recent mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda. In each of these instances, Chandler shows how turning victims into "others" in a manner that was systematically devaluing and racialist made it easier to mistreat and kill them. More than a chronicle of Khmer Rouge barbarism, Voices from S-21 is also a judicious examination of the psychological dimensions of state-sponsored terrorism that conditions human beings to commit acts of unspeakable brutality.

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telephone directory suggests that Duch and his close associates were unwilling or unable to forsake the rankings and the deference that had marked prerevolutionary Khmer society and that the revolution had promised to overturn. Those beneath them might also have been reluctant to see the ranks abolished. The former guard Kok Sros, for example, recalled that on one occasion, “Duch told me I had done a good job, and I felt that he liked me. I was pretty sure from then on that I was going to

the prison the rules for guards were apparently more relaxed. A night-watch report from October 1976, which suggests as much, is the only surviving document recording conversations between guards and prisoners. This report provides a rare glimpse of prisoners and guards in relatively humane interaction and also records some examples of prisoners’ courage and resistance, sadly lacking from most of their torture-induced confessions.48 summary sent to the older brother in charge of the guard group

supposing that this information was what the interrogators wanted most. The regime’s naïveté in filling the CPK’s ranks with so many “enemies” is never mentioned. Instead, the sequences of betrayal in the confessions were intended to emphasize the conspiratorial character of society outside the Party and to cut short and discredit any genuine revolutionary activity by prisoners or their erstwhile patrons. In this fashion, many men and women who had devoted their lives to the revolutionary cause,

for me. Stage 2. From the evening of 4 May until [today] I underwent all kinds of torture according to santebal’s procedures. Santebal’s perception [so far] has been that I am a 100 percent traitor and that there is no way at all that I am not a traitor. So, given their stance, the level of torture has gradually been increased so that as I face this situation my feelings fluctuate wildly. I do not see any way to get out. [Tonight] my feelings are as follows: 1. If I admitted to being a traitor

systematically, and without remorse. Writing about the Holocaust and modernity in the context of Milgram’s work, Zygmunt Bauman made a humane but devastating statement. “The most frightening news brought about by the Holocaust and what we learned of its perpetrators,” Bauman reminded us, “was not the likelihood that ‘this’ could be done to us, but the idea that we could do it.” If the significance of S-21 (or the Holocaust, for that matter) could be reduced to a sentence, Bauman’s is the one I

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