Warning, some images and footage for this post may be triggering.
(sean Sprague/ collected skulls from Cambodia Killing Fields)
For those who do not know, the Khmer Rouge was a self-titled communist political party in Cambodia that was thrust into prominence and power because of illegal U.S. air raids on Cambodian soil during the Vietnam War. After the U.S. toppled the Cambodian government and installed Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge ascendency was fairly inevitable as Nol was both guilty of abuses himself and also implicated in the US bombing campaign. It is widely believed that prior to U.S. incursion into Cambodia, that the Khmer Rouge was quickly becoming a small, fringe, organization in the hills with only a handful of members many of whom who had been previously trained by the British during the first Indochine war. However the ranks and their anti-capitalist message began to swell as Cambodia became a bombing target. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, used his party’s new found popularity to take over the government and began a slaughter of any and all people thought to have supported the American troops, capitalism, or the previous government. Their social engineering agrarian “reforms” also led to the starvation and abuse of the Cambodian people and the massacring of whole villages. From 1975 to 1979 when the Vietnamese managed to remove them, 1.5 to 2 million people died horrible deaths at the hands of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot himself was never put on trial.
(Pictures of the Children killed in s-21 prison from the Tuol Sleng Memorial)
5 members of the Khmer Rouge went on trial today for their part in the 1970s massacres of the Cambodian people. Kaing Guek Eav “Duch” oversaw the s-21 prison in Phenom Penh. The prison was a former school converted to torture “political dissidents” and intellectuals against the regime in 1976. Between 16,000 and 30,000 men, women, and children were imprisoned there. Prisoners spent their days shackled to the floor or their beds in makeshift cells and often made to use the floor as their bathrooms. They were tortured (including beaten with whips, chains, and the butts of guns; hung from cielings by their arms for days, waterboarded or momentarily drown in pits of water only to be revived, etc.), intentionally starved, raped, and killed; the crimes were all documented and photographed by Nheim Ein, the prison photographer located by an American journalist in 1989. People were tortured regardless of their actual affiliation or only on suspicion of being anti-Khmer Rouge an all ultimately signed lengthy confessions to crimes most did not commit as a result of torture and imprisonment.
Of the 16,000 to 30,000 people imprisoned at S-21, its is estimated that less than 12 of them survived. 1 of them helped run the memorial museum and 7 others helped give their stories to researchers and journalists to piece together the atrocities of the prison and make sure that it never happened again.
Duch was a former school teacher turned special security during the civil war in Cambodia. He was appointed director in June of 1996 and was believed to be in charge when s-21 was invaded by the Vietnamese in 1979. By most witness testimony Duch was intimately involved in terrorizing both prisoners and low level staff. He was also the one who decided when prisoners would die. The most common method of execution was a blunt object to the head in order to save on ammunition . . . His decisions were often aribtrary. He evenallowed the torture and killing of two of his own family members for supposed anti-KR sentiment.
Despite apologizing for his crimes, Duch demanded in open court that he be set free pending trial b/c he had already been held for 8 years in military prison awaiting the final tribunal. Spectators in the court opened laughed at the irony of his request. And while I agree, I wonder how we will ever establish a free and equal society if our thirst for vengeance always justifies the sanctioned breach of civil rights in the name of justice. (And yes, I believe what Duch did was monstruous and that he should be punished to the full extent of the law.)
As if in anticipation of such questions, the trials were predated by Truth and Reconciliation meetings meant to prepare Cambodians for the revisiting of the atrocities and the potential lack of repentance from high officials in the Khmer Rouge who will be put on trial. These commissions are also planned to go on during the trial. The hope is that even if the official court does not uncover the truth that so many forced to live alongside their former tormentors will finally have some justice and some peace.
The demeanor of the other Khmer Rouge charged in the official trial speaks to the importance of these community forums since no one but Duch have shown any real sign of remorse for their crimes. Most maintain their innocence.
Nuon Chea, known as “second brother/brother #2,” will go on trial after the end of Duch’s testimony. He was considered to be the second most powerful man during the Khmer Rouge reign after Pol Pot. In 1960, Nuon became Deputy Secretary of the Central Committee and a member of its Standing Committee, the two most senior bodies responsible for Party policy. He held those positions until the Khmer Rouge disbanded.
According to reports by others involved in s-21, including Duch, Chea picked out and arrested many of the people sent to S-21 himself and would sometimes give instructions about how they would be killed.
Describing the killing of eight Westerners who were seized by the Khmer Rouge, Duch said, “Nuon Chea ordered me to burn their bodies with tires and leave no bones.” (NYT)
He was also said to have ordered the murder of all the remaining prisoners when it became clear the Khmer Rouge would fall. According to eyewitness reports of the prison on the day the Vietnamese discovered it, there were several people whose throats had been recently slit and whose blood still pooled on the floor when they entered (Chandler 2000: 3). These are presumably the last prisoners Duch and Chea had killed.
In an example of pure flippancy, Chea, who has lived most of his life with his wife in a village almost exclusively populated by former Khmer Rouge and their supporters, responded to his arrest with:
Actually, we are very sorry not only for the lives of the people of Cambodia, but even for the lives of all animals that suffered because of the war. (NYT see link above)
His statement was not about unethical treatment of animals but rather an unrepetant expression of how little he cared about the lives of those he helped kill. He is believed to have also issued the order for the “purge of the Eastern region” a crime for which he has yet to show remorse.
Also arrested and awaiting trial are Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan. Sary was a member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and was a deputy Prime Minister from 1975-1978. Like Kaing, he was also a school teacher prior to the take over. Unlike Kaing, Sary continued his allegiance to the party after the Vietnamese invasion, holding the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1975-1982 when he handed it over to Samphan. Ien Sary’s indictment by the tribunal directly contradicts his pardon from King Norodom Sihanouk in the early 90s, the reason is his continued Khmer Rouge activities after the pardon. Sary continued to command forces and rule over Pailin in the 1990s hoping to bring about the return of the Khmer Rouge and so-called communism to the region.
Samphan was a former member of Sihanouk’s cabinet who balked at suppression of Marxist political groups and thinking in Cambodia. He was also a college professor whose dissertation included much of the road map for the clearing of the cities for “Year Zero.” He was considered to be the intellectual mastermind behind the driving of Cambodians out of the cities and into the rural areas that resulted in massive starvation, separation of families, and trampling deaths that began the “restructuring” of Cambodian life under the Khmer Rouge something he continues to deny:
Giry: Your Ph.D. thesis, written in 1959, advocated the democratic collectivization of the Cambodian countryside. What was its relationship to the policies of the Khmer Rouge?
Samphan: No relationship. It was a very academic, unrealizable thesis. [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot thought of me as a patriotic intellectual. A patriot, but intellectual—in other words, incapable of heading the revolution. When I told him in 1975 that evacuating Phnom Penh would alienate the people from the party, he compared me to Gorky, who, distressed by the famine in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, kept questioning Lenin.
After joining Pol Pot, Samphan was made Secretary of State and then later took over as Minister of Foreign Affairs from Sary. He also engineered the Paris Peace Agreement that put an end to Khmer Rouge resurgency in 1991. As the international face of the Khmer Rouge, Samphan helped mask the massacres going on in Cambodia from the outside world.
According to the BBC News, Samphan maintains that he is not guilty of the deaths under the Khmer Rouge regime because his job did not include killing anyone. He also implied that he has already suffered for his crimes since he has lived in poverty since the ousting of the Khmer Rouge. Like his relative, Sary, Samphan also showed very little remorse about the deaths caused by the Khmer Rouge:
Giry: Do you have any regrets?
Samphan: I regret that so many lives were lost for nothing. Had we at least advanced economically, the unhappiness would have been good for something.
Giry: If today Cambodia were more like China, the experience would have been worth it?
Samphan: Frankly, yes.
The only woman currently indicted is Khieu Thirith, otherwise known as Sister Phea. She was Sary’s wife and Pol Pot’s sister-in-law. She was the first Cambodian to receive a degree in English Lit and taught high school in the 1960s. She was in charge of the radio in Hanoi from 1971-72 and placed in charge of Culture and Social Welfare under the Khmer Rouge, meaning she was responsible for the re-education policies of Cambodians following the Chinese and Samphan model and the health and well-being of Cambodians which she clearly failed at given the number of people who died from starvation and preventable diseases. She also reported that the diet, health, and housing of the NW Zone in 1976 was inadequate and resulting in unecessary illness and starvation of people sent there after Pol Pot sent her to investigate. Thirith also headed the Red Cross at this time. Despite her involvement appearing to be largely with humanitarian and social programs, the tribunal alleges that she helped engineer atrocities committed in rural re-education camps and that as the de-facto first lady (her sister went insane during the regime) she helped humanize the international face of the Khmer Rouge alongside her husband. Others argue that she is being punished for being married to Ieng Sary and related to Pot. Khieu Thirith herself says she is innocent of any killings and that she was helping to rebuild hospitals during most of the regime. Her report about inadequacies in the NW supports her argument. However, she also wrote a scathing indictment of the genocide researcher Youk Chhang “his so-called findings are nothing but lies and defamation” and claimed that she and others in the Khmer Rouge “are true patriots and whose only ideal is the independence of their country and the well-being of their people.” (the Cambodia Daily Weekend Edition) Despite not being able to find any living doctors or nurses able to connect her to crimes against humanity, her own words show her ideological alignment with Pol Pot.
- Kaing Guek Eav, old. EPA/ Rungroj Yongrit
- Kaing Guek Eav, young. unattributed
- Nuon Chea old. Getty Image/ Tang Chhin Sothy
- Nuon Chea, young. Getty Image/ Agence France Press
- Ieng Sary. unattributed.
- Khieu Samphan, old. unattributed
- Khieu Samphan, young. unattributed.
- Ieng Thirith, old. Rueters/ Chor Sokunthea
- Ieng Thirith, young. unattributed.
For more Research
- Rithy Panh “S-21” (documentary that returns survivors and perpetrators to the prison to discuss what happened)
- Youk Chhang & Doug Cass “Behind the Walls” (documentary of the oral histories of S-21 survivors)
- Chanrithy Him When Broken Glass Floats (a first person narrative of what happened to Him and her family)
- Dith Pran Children of Cambodia (first person accounts from survivors of the killing fields)
- Molyda Szymusiak The Stones Cry Out (the daily horror of being driven into the countryside and trying to survive the mass murder and re-education written by the daughter of a cambodian official in the ousted gov)
- “The Khmer Rouge Rice Fields: The Story of Rape Survivor Tang Kim” (documentary)
- Survivor Stories (collected first person stories including some Khmer Rouge members)
- Chandler, David. Voices from S-21 (written from a European perspective but access to many documents)
- Nic Dunlap The Lost Executioner (written as a detective novel but includes some historical information and focuses on Duch)