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All Pity Choked
Voices from S-21, by David Chandler
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Pol Pot and his communists took control of Cambodia in April 1975 and proceeded to impose on that country doctrines they had picked up when students in 1950s Paris. Their regime lasted until January 1979, when a Vietnamese army occupied the nation’s capital after a brief war. The forty-five months that elapsed between these two events saw that picturesque, sleepy nation descend into a hell of misery and cruelty extraordinary even by Leninist standards. Of Cambodia’s original population of 7.6m, between 1.5m and 2m were murdered, a mean daily rate of more than a thousand. This is the more impressive when one considers that the methods used were mostly low-tech: starvation of course, burying alive, hanging, throat-cutting and braining with ox-cart axles. The Khmer Rouge considered bullets too precious to waste on enemies of the people.

Most of those killed for counter-revolutionary crimes (talking out of turn, being educated, falling in love, wearing eyeglasses, etc.) were dispatched on the spot and dumped in the nearest ditch. However, those thought sufficiently important to merit interrogation were taken to a facility called S-21 in the southern suburbs of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. S-21 was also known as Tuol Sleng, a name that deserves to be remembered with Auschwitz and the Kolyma as one of the dark foci of man’s inhumanity to man in the modern age. Some fourteen thousand souls went into Tuol Sleng; only a dozen came out alive. The victims included women and children — it was, of course, a capital crime to be related to an enemy of the people — and a handful of unfortunate Western yachtsmen who sailed too close to the Cambodian coast.

David Chandler is a historian who has written three previous books about Cambodia. In Voices from S-21 he examines the facility through the medium of its own voluminous archives: over four thousand confessions extracted from prisoners under interrogation and torture, plus a mass of administrative paperwork. All of this is supplemented with the recollections of eyewitnesses: S-21 workers and seven of those who survived incarceration there. Chandler’s aim is to form a complete picture of Tuol Sleng and to attempt an explanation of how such a place, performing such an inhuman function, could come to exist.

Most of the confessions were of very doubtful veracity. Having been brought to S-21, a prisoner was assumed to be guilty of something or other; it was merely a matter of finding out what. If he did not promptly confess, he was tortured until something suitable came out — which, of course, it eventually did, unless he died first (a thing the interrogators seem to have regarded as bad form). Professor Chandler remarks on the rather creepy parallel with Freudian psychoanalysis, in which analyst and patient confront each other with the certainty that there are hidden secrets to be uncovered, but only the most general idea what they might consist of. There are deep currents running here.


Reading material of this sort, one longs desperately for signs of defiance on the part of those being brutalized. All honor and glory, then, to Tan Douern, who told his torturers that “Communism means eating one can of rice a day and following the ideas of uncivilized people”; to Chou Chet, who observed that people “couldn’t get together with their families, couldn’t rest, never had any fun”; to the anonymous prisoner who was heard to shout out in the silent night “If you want to kill me, go ahead. You are the real traitor!”; and to Prak Chhean, a low-ranking soldier, who told his torturers that: “The Organization [i.e. the Communist Party] is shit.” There are also moving glimpses of how unbearably sweet freedom appears to those who have lost it:

What the prisoners missed most, it seems, was happiness, an elusive but almost palpable condition that they connected with family life, abundant food, and the freedom to go where they pleased. This nostalgia also affected prison workers.

Yes, even the interrogators and torturers were miserable. As in Stalin’s terror, they frequently ended up as prisoners themselves. Insufficient enthusiasm for the work was, of course, counter-revolutionary. “We were all spying on each other,” one of them later reported. Staying alive was a high-wire act, at the peril of sudden unpredictable gusts of wind. There were no guidelines; the party line was liable to change at any moment; what was correct yesterday would get you killed today. “We just kept smiling but we were tense inside,” one cadre remembers. And so the prison workers ploughed on grimly, looking over their shoulders, “all pity choked with custom of fell deeds.”

Professor Chandler has done his work well, with the frank objectivity that is the only possible approach to such a catalog of madness. This is a necessary book, but a profoundly dismaying and depressing one. Its message is simple: never, ever let middle-class revolutionary intellectuals take control of your country. If by mischance they do, run like hell.

(Republished from The National Post by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Cambodia, Review 
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