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The Burial of Cambodia

When I was in Cambodia in 1980, I told my guide that I wanted to see Tuol Sleng. This was the former Phnom Penh high school that the Khmer Rouge had converted into a prison and interrogation center and the Vietnamese had now made into a museum. He told me I needed the permission of both the Foreign Ministry, which had approved my visa, and the Information Ministry, which ran the museum.

The Foreign Ministry was housed in what was formerly the Buddhist Institute. I waited in a bare reception room until I was joined by a young man named Chum Bun Rong, the head of the press department. Mr. Bun Rong was charming and helpful. Of course I could visit Tuol Sleng, he said. We drove to the Ministry of Information, where my guide disappeared and came back with written permission.

We set off down Monivong Boulevard, the broad central avenue designed by Sihanouk and named after one of Cambodia’s kings. People here appeared to have installed themselves only temporarily in the houses and old shops. It was as if after all the forced movement and mayhem of the last ten years no one was now willing to trust any arrangement, any home, to be permanent. In the side roads there were immense piles of rubbish. Cars were rusting where they had been dumped when the Khmer Rouge emptied the city and smashed machinery in April 1975.

We turned right, off the main road, and then right again, down a pretty, leafy lane. We stopped in front of a complex of three plain buildings, built in the early Sixties by the Sihanouk government as one of the city’s principal high schools. Now over the gate was a sign, TUOL SLENG EXTERMINATION CENTER. We were met by a young student called Dara, who spoke good English and worked as a guide. About sixteen thousand people were brought to Tuol Sleng, and only about a half-dozen escaped alive in the confusion as the Vietnamese army stormed the city in early 1979; one of them, Ung Pech, was now the museum’s curator.

Most of the people brought to the prison had been Khmer Rouge cadres on whom the party had turned, as communist parties so often do on their own. Whereas straightforward “class enemies” tended to be executed in the fields without ceremony, the party leadership was determined to extract confessions from its own members accused, for whatever cause, of treason—which almost always meant collaboration with Vietnam, with the CIA, or with both.

The classrooms on the ground floor of the first building had all apparently been used as torture rooms. In each was a metal bed frame to which victims had been strapped, a school desk and chair for the interrogator. In each there was also an old US Army ammunition box, into which prisoners were supposed to defecate, and petrol cans, into which they were to urinate. Each cell also had a large photograph of the room as the Vietnamese had apparently found it after their invasion. The Khmer Rouge had departed with such speed that decaying corpses were found bound to the bed in several cells. These bodies were buried in graves in front of the building.

In one of the classrooms was a blackboard on which, the guide said, were written instructions to the prisoners on their behavior under interrogation. Underneath it was a translation into English:

  1. You must answer in conformity with the questions I ask you. Don’t try to turn away my questions.

  2. Don’t try to escape by making pretexts according to your hypocritical ideas.

  3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dares to thwart the revolution.

  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.

  5. Don’t tell me about your little incidents committed against the propriety. Don’t tell me either about the essence of the revolution.

  6. During the bastinado or the electrisisation you must not cry loudly.

  7. Do sit down quietly. Wait for the orders. If there are no orders do nothing. If I ask you to do something you must immediately do it without protesting.

  8. Don’t make any pretexts about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.1

  9. If you disobey every point of my regulations you will get either ten strokes of the whip or five shocks of electric discharge.

In the next block the classrooms had been subdivided by crude brick partitions about eight feet high into tiny cells for individual prisoners. Each was shackled by the ankle onto a piece of iron large enough to take a ship’s anchor set in the floor. Each lived here awaiting his interrogation, torture, confession, and death.

In another room a huge pile of black clothing lay displayed along one wall in direct imitation of the museum at Auschwitz. I was told these were the dead prisoners’ clothes. Also in this room was a heap of typewriters, plates, cooking utensils, and a broken photocopier, which the guide said had been found there.

The most terrible of the exhibits was the photographs. The Khmer Rouge had abolished much of what we think of as modern bureaucracy—except, it seemed, for the function of government with which they are most closely identified, repression. The prisoners at Tuol Sleng had almost all been photographed—either on arrival at the school, or after their grisly deaths. The Vietnamese had found the negatives and taken them away for enlargement, and the pictures were now displayed around the walls.

There were photographs of bodies lying strapped to the metal beds, of others cast on the floor with their throats cut. But the studies of the arrivals were the most poignant. They had been stood or seated before a draped sheet, as in a photographer’s studio. For the most part their faces were blank, but some attempted a tentative, slightly hopeful smile, as if they wished to believe that by wooing the cameraman they might, somehow, obtain mercy. There were men, there were women, and there were a lot of children. They had apparently been brought here when their parents were arrested. Some had been photographed with their mothers, some were alone. They were of all ages. Sometimes their faces showed a merciful incomprehension, but often they were as rigid with terror as their elders. All had been murdered.

Upstairs in the school the files were kept. These were almost the only Khmer Rouge documents to which the Vietnamese had allowed foreigners access; nothing from the party leadership was available. At Tuol Sleng there was a translation, written in pencil, of Lenin’s On the State and another of an East German book called Who’s Who in the CIA, which is merely a list of American names and addresses. The other files were filled with confessions. All were laboriously taken down in longhand, and some were then retyped as, one after another, these prisoners of the party had been forced to admit to monstrous and absurd crimes. There were pages and pages of confessions in folders signed by those who admitted to having secretly betrayed the revolution for years by working for the CIA or the Vietnamese. There were elaborate charts and card indexes crossreferencing different “traitors” and groups of “traitors.”

The fantastic nature of the confessions is illustrated by the one extracted from John Dewhirst, a young Englishman who was captured along with two friends on their yacht in the Gulf of Thailand. The confession began, “My name is John Dawson Dewhirst, a British citizen. I am a CIA agent who officially works as a teacher in Japan. I was born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, on 2 October 1952. My father was a CIA agent whose cover was headmaster of Benton Road Secondary School.”

Dewhirst declared that he himself was recruited to the CIA at the age of twelve by a friend of his father named Edward Fraser. “He was a colonel in the CIA and as a cover was an executive on the Shell BP oil company.” According to Dewhirst, his father was a CIA captain whose duty was to report on communist teachers in the Newcastle district. He had been paid $1,000 for his son’s induction into the agency.

After being tortured, Dewhirst and his friends, like almost everyone else at Tuol Sleng, were murdered. One of the most prominent Khmer Rouge officials murdered in Tuol Sleng was Hu Nim, who, like many of his peers, had become a communist in Paris in the late Fifties and early Sixties. He had then spent eight years in the Khmer Rouge maquis, and he was minister of information in the Khmer Rouge government until his arrest in 1977.

In his “confession,” Hu Nim was compelled to declare that he too had been “an officer of the CIA” since 1957, working toward

the construction of capitalism in Kampuchea…completely toeing the line of the American imperialists…. On the surface it seemed that I was a “total revolutionary,” as if I was “standing on the people’s side.” … But, in fact, deep in my mind, the essence was service of the American imperialists…. I wrote a thesis for my law doctorate which even took a progressive stand…. These were the cheapest acts which hid my reactionary, traitorous, corrupted elements, representing the feudalist, capitalist, imperialist establishment and the CIA…. I’m not a human being, I’m an animal.

Hu Nim was “crushed to bits” in July 1977.

Just as the Khmer Rouge had attempted to impose a fanatical and brutal perspective upon the country, so the Vietnamese have since devised another order of unreality. In one room at Tuol Sleng the new sanitized history of the Cambodian revolution was displayed in texts and old photographs. There were pictures of Mao Tse-tung with Pol Pot to emphasize the evil of that connection and the complicity of Vietnam’s own great en the Khmer Rouge. There were many blurred photographs of hitherto obscure Cambodian communist cadres, whose roles were now being exaggerated so as to demonstrate that the party had had a tradition of true Marxism-Leninism and of international solidarity with Vietnam, which the Pol Pot group had sought to extinguish by murder. There was nothing to suggest the extent of Vietnam’s own past support for the Khmer Rouge revolution.

In the account of the end of French colonial rule in the 1950s and the growth of the country in the 1960s there was not a single reference to Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had in fact led his country for twenty-five years. The Prince not only had negotiated independence from France but also had managed, until the end of the Sixties, to keep Cambodia largely out of the growing war in Vietnam. During the 1970–1975 war in Cambodia he had been titular leader of the revolutionary forces, living in exile in Peking without real power, but officially recognized by Hanoi and many other governments as the true head of state of Cambodia. After the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975 he returned to Phnom Penh; his usefulness over, the Khmer Rouge stripped him of office and pt him under close house arrest in the almost empty city. As the Vietnamese tanks drew close to Phnom Penh he was flown out in a Chinese airliner and was dispatched to New York at once by the Chinese to denounce the Vietnamese attack at the United Nations. He had excoriated both the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge. Now he was yawing around in uncertain limbo between Peking, Paris, and Pyongyang, while at home he had been removed from history.

  1. 1

    Kampuchea Krom is the Cambodian name for the Mekong Delta, which used to be part of Cambodia and is now in Vietnam, and which the Pol Pot leadership coveted. Presumably, anyone accused of having a Kampuchea Krom accent would be declared a Vietnamese spy.

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