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…

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