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:
- You must answer in conformity with the questions I ask you. Don’t try to turn away my questions.
- Don’t try to escape by making pretexts according to your hypocritical ideas.
- Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dares to thwart the revolution.
You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
Don’t tell me about your little incidents committed against the propriety. Don’t tell me either about the essence of the revolution.
During the bastinado or the electrisisation you must not cry loudly.
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.
Don’t make any pretexts about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.1
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.
“Why is there no mention of Sihanouk?” I asked my guide.
“On the advice of the experts,” he replied.
“What experts?” I asked.
“Vietnamese experts,” he said.
One entire wall of this room had been made into a map of Cambodia—perhaps fourteen feet high and as many wide. On glass eight inches in front of the wall the rivers and lakes of the country were painted blood red. Behind the glass, arranged in the shape of the country, were hundreds of skulls collected from a nearby mass grave. This was another contribution by the Vietnamese experts.
The same Vietnamese experts have assiduously tried to associate Pol Pot with Hitler, and they have had considerable success. Thus Tuol Sleng prison has been called “an Asian Auschwitz.” The museum was indeed derived in part from Nazi history, but the prison was not. This distinction seems to me to be important. In the spring of 1979, the Vietnamese, with the help of East German advisers, organized Tuol Sleng, according to officials of the Heng Samrin regime, so as to recall images of the Nazi concentration camps. Moreover, in 1983, in preparation for the fifth anniversary of the Vietnamese takeover, the museum was remodeled. The task was carried out in good part by its efficient curator, Ung Pech. He was sent to East Germany to visit Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen for new ideas on how to make Tuol Sleng more closely resemble the Nazi “original.”
In fact, it is hard to think of two prisons more different than Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng. Auschwitz was a work camp and an extermination camp in which millions of people—perhaps as many as four million—died or were murdered. About half of them were Jews, and they died precisely because of that. In Tuol Sleng, by contrast, about sixteen thousand people had been killed, most of them because they were members of the Khmer Rouge apparat, or families of such members, on whom the organization had turned in its revolutionary and chauvinistic ferocity. In Auschwitz there was no such thing as a “confession,” no “party” to whom disloyalty was alleged and which controlled events. In Tuol Sleng, confessions were meticulously extracted from the tortured victims before they were done to death in the name of the party they were supposed to have betrayed. Forcing such confessions was vile and paranoid. But it was not unprecedented.
The constant invocations of Nazism helped to obscure the fact that the Khmer Rouge was a Marxist-Leninist organization and that Tuol Sleng resembled much more a Stalinist prison than a Nazi concentration camp. (“I have nothing to depend on, I have only the Communist Party of Kampuchea,” wrote Hu Nim, in his “confession.” “Would the party please show clemency towards me. My life is completely dependent upon the party.”) Yet I recall no one describing Tuol Sleng as an “Asian Lubyanka.” Stalinist crimes have not been registered upon modern memory to anything like the extent of those of the Nazis.
The Nazi death camps are preserved by both the communist and the social-democratic societies that took over the wreckage of the Reich, as monuments and as warnings. Indeed, the horror of Nazism is one of the few issues on which communist and capitalist propaganda is agreed and which each seeks constantly to reiterate.2 That is a powerful combination. By contrast there are no similar shrines to the victims of Stalin; on the contrary, the vast apparats of the Soviet state and its allies, including Vietnam, are geared to obscuring rather than broadcasting the reality of the crimes that were committed.
Since 1979, Vietnam has refused to compromise over its occupation of Cambodia. It has controlled most of the country; the rest of the world has not allowed it to control Cambodia’s seat in the UN. That is still held by the Khmer Rouge, the Government of Democratic Kampuchea. Since 1982, they have been in alliance with an anticommunist resistance group, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, and with Prince Sihanouk. Indeed, the Prince is the titular head of the government of “Democratic Kampuchea.” These three are not happy partners, and inside Cambodia itself the Khmer Rouge is much the strongest militarily.
During the past five years, as a result of Vietnam’s intransigence, the Khmer Rouge forces have been rebuilt by Vietnam’s enemies. They have been supplied with Chinese weapons through Thailand. Their camps along the Thai border have been supplied with food provided by the United Nations. Many hundreds of thousands of genuine refugees have been fed there—but so have Khmer Rouge troops. Without the arms and the food, the Khmer Rouge would not have been able to restore themselves into what now is thought to be a fighting force of some 25,000. In recent months they seem to have been attacking more and more widely across the country.
The strategy of helping the Khmer Rouge, devised by China and implemented with various degrees of enthusiasm by the ASEAN countries of Southeast Asia as well as by China, has the support of the Western nations. Each government involved—though China has been ambiguous—has stated that it never wishes to see the Khmer Rouge back in power and that the strategy being followed is intended merely to force Vietnam to the bargaining table. And many of the countries that have voted for the Khmer Rouge to continue holding the Cambodian seat in the UN have done so because they fear the precedent of legitimizing Vietnam’s invasion. Yugoslavia is an obvious and telling example. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Khmer Rouge have been revitalized. They will not go away.
And while this has happened, there has been a tendency to forget or at least to play down the Khmer Rouge’s appalling human rights record when it was in power. There is still no certain calculation of the numbers who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, or died as a result of its policies, between 1975 and the end of 1978. Most of the estimates that have been made conclude that between one and two million people died or were killed out of a population of roughly seven million. There has been little investigation of the Khmer Rouge regime; a former head of American Amnesty, David Hawk, has found it hard to arouse much interest in the United States, let alone any funds, for a serious commission to study the Khmer Rouge phenomenon. The world has moved on and looked away. The group that Jimmy Carter called “the world’s worst violators of human rights” is now used as a convenient strategic chip in international politics.
The continuation of the Khmer Rouge undoubtedly represents a dreadful failure of political imagination and a denial of memory. But it is hard to attach sole responsibility for it to Vietnam’s opponents. Vietnam itself bears considerable responsibility. Leaving aside the support that Hanoi gave to the Khmer Rouge before 1978 (and the extent to which it spokesmen undercut the refugee stories about Khmer Rouge conduct, thus adding to disbelief in them, particularly on the Western left), Vietnam’s conduct since its invasion of Cambodia has rarely suggested that it wished to see a compromise in which the Khmer Rouge was removed as a significant force in Cambodia—which was what the ASEAN countries and their Western partners insisted was their aim.
After its occupation of Phnom Penh in January 1979, Hanoi might have signaled a serious desire to reach a compromise satisfactory to its neighbors. It is impossible to say whether any such suggestion would have been accepted by the Chinese or by the ASEAN countries, but the point is that it was never made. Time and again in the months after their invasion, the Vietnamese reiterated that their involvement in Cambodia was “irreversible” despite the fact that so many other nations found it intolerable. In this setting it was inevitable that those other nations would seek to apply all possible forms of pressure upon Hanoi to change its mind. The Vietnamese could have predicted that such pressures would include support for the Khmer Rouge.
When I traveled around Cambodia, it seemed that this was remarkably convenient for the Vietnamese. They could hope to have their occupation given legitimacy by a people who traditionally mistrusted them only if it was seen as the lesser of two evils, preventing the return of the Khmer Rouge. While Thailand and the Chinese were rebuilding Khmer Rouge strength along the Thai border, few if any Cambodians would have wanted the Vietnamese to leave. Within Cambodia, Vietnam’s constant propaganda was designed both to instill fear about what would happen were Vietnamese protection against the Khmer Rouge withdrawn and to concentrate responsibility for Khmer Rouge crimes on “the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique” alone.
In this way Hanoi avoided any “de-Nazification” or “de-Stalinization” campaign and was able, on the contrary, to fill the Heng Samrin administration with cadres who had previously worked, with varying degrees of diligence, for “Pol Pot.” Heng Samrin himself, Hun Sen, the foreign minister, even the minister of justice, Ouk Boun Chheoun, were all Khmer Rouge officials during most of the three years of Khmer Rouge rule. They are only three of thousands of former Khmer Rouge whom the Vietnamese “turned.”
Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were indeed condemned to death in a show-trial that the Vietnamese staged in Phnom Penh in August 1979. But over the next four years hardly any other Khmer Rouge officials were charged with any offense. After 1975, Vietnam imprisoned some 200,000 of its own people without trial and for indefinite periods in harsh “reeducation” camps. But former Khmer Rouge officers were often deemed to be more reliable than former officials or soldiers of the Thieu or Lon Nol regimes. For the Khmer Rouge, “reeducation” might consist of a short course in Hanoi’s interpretation of Marxism-Leninism. For noncommunists it could mean indefinite incarceration.3
Many of the fruits of “liberation” by Vietnam had been sweet in 1979; but it must have been bitter for many hundreds of thousands of ordinary noncommunist Cambodians to realize that their liberators placed more confidence in the torturers than in their victims, that many of those people were actually being promoted by the new order into positions of new authority over them. In one fishing village on a tributary of the Mekong I met an old woman who described with great passion how the Khmer Rouge murderer of her son was living, unpunished, in the neighboring village. I did not know whether any of the officials with me on that day had also previously worked for Pol Pot, but Elizabeth Becker noted in The Washington Post the awful discrepancy between the legacy of the Khmer Rouge rule and the propaganda purposes to which it was put:
Few official gatherings are complete without a speaker who details how he or she saw children, parents, and friends murdered by Pol Pot’s henchmen, and other atrocities. It is not unusual for some of the people who carried out such orders to be seated in the audience or even on the podium with the victim recounting the story.
In a sense Vietnamese leniency toward former Khmer Rouge cadres was rendered the more disagreeable by the fact that Hanoi’s propaganda was not content with the actual crimes the Khmer Rouge committed but was determined to exaggerate them sometimes to the point of absurdity. Thus they made the claim that Pol Pot was a madman who, on orders from China, was depopulating Cambodia so that it could be restocked with Chinese. Such extravagant demonology enabled Khmer Rouge spokesmen to claim more plausibly that Vietnamese assertions could not be believed. 4
There is a comparison to be made here with Nuremberg. At that trial defendants attempted, at various stages, to absolve themselves by directing all guilt toward the demonic Hitler. The strategy did not work, if only because of the vast body of evidence that the trial gathered and published. In Cambodia, by contrast, the Vietnamese deliberately fostered the demon theory and allowed no such exhaustive examination of the records of the Khmer Rouge. No documents from the Central Committee or from the party leadership were released by Hanoi, perhaps because they would not reflect the new version of recent history which the Vietnamese sought to teach. Indeed, the only documents that the Vietnamese allowed to see the light of day were the confessions at Tuol Sleng. While these are a revealing testament to the fanatical brutality of the Khmer Rouge, they hardly constitute an adequate record of its years in power.
Moreover, even access to the Tuol Sleng records was increasingly restricted. While David Hawk found it difficult to arouse much Western interest in a detailed study of the Khmer Rouge, his problems were not just in the West. Last year I was told by rueful officials of the Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh that while they had wanted to grant his request to return to Phnom Penh to make microfiches of the records at Tuol Sleng, their Vietnamese “experts” had vetoed the proposal. They thought that now the Vietnamese did not want even that part of the real history to be fully and independently documented—though in previous years some foreign researchers had been allowed to examine the files.
Thus it seems that no one was really interested in establishing or remembering what happened. Along the border the feeding of the Khmer Rouge continued. The new propaganda that Khmer Rouge spokesmen in Thailand or in the West assiduously distributed was distasteful or absurd, boasting of their progressive outlook. But inside Cambodia, under the Vietnamese, former Khmer Rouge cadres were being fed and promoted, with no questions asked. And inside Cambodia, the propaganda of the Vietnamese was often equally absurd and was usually more pervasive.
The Czechoslovak historian Milan Hubl once remarked, after Soviet orthodoxy was forced again onto his country, “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.” Hubl’s friend Milan Kundera wondered whether this was hyperbole dictated by despair. If one thinks of applying it to Cambodia, one must remember that Vietnamese rule has been much more benign than that of the Khmer Rouge. Nonetheless, in significant ways it seems now that propaganda threatens to bury the real and dreadful history of the recent past so deeply under new lies, new exaggerations, new ideological contraptions, that it is in danger of being obliterated and thus forgotten.
May 10, 1984
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. ↩
In this cold-warring world each side also tends, at least in extremis, to try to associate the other with fascism. Such attempts almost always owe more to rhetoric than to reality and, as such, they almost always devalue that reality. When the Soviets shot down the Korean 747 in 1983 not only did they refuse to apologize (this was perhaps the most terrifying element in the whole disaster), but they also tried to shift the blame to the United States. In alleging that the plane was spying, one Soviet spokesman declared that the White House was “worse than the Nazis. The passengers were sacrificed by the White House just as innocent people had been destroyed by the Nazis.” A few weeks later Mrs. Thatcher, in a burst of anti-Soviet rhetoric, likened the Soviet system to that of Hitler. Such comparisons inhibit understanding. ↩
Amnesty International stated in its 1983 annual report that it was “concerned about reports of detention without trial of people suspected of antigovernment activities” in Cambodia. “More than 200 prisoners suspected of supporting the KPNLF [an anticommunist resistance group] were reportedly held in the former Prison centrale in Phnom Penh. Other prisons in Phnom Penh believed to hold political prisoners were those of the municipal police, the Ministry of the Interior and the army. Political prisoners were reportedly also held in provincial and district prisons. People arrested near the border with Thailand and suspected of connections with the anti-communist resistance were said to be sent to a labor camp at Trapeaing Phlong in the eastern part of Kompong Cham province. [By contrast] Khmer Rouge deserters were reportedly sent to separate prisons and most released after three to six months’ re-education. ↩
The propaganda declared that the Seventh of January Hospital in Phnom Penh, like almost all other hospitals, had been closed under the Khmer Rouge. But the three Western writers whom the Khmer Rouge had invited at the end of 1978—Elizabeth Becker, Richard Dudman, and Malcolm Caldwell (a British academic who was murdered there)—visited the hospital and found it filled with Cambodian soldiers wounded in fighting along the border with Vietnam. ↩