Voices from S-21 by David P. Chandler

This excerpt was part of Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison by David P. Chandler, a book about the prison discovered in Cambodia called S-21. It was used during the 1975-1979 Khymer Rouge era in which Pol Pot and his government party, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, otherwise known as Khymer Rouge, executed or imprisoned Western sympathizers, intellectuals, members of the previous Lon Nol regime, Buddhist monks and distinctive minority communities such as Cham, the Chinese, Lao, Vietnamese Cambodians. Some of those who were imprisoned were subjected to forced labor.

One thing that I found interesting about this genocide was that fact that the main authorities were schoolteachers. Here’s a list of who I have tracked so far—note these are people who were in charge of the prison:

  • Pol Pot
  • Son Sen, Army Commander
  • “Duch” (Kang Kech Ieu), commander of S-21
  • Chan, Head of Interrogation unit in S-21
  • “Pon” (Tang Sin Hean), deputy to Chan in Interrogation Unit
  • Puy and Tuy, chief interrogators

It is often said that the subordinates of those listed above regarded them as their “older brothers”. The subordinates were often young, rural, primary school-educated men, a fact which made me wonder if because of their previous careers as school teachers, Pol Pot and the others were able to capture and maintain the minds of these young followers in order to train them to kill their fellow citizens and watch them slowly wither away from starvation and overwork. In fact, Chandler says one-hundred and eight of the guards were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, ages at which people are highly impressionable, and have “psychology that is not complicated”, according to psychiatrist Richard Mollica. I found this statement and those following poignant because they demonstrated the extent to which young people are vulnerable to hateful ideology and the trap of becoming mass murderers. In Rwanda and more recently in ISIS, we see the danger that young people, especially young men, pose when they are exposed to such ideology because of their desire to impress and their malleability in the presence of authority. I think that it is important to acknowledge this fact when considering not just genocide, but conflict in general. And I will end with that comment.

Leave a Reply