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The Effort to Invent S-21 Would Have Been Far Too Costly for the Vietnamese


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June 2013
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The Effort to Invent S-21 Would Have Been Far Too Costly for the Vietnamese

David Chandler

Re-published in AKP Phnom Penh, June 03, 2013 – 

I began reading documents from the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes in the early 1990s, and since that time I have read thousands of them, and I have also given many talks and seminars about the museum and the Democratic Kampuchea (DK or Khmer Rouge) prison, known under Pol Pot as “S-21,” that used to occupy its grounds. In my book, Voices from S-21, I summarized my research, drawing on these documents and on interviews with survivors of the prison, and with people who had once worked there.  Since then I’ve familiarized myself with other data about the prison, especially the wide range of materials that became available at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal formally known as Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). 

On several occasions in the 1990s, and less frequently since then, Cambodians suggested to me that S-21 was invented out of whole cloth by the Vietnamese, so as to blacken the reputation of the Cambodian people and to indict them en masse for genocidal crimes. None of the Cambodians who spoke to me could be considered a “Khmer Rouge”. 

I always replied to them that their suggestions were mistaken. The effort to invent S-21 would have been far too costly for the Vietnamese, and far too complicated. In 1979-1980 the Vietnamese did not have the resources to compose the tens of thousands of  documents discovered in the S-21 archives (as well as thousands of others related to S-21, discovered elsewhere in Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese withdrew, and others still that came to light  in the 1990s). By mid-1979, when several Cambodian scholars and survivors were working in the S-21 archives, the Vietnamese had no time to invent the names and backgrounds of workers at the prison, to fake the overwhelming photographic evidence of victims, and to invent biographies for the survivors and former workers at the facility. Moreover, had they ever tried to mount such an operation, it seems likely that someone who participated in it would have talked about it, especially after the Vietnamese withdrew their forces in 1989. 

To be sure, the impetus to turn Tuol Sleng into a museum of genocide came from the Vietnamese, under the guidance of a Vietnamese army colonel named Mai Lam, who has recently died in Ho Chi Minh City. Mai Lam was interviewed on several occasions in the 1980s and 1990s. He said he was proud of his work in turning the site S-21 into a museum of genocidal crimes. He was also happy to have turned the killing fields at Choeung Ek, where over 10,000 prisoners at S-21 were executed, into a terrifying tourist destination. 

Mai Lam worked with what he found in Cambodia after 1979, which is to say evidence of mass interrogations, torture and executions that were fastidiously documented, and thousands of photographs of victims, hundreds of these have been identified by family members, who have also had access to the written confessions. 

The Vietnamese established the museum at Tuol Sleng in 1979-1980 for several reasons. In the first place, I believe, it was important for them to base the legitimacy of their presence in Cambodia, and the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government, on the fact that they had freed Cambodia from what they called the “genocidal clique” of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, who were tried and condemned to death in absentia in August 1979. It was also important for the Vietnamese, and for their allies in the Soviet Bloc, to distance the Vietnamese Communist party, and its Cambodian counterpart, from the communist regime of Democratic Kampuchea. It was important for the Vietnamese and the PRK to label Democratic Kampuchea a “fascist” regime, like Nazi Germany, rather than a Communist one, recognized as such by many Communist counties. Finally, it was important for the Vietnamese to argue that what had happened in Cambodia under DK, and particularly at S-21, was genocide, resembling the Holocaust in World War II, rather than the systematic assassinations of political enemies that at different times had marked the history of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Vietnam. 

The Vietnamese organized S-21 into a museum, using the massive documentation that had survived at the site. Similarly, they turned Choeung Ek into a tourist destination after exhuming thousands of bodies there. In neither case did the Vietnamese invent an institution. Instead, the documents from the S-21 archive, the photographs of prisoners, the interviews that have been conducted with survivors and former workers at the prison and the overwhelming evidence presented at the ECCC trial Duch of all convince me that between mid-1976 and January 7, 1979 S-21 was a completely Cambodian institution, serving the purposes of the terrified and terrifying leaders of a terrified and terrifying Cambodian regime.  

By Prof. David Chandler

Monash University, Australia

(Published in DOCUMENTATION CENTER OF CAMBODIA’s Magazine: Searching for the Truth, May 29, 2013


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