The S-21 Project

3 Février, 2008
Chandler David


The Cambodian Communist movement was rooted in the anti-French struggle which played out between 1946 and 1954. This period is sometimes referred to as the First Indo-China War. Before World War II, nearly all the Communists in Cambodia (and there were very few of them at the time) were ethnic Vietnamese. Under Vietnamese guidance, a fledgling Cambodian Communist party was formed in 1951. Initially, its members were particularly active in rural areas bordering Vietnam, and helped Viet Minh forces engaging the French in Vietnam. The leaders of the small Cambodian party were fluent in Vietnamese and received ideological and practical training from Vietnamese cadres, who emphasized solidarity between “Indo-Chinese” people. Members and sympathizers tended to be poor peasants from areas bordering Vietnam. Little fighting occurred in Cambodia itself, where the popular monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, was pro-French and soon co-opted the leadership of the non-Communist opposition to France.

Cambodia gained its independence in 1953, and national elections were held two years later. A Communist front party won 30,000 votes, mainly from the eastern part of the country, but the candidates selected by Sihanouk for his new political movement, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, won all the seats in the National Assembly. In response to this defeat, rural Communists then laid down their arms and, without repenting for the past, abandoned politics. Those in the cities led a clandestine existence, harassed by Sihanouk’s police and isolated from their distant and indifferent patrons in Hanoi.

In the early 1960s, a group of Communists who had studied for a time in France, including Saloth Sar (who was later known as Pol Pot) took command of the urban Communist movement and renamed it the Workers’ Party of Kampuchea (WPK). The leader of the movement, Tou Samouth, disappeared in 1962, presumably killed by Sihanouk’s police. In 1963 Saloth Sar, Samouth's replacement, fearing arrest, took refuge with several colleagues in a secret Vietnamese Communist base on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. In the meantime, the Second Indo-China War intensified as hundreds of thousands of US troops entered the civil war being fought in southern Vietnam. In late 1965 Saloth Sar was summoned to Hanoi to discuss the war, and more specifically, the role that Cambodian Communists might play in it. He also traveled to China, where he was impressed by the radicalism of the early stages of the Cultural Revolution. Returning to Cambodia, he relocated his headquarters to the remote Northeast of Cambodia, renamed his party the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and, along with a few hundred followers, plotted to seize power.

When Sihanouk was overthrown in a bloodless coup in March 1970, the CPK joined forces with the Vietnamese Communists to defeat the new, pro-American regime in Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese withdrew their forces at the end of 1972. By then the Khmer Rouge had developed into a formidable fighting force, led from the shadows by Saloth Sar and a group of trusted military commanders.

In April 1975 Khmer Rouge forces entered Phnom Penh, and almost immediately the city’s entire population was forced into the countryside to become agricultural workers. Saloth Sar and his colleagues came to the city a few days later and established the rudiments of an administration. To appease international opinion, the new regime, now calling itself Democratic Kampuchea, promulgated a constitution in January 1976, which failed to mention the country’s Communist affiliations, and pushed ahead with a collectivization program modeled on those in force in China. The new regime’s leaders were suspicious of Vietnam and fearful that a range of enemies were conspiring to destroy DK. In a series of purges in 1975 thousands of men, who had been part of the defeated Cambodian army, were executed secretly along with high officials of the former regime.

In May 1976, after thwarting what it mistakenly considered to be an attempted coup, the leaders of DK established a secret detention and interrogation facility located in a former high school in the Tuol Sleng district of Phnom Penh, and gave it the code name S-21. A previous, smaller facility had already been in operation for about a year in the suburb of Ta Khmau. Prisoners held in Ta Khmau had primarily been former officials and soldiers connected with the defeated regime, and several of them were released after interrogation. The new facility was intended primarily for enemies of the state (khbot cheat) who were almost always associated with DK. Purges swept successively through the northern and north-western zones in 1977, and through the eastern zone bordering Vietnam in 1978 - the year in which war broke out between DK and Vietnam. Other purges took place in military units, government bureaus and factories once ranking officials in these facilities came under suspicion.

Before S-21 was abandoned in January 1979, in the wake of a Vietnamese invasion, over 15,000 men women and children were detained there; they were photographed, interrogated, and in many cases, severely tortured before being put to death. None of the prisoners were released, only one is known to have escaped, and only a dozen survived.

Interrogation centers and prisons also existed in other parts of Cambodia, and it seems likely that tens of thousands of prisoners were tortured and put to death in these facilities as well. The difference between the regional prisons and S-21, aside from the fact that many people were released from regional prisons, was that S-21 was reserved almost entirely for people accused of betraying DK from the “inside” through espionage or other treacherous activities. Many of the prisoners at S-21 were high-ranking party cadres, and they were interrogated over several weeks. In the closing months of DK over one hundred Vietnamese prisoners of war were also interrogated and executed at S-21.

Because of its enormous archive of “confessions” and photographs, and because the site was turned into a Museum of Genocidal Crimes in 1980, S-21 is the best known and most visible institution that survives from DK. Certainly the prison and the documents it produced encapsulate the regime’s absolute power over life and death, its ruthlessness and its perhaps only partially mistaken belief that its enemies were everywhere. The museum is now a popular tourist destination.


Instigators and Perpetrators

The instigators of the deaths at S-21 were clearly the highest-ranking members of the DK administration. These leaders presumably included Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Son Sen and perhaps Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan. These were the only people outside the facility to be fully aware of its activities, and the only ones who would have had the authority to order the execution of high ranking Communist cadres imprisoned there.

However, documentary evidence that these people knew about S-21 -- which surviving leaders of DK all deny -- is very thin. Although S-21 could not possibly have been a “rogue” facility, and the men who had ordered its establishment in May 1976 could only have been the leaders of the country and must have followed its operations very closely, there is no clear paper trail that connects them to the prison or confirms their culpability in ordering or approving the killings. Indirect evidence of their involvement includes the fact that S-21 continued to function until the very last days of the regime that officials at S-21 were never punished for their activities, and that copies of the most important “confessions” extracted at S-21 are known to have been sent to the top officials of DK.

Substantial oral evidence from former workers at S-21 suggests that the director of the prison, a former mathematics teacher named Kang Kek Ieu (aka Duch), born 1940, regularly reported to DK's minister of Defense, Son Sen, who visited the prison on a regular basis. Son Sen, in turn, reported to Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two,” who was an immediate subordinate of the prime minister of DK, Pol Pot. Duch was charged with crimes against humanity in May 2007 and is currently awaiting trial. Son Sen was executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1997, and Nuon Chea, who was amnestied by the Cambodian government in 1998, lives in Pailin, in northwestern Cambodia. Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, who may well have been aware of S-21, also received amnesties from the Cambodian government.

Instigators less closely implicated in the deaths at S-21 would include the CPK cadres outside the capital who sent potential prisoners to the facility. Men and women were brought to S-21 on the basis of accusations or suspicions of top officials in Phnom Penh, because they were connected organizationally with prisoners already arrested or because their names had appeared in prisoners' "confessions." By 1977, the fact that people sent to Phnom Penh for “study” (the euphemism that was commonly used when they were arrested) always disappeared meant that the fate of people being arrested must have been widely known. In this sense, the officials who sent people off to “study” can be considered as secondary “instigators” of these people' deaths, although the primary responsibility for the deaths rests with high officials and the men in charge of S-21 itself, who ordered their employees to carry out the executions.

The executions took place in secret near the prison until the end of 1976, after which it became hard to bury so many victims. From then on prisoners were driven in trucks, always at night, in batches of fifty to a hundred, to a former Chinese cemetery in Choeung Ek, fifteen kilometers Southwest of the capital. There their names were verified against execution lists prepared beforehand. Some of these lists have survived. Forced to kneel on the edge of ditches and pits dug by S-21 employees stationed at the site, the prisoners were then clubbed to death by teams of workers, normally employed as guards, who had accompanied the prisoners from S-21. According to a former guard at the prison, they had been selected because they were experienced killers. The pits and ditches were covered over by the workers residing at Choeung Ek. They were excavated in 1980 and skeletons recovered at the site indicated that over 6,000 people had been executed there.

The preferred weapons for execution were ox-cart axles. In recent years, one of the executioners, Him Huy, who was responsible, according to other survivors, for at least a hundred killings-- has been interviewed extensively about his activities, and has admitted killing “one or two” of the prisoners personally. None of the other members of execution teams has yet come forward, and no one else who has admitted working at S-21 has also admitted involvement in the killings. Interrogators who tortured prisoners to death during interrogations (and were themselves executed later on for this offence) can also be considered perpetrators. So too can prison staff that conducted fatal medical experiments on selected prisoners, such as the removal of all their blood.



 The people imprisoned at S-21, like prisoners in pre-revolutionary Cambodia, were known as neak thos, or “guilty people,” indicating that once they were arrested there was never any presumption of innocence. In a sense they had already been judged and sentenced. Everyone who arrived at S-21 was condemned to death, though they were unaware of this upon arrival, --not only for the often fictional offences they would be made to confess to, but also because had they been released, news of the existence of S-21 and its procedures would have spread outside the prison and beyond the control of the top officials who monitored the facility.

Of the roughly 15,000 prisoners held at different times in S-21, incomplete records suggest that some 1,600 entered the prison in 1976, at least 6,300 in 1977 and perhaps as many as 5,100 in 1978. Because so many prisoners were soldiers in the DK army, the majority of the people held at S-21 were young, ethnic Khmer males from rural backgrounds. Roughly five hundred prisoners whose confessions have survived were foreigners suspected of crimes or people who had held positions of responsibility in DK. Most of the remaining prisoners were connected with these higher-ranking "traitors" via the military units, ministries or factories where the senior people worked, or because they had been named in others’ confessions.

Senior cadres held at S-21 received better treatment in terms of food and accommodation than other prisoners. Female prisoners were segregated from males, and women with small children stayed with them while their prisoner-husbands were being interrogated, before the entire family was taken off to be killed.

Prisoners entered S-21 in waves, in response to successive purges that occurred in DK. The first of these occurred in the spring of 1976, when the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) believed they had thwarted a coup d’Etat, allegedly launched by members of military Division 170. These troops came largely from the eastern zone of the country bordering Vietnam. No hard evidence of a coup emerged from anyone's confessions, but the Party’s leaders became increasingly convinced that enemies of the revolution were everywhere. This non-specific paranoia lasted until the collapse of the regime,

The political commissar of Division 170, Chan Chakrei, was arrested and S-21 documents assigned him the Roman numeral “I”, indicating that he was the first in a “string” (khsae) of traitors that was to run to twenty (Roman numeral “XX”) by the end of 1976. Because the eastern zone had been the part of Cambodia where the Vietnamese had recruited followers in their struggle against the French (1946-1954), many of these twenty people associated with the eastern zone had been Communists for a long time. Most of these senior revolutionaries (but which ones?), of course, were not guilty of the crimes of which they were accused.

In early 1977, DK embarked on covert hostilities with Vietnam. A series of vicious DK cross-border raids, unpublicized in either country, were followed by the arrest of various people in DK who had overseas connections and were suspected of being “pro-Vietnamese”. The secretary of the northern zone, Koy Thuon, was arrested at this time, and the “string” attached to him included many younger, better educated people like him who had become Communists in the 1960s and early 1970s. Military units in the northern zone were also purged at this time, and replaced with units from the southwestern zone, run by Ta Mok, where anti-Vietnamese feelings ran high and purges were extremely rare. In March 1977, over a thousand "guilty” people, mostly from the northern zone, were brought to S-21 putting a new strain on its capacity.

The northwestern zone, which contained hundreds of thousands of so-called “new people” (who had in fact been evacuated from the cities in 1975), was targeted next. The purge of the northwest in mid-1977, was prompted in part by reports reaching Phnom Penh of widespread starvation and death due to overwork and disease, as “new people” were driven into malarial forests and forced to meet unrealistic agricultural quotas. Local cadres and their subordinates were accused of sabotaging agricultural programs and deliberately starving the population.

The final purges were conducted against civilian and military authorities in the eastern zone, following Vietnam’s unpublicized invasion of Cambodia at the end of 1977. Although the Vietnamese withdrew in good order after three months, DK declared that their army had driven them out. Soon after making this declaration, the leadership purged military leaders of this zone, along with hundreds of ordinary soldiers. S-21 became so overcrowded in early 1978 that many prisoners arriving at the prison were immediately sent to Choeung Ek to be executed without being photographed or questioned. Toward the end of 1978, over a hundred Vietnamese soldiers captured in the war with Vietnam were also imprisoned at S-21.



S-21 was always a top-secret facility and since all but a dozen of its 15,000 prisoners were put to death, and very few of their former staff have come forward, testimony about what happened at the prison, and how it operated has remained rare to this day. As of 2007, the former director of S-21 Kang Kek Ieu (a.k.a. Duch), who was arrested in 1999, was still in custody awaiting trial. Charges were brought against him in May 2007. When and if he goes on trial, Duch's testimony will be crucial for historians of DK, not only because of his position at S-21 but also because, as a Christian convert, he allegedly regrets what he did and has no wish to deny responsibility or conceal details about the operation of the prison. However, after spending so many years in prison himself (out of touch with other people) Duch’s current state of mind is impossible to assess.

The existence of S-21 was fully known only by a handful of the top leaders of DK, including Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Son Sen. The latter two figures were closely involved in its operations but are unlikely to have operated without Pol Pot’s knowledge and approval. Unfortunately from a judicial point of view, very little documentation connects these men to S-21. Moreover, Pol Pot and Son Sen are dead, and Nuon Chea has denied having anything to do with S-21.

Because of this secrecy, and the media blackout which descended on the country after the KR took power, knowledge of S-21 did not reach the outside world. People who worked there were not released to work elsewhere, or allowed to visit their families outside Phnom Penh. People working in a nearby factory, who could see vehicles filled with prisoners entering S-21, called it “the place where people go in and never come out.” However, they knew nothing else about the prison, and no surviving DK documents produced outside the prison refer to it at all.

Of the roughly 15,000 prisoners detained at S-21, only a dozen survived until the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in early January 1979. One of these Vann Nath, a painter, has written a powerful memoir of his imprisonment, while over the years scholars and journalists have interviewed most of the other survivors. These men were only able to describe conditions at the prison in its last year of operation (1978) when, for various reasons, they were taken out of their cells and given work at the facility. Vann Nath’s memoir, for example, describes the time he was commissioned to paint portraits of Pol Pot inside the prison, but also gives details of the weeks he spent as a prisoner at S-21 following his arrest.

One of the photographers who worked at S-21 from 1976 until 1979 has given scholars and journalists information about aspects of life at the prison, and so have a handful of other former employees.

The most complete information about interrogations and torture at S-21 comes from the forced confessions of several interrogators at the prison who were accused of killing prisoners, or of other offences that led to their arrest. In recent years, several men who had worked at the prison as guards, interrogators or clerks have come forward. Finally, informal photographs taken at S-21 provide helpful information about conditions at the prison. So do several notebooks kept by senior interrogators that give information about political meetings held at S-21. The archive assembled at the prison, although voluminous, does not seem to be complete, and former workers at the prison have testified that many of the prison records were hurriedly burnt in the closing days of DK.



Because so few prisoners survived their ordeal at S-21, and because so few people employed at the prison have been willing to talk at length about their experiences there, first-hand accounts of life (and death) at the prison are much less voluminous than those from Nazi extermination camps in World War II, for example, or from the genocide in 1994 in Rwanda. Moreover, because S-21 was a highly secret facility, no strangers ever visited it. The prison has provoked no memories from people who spent the DK period outside its walls, except perhaps in the minds of the handful of high-ranking officials who supervised its operation, set the waves of executions into motion and now deny any knowledge of the prison. Beyond these officials, the only people who actually remember S-21 are the ones who witnessed its daily operations, either as perpetrators, victims or hangers-on.

Former employees of S-21, including members of the handpicked killing squads, have mostly disappeared from sight and most of those who have been located are reluctant to speak. A notable exception is the S-21 photographer Nhem Ein, who has given detailed (and not entirely self-serving) interviews to journalists and scholars, as have a few former guards and interrogators. These interviews with former employees tend to be exculpatory and should be treated with care.

All but a handful of the victims from the prison are dead, and although several of the survivors have been interviewed in depth, only one of them, the painter Vann Nath, has written a detailed memoir of his experiences at the prison. Nath was arrested in early 1978, and his memoir, published twenty years later, covers the closing months of its operations. For several of these he was released from his cell and made to paint portraits of Pol Pot. A documentary film directed by the Cambodian filmmaker Rethy Panh, which was released in 2003, used oral testimony by Nath, another survivor named Chim Mey and seven former employees at the prison, interacting in an unscripted way.

A problem that scholars encounter with all of these memories is that a quarter century or more has elapsed since S-21 was in operation (1976-1979), and some memories may have become contaminated by other peoples’ testimony and by “memories” of what was supposed to have happened.

The paucity of evidence written by S-21 survivors contrasts sharply with the large number of memoirs published by other survivors of the DK period. However, if and when the former director of S-21, Kang Kek Ieu (Duch) (who has been held in custody since 1999) comes to trial, his memories of the prison, which may be difficult for witnesses to corroborate, is sure to amplify the documentary record.

Given the shortage of first-hand memories and the implicit horror of the site, and in order to induce and cultivate collective negative memories of DK, S-21 was transformed into a museum of genocidal crimes in the early 1980s. Vann Nath’s paintings of activities at the prison, many of them probably observed by the artist when he was there, are on display, along with instruments allegedly used for torture and several hundred mug shots taken of prisoners when they arrived at S-21. Photographs have been the subjects of several overseas exhibitions. Survivors’ memories of the museum and the photographs blend into their own memories of the DK period.

The killing field at Choeng Ek was also developed into a memorial site in the 1980s, after the remains of some 6,000 prisoners executed there had been exhumed. Both S-21 and Choeng Ek in recent years have become popular tourist destinations.

The voluminous archive of the prison, covering over a million pages, has been archived at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and examined by scholars from many nations. S-21 is the most fully documented institution of the notoriously secretive DK regime, and has become part of Cambodians’ collective memory of the “time of Pol Pot” without having ever actually having been a part of their individual experiences.


General and Legal Interpretations of the Facts

The factual material about S-21 can be divided into the physical and documentary evidence of executions, the forced confessions that have survived in the S-21 archive, other documentary material from the archive (such as autobiographies of employees, study notebooks, party journals, etc) and recorded memories of people who worked or were imprisoned in the facility.

The physical evidence of executions can be found at the so-called killing fields of Choeung Ek, where the remains of roughly 6,000 men and women have been exhumed. Former employees of the prison identified Choeung Ek as the site where S-21 prisoners were killed. Exhumations took place at the site in 1980. Documentary evidence of the killings in the S-21 archive includes execution lists, confessions by interrogators who killed prisoners, and study notebooks urging the extensive use of torture. The forced confessions do not help to explain the killings, and neither do other documentary materials from S-21, but taken as a whole they build up a complex and horrifying picture of a key, secret DK institution dedicated to the extermination of opposition to its rule.

While Voices from S-21, by the present author, is the only monographic study devoted exclusively to the prison, many authors have studied the prison in the course of wider-ranging studies, and have examined the phenomenon of mass killings in Cambodia in some detail. Many people familiar with the term “genocide,” but perhaps unaware of the wording of the UN Convention on the subject, have placed the killings at the prison inside the framework of the Convention.

The Vietnamese patrons of the Cambodian government that succeeded DK in 1979 were pioneers of this interpretation. The Vietnamese were eager to identify DK policies with “fascism” and to compare S-21 with Auschwitz. They did so to attract themselves international sympathy and support, to discredit DK’s socialist credentials, and to blur the connections visible to many scholars between the procedures followed at S-21 in particular, and the purges of political enemies (rather than racial and religious categories) that had been carried out in the USSR, Vietnam and China by socialist regimes. Unfortunately for the Vietnamese case, the voluminous documentation from S-21 did not contain evidence of genocidal intent on the part of Cambodia’s leaders, especially since the vast majority of the victims were ethnic Khmer. This was also the case throughout the country. The French journalist Jean Lacouture’s attempt to get around this definitional problem by saying that what happened was “auto-genocide” had little explanatory power. Genocidal intent, crucial to any definition of genocide, is impossible to prove in the case of S-21, but can be adduced from the executions suffered by Cambodia’s Moslem Cham and Vietnamese minorities.

Since he first visited Cambodia in the early 1980s, the historian Ben Kiernan has consistently argued that the killings under DK need to be seen within the framework of the UN Genocide Convention, although he has not presented evidence from S-21 to support his case. The anthropologist Alexander Hinton, in his monographic study Why Did They Kill?, explains the killings under DK (and by implication those that occurred at S-21) partly in terms of what he sees as ingrained elements in Cambodian culture that the leaders of DK exploited to their own advantage. Hinton’s monograph does not address the genocide issue, but in other writings he seems to think that using the label for Cambodia is not problematic. In the early 1990s, the sociologist Helen Fein used the word “genocide” to describe the killings in Indonesia in 1966 and in DK, although in both cases, racial issues were not paramount. The political scientist Steve Heder and the historian Serge Thion, neither of whom can be considered apologists of the DK regime, have challenged the misuse of the term, and so has Philip Short in his recent biography of Pol Pot.

That the killings in DK, and especially those committed at S-21, constituted crimes against humanity on a massive scale, seems to rest on much firmer legal ground. In the voluminous archive that has come down to us from S-21, and particularly in the thousands of forced confessions that have survived, there is no evidence that the people put to death at S-21 were killed because of their ethnicity or their religion. Although it seems clear that most if not all of them were falsely accused, what prisoners “confessed” was that they were enemies of the Communist revolution. Comparisons between S-21 and Auschwitz pressed by the Vietnamese play on the fact that both facilities were secret and that nearly everyone incarcerated in both of them was put to death.

It is not clear how useful the S-21 archives will be for the tribunal that is endeavoring to indict the surviving senior leaders of DK for crimes against humanity, and perhaps for genocide as well. If clear links can be established between the leaders and the facility, of course, the records of the prison will be useful for such indictments. There is some doubt in scholarly and legal circle, however, that such clear links can be established. Although it is almost certain that the former director of S-21, Kang Khek Ieu (Duch) will appear before the tribunal, his verbal testimony may be insufficient to connect the top leadership to S-21. While Duch himself may be indicted for the killings that occurred at S-21, there is no likelihood that any other former employees of S-21 will be put on trial for actually carrying out the executions.




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David Chandler, Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1999

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Vann Nath, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21, Bangkok, White Lotus, 1998.

Rethy Panh and Christine Chamaeau, La Machine de mort khmere rouge, Paris, Flammarion, 2002.

Rethy Panh and Christine Chamaeau, (same title) documentary film, 2002.

Doug Niven and Chris Riley (eds.) Killing Fields, Albuquerque, NM, Twin Palms Press, 1996.

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Citer cet article

Chandler David, The S-21 Project, Mass Violence & Résistance, [en ligne], publié le : 3 Février, 2008, accéder le 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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