The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng in Khmer; [tuəl slaeŋ] means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill".
Formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School, named after a Royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation centre. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.
From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, though the real number is unknown). The prisoners were selected from all around the country, and usually were former Khmer Rouge members and soldiers, accused of betraying the party or revolution. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. Although the official reason for their arrest was "espionage," these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners' families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination centre.
Most non-Cambodians had been evacuated or expelled from the country and those who remained were seen as a security risk. A number of Western prisoners passed through S-21 between April 1976 and December 1978. Mostly these were picked up at sea by Khmer Rouge patrol boats. They included four Americans, three French, two Australians, a Briton and a New Zealander. One of the last prisoners to die was American Michael Scott Deeds, who was captured with his friend Chris De Lance while sailing from Singapore to Hawaii.
In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. In 1980, the prison was reopened as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime. The museum is open to the public, and receives an average of 500 visitors every day.
The day in the prison began at 4:30 a.m. when prisoners were asked to strip for inspection. The guards checked to see if the shackles were loose or if the prisoners had hidden objects they could use to commit suicide. Over the years, several prisoners managed to kill themselves, so the guards were very careful in checking the shackles and cells. The prisoners received four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day. Drinking water without asking the guards for permission resulted in serious beatings. The inmates were hosed down every four days.
The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison's guards. They were sometimes forced to eat human feces and drink human urine. The unhygienic living conditions in the prison caused skin diseases, lice, rashes, ringworm and other ailments. The prison's medical staffs were untrained and offered treatment only to sustain prisoners’ lives after they had been injured during interrogation. When prisoners were taken from one place to another for interrogation, their faces were covered. Guards and prisoners were not allowed to converse. Moreover, within the prison, people who were in different groups were not allowed to have contact with one another.
Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months. However, several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer. Within two or three days after they were brought to S-21, all prisoners were taken for interrogation. The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners’ heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique (see picture). Females were sometimes raped by the interrogators, even though sexual abuse was against DK policy. The perpetrators who were found out were executed. Although many prisoners died from this kind of abuse, killing them outright was discouraged, since the Khmer Rouge needed their confessions.
In their confessions, the prisoners were asked to describe their personal background. If they were party members, they had to say when they joined the revolution and describe their work assignments in DK. Then the prisoners would relate their supposed treasonous activities in chronological order. The third section of the confession text described prisoners’ thwarted conspiracies and supposed treasonous conversations. At the end, the confessions would list a string of traitors who were the prisoners’ friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. Some lists contained over a hundred names. People whose names were in the confession list were often called in for interrogation.
Typical confessions ran into thousands of words in which the prisoner would interweave true events in their lives with imaginary accounts of their espionage activities for the CIA, the KGB, or Vietnam. The confession of Hu Nim ended with the words "I am not a human being, I'm an animal". A young Englishman named John Dawson Dewhirst who was arrested in August 1978 claimed to have joined the CIA at age 12 upon his father receiving a substantial bribe from a work colleague, also an agent. Physical torture was combined with sleep deprivation and deliberate neglect of the prisoners. The torture implements are on display in the museum. The vast majority of prisoners were innocent of the charges against them and their confessions produced by torture.
For the first year of S-21’s existence, corpses were buried near the prison. However, by the end of 1979, cadres ran out of burial spaces, the prisoner and their family were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination centre, fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh. There, they were killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons. After the prisoners were executed, the soldiers who had accompanied them from S-21 buried them in graves that held as few as 6 and as many as 100 bodies.
Out of an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only twelve known survivors. Only four of them are thought to be still alive: Vann Nath, Chum Mey, Bou Meng and Chim Math, the only woman among the survivors. All three of the men were kept alive because they had skills their captors judged to be useful. Vann Nath had trained as an artist and was put to work painting pictures of Pol Pot. Many of his paintings depicting events he witnessed in Tuol Sleng are on display in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today. Bou Meng, whose wife was killed in the prison, is also an artist. Chum Mey was kept alive because of his skills in repairing machinery. Chim Math was held in S-21 for 2 weeks and transferred to the nearby Prey Sar prison. She may have been spared because she was from Stoeung district in Kampong Thom where Comrade Duch was born. She was also distinguished by her provincial accent during her interrogations.
The prison had a staff of 1,720 people. Of those, approximately 300 were office staff, internal workforce and interrogators. The other 1,400 were general workers, including people who grew food for the prison. Several of these workers were children taken from the prisoner families. The chief of the prison was Khang Khek Ieu (also known as Comrade Duch), a former mathematics teacher who worked closely with Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Other leading figures of S-21 were Khim Vat aka Hor (deputy chief of S-21), Peng (chief of guards), Chan (chief of the Interrogation Unit), and Pon (interrogator). Pon was the person who interrogated important people such as Keo Meas, Nay Sarann, Ho Nim, Tiv Ol, and Phok Chhay.
The documentation unit was responsible for transcribing tape-recorded confessions, typing the handwritten notes from prisoners’ confessions, preparing summaries of confessions, and maintaining files. In the photography sub-unit, workers took mug shots of prisoners when they arrived, pictures of prisoners who had died while in detention, and pictures of important prisoners after they were executed. Thousands of photographs have survived, but thousands are still missing.
The defense unit was the largest unit in S-21. The guards in this unit were mostly teenagers. Many guards found the unit’s strict rules hard to obey. Guards were not allowed to talk to prisoners, to learn their names, or to beat them. They were also forbidden to observe or eavesdrop on interrogations, and they were expected to obey 30 regulations, which barred them from such things as taking naps, sitting down or leaning against a wall while on duty. They had to walk, guard, and examine everything carefully. Guards who made serious mistakes were arrested, interrogated, jailed and put to death. Most of the people employed at S-21 were terrified of making mistakes and feared being tortured and killed.
The interrogation unit was split into three separate groups: Krom Noyobai or political unit, Krom Kdao or 'hot' unit and Krom Angkiem or 'chewing' unit. The hot unit (sometimes called the cruel unit) was allowed to use torture. In contrast, the cold unit (sometimes called the gentle unit) was prohibited from using torture to obtain confessions. If they could not make prisoners confess, they would transfer them to the hot unit. The chewing unit dealt with tough and important cases. Those who worked as interrogators were literate and usually in their 20s .
Some of the staff who worked in Tuol Sleng also ended up prisoners. They confessed to being lazy in preparing documents, damaging machines and other equipment, or beating prisoners to death without permission when assisting with interrogations.
When prisoners were first brought to Tuol Sleng, they were made aware of ten rules that they were to follow during their incarceration. What follows is what is posted today at the Tuol Sleng Museum; the imperfect grammar is a result of faulty translation from the original Khmer:
In 1979 Ho Van Tay, a Vietnamese combat photographer, was the first media person to document Tuol Sleng to the world. Van Tay and his colleagues followed the stench of rotting corpses to the gates of Tuol Sleng. The photos of Van Tay documenting what he saw when he entered the site are exhibited in Tuol Sleng today.
The Khmer Rouge required the prison's staff to make a detailed dossier of all the prisoners. Included in the documentation was a photograph. Since the original negatives and photographs were separated from the dossiers in the 1979-1980 period, most of the photographs remain anonymous today.
The buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The regime kept extensive records, including thousands of photographs. Several rooms of the museum are now lined, floor to ceiling, with black and white photographs of some of the estimated 20,000 prisoners who passed through the prison.
Other rooms contain only a rusting iron bedframe, beneath a black and white photograph showing the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each photograph, the mutilated body of a prisoner is chained to the bed, killed by his fleeing captors only hours before the prison was captured. Other rooms preserve leg-irons and instruments of torture. They are accompanied by paintings by former inmate Vann Nath showing people being tortured, which were added by the post-Khmer Rouge regime installed by the Vietnamese in 1979.
The museum is perhaps best known for having housed the "skull map", a huge map of Cambodia composed of 300 skulls and other bones found by the Vietnamese during their occupation of Cambodia, to serve as a reminder of what happened at the prison. The map was dismantled in 2002, but the skulls of some victims are still on display in shelves in the museum.
Today, the museum is open to the public, and along with the Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields), is included as a point of interest for those visiting Cambodia. Despite the disturbing images it contains, the museum is visited by large parties of Cambodian school children.