Rise of Rust
visiting darkness to bare witness in remembrance
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Along with “A history of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” by Khamboly Dy.
Short on Vann Nath as told through his own words at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum,
along with watching of “Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide” 1984 Documentary Film.
One could almost pass by this nondescript building, on the tight dusty streets, save the corrugated metal fence topped with a hallow of rusted razor and barbed wire. TATTERED plastic bags cling to the fencing, like celebratory flags, they look like ghosts trying to flee. The wall and its ragged crown hint to the recent sinister events that took place inside. Holding behind it are four large graying white buildings in a “C’ like shape, a lower building in the center with lush courtyards to each side, its trees just peeking over the tetanus covered pricks. Originally the Chao Ponhea Yat High School the Khmer Rouge (KR) converted it into a highly secure, secret prison and execution center named S-21, in April 1975. A decade earlier America had started its secret war in Lao in 1964, north of Cambodia, against the Vietcong bombing their supply line along the Ho Chi Min trail in the eastern part of the country. At this time Cambodia, unlike Lao and Vietnam, was experiencing a time of growth peace and prosperity, after gaining their own independence from France in 1953, becoming known as the “Pearl” of South East Asia.. The country had abundance, 98% of peasants owned their land and King Norodom Sihanouk closely relied on them rather then the urban population for support, but the King was highly regard and beloved all over the country. In 1963 to insure his countries continued peace, prosperity and neutrality, King Sihanouk begone denouncing Americas actions in Vietnam, fearing the war would spill over his borders. He began making ties with countries he thought would help maintain Cambodia, having a close relationship with Mao Zedong in China and Frances Charles De Gaulle, although descent had started to grow in his own country fueled by US and South Vietnamese bombings conducted across the Cambodian border against the Vietcong. The Communist Part of Kampuchea as known as The Khmer Rouge, began gaining popularity with the discontented farmers in the countryside. Trying to raise US awareness of his countries situation, the King invited Jacklyn Kennedy to visit (no US president had visited the region until president Obama in 2012), again maintaining his stance for his countries ability to stay unified and free, he denounced Americas actions in Vietnam. However in 1969 Nixon began the secret bombings against North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia, pushing them further into the country. Nixon never informed nor sought King Sihanouk’s approval for this escalation, this further bolstered the KR’s position against the King.
1970; While away on Diplomatic travel seeking help against the Vietnamese hostilities on his borders he was ousted in a coupe by the anti communist party led by Lon Nol and secretly founded and backed by the US, calling for King Sihanouk’s execution. King Sihanouk called out this coupe as “people patriotic more to the US dollar then to Cambodia itself”. In three weeks the Cambodian Army gained sixty thousand troupes, convinced US aid would quickly drive out the North Vietnamese. Exiled in Peaking, now sided with his opponents the KR King Sihanouk called on the peasants to “take to the Jungle”1 and fight with the guerillas (no one knowing who they were) against the US backed forces and Vietnamese. Peasants protested against Lon Nol in the countryside and in Kong Pong Chan, the mob killed two members of his Parliament, skewering and cooking their livers in the market place, latter stated as an “example to the brutality of the Khmer’s warrior class” by Father Francois Ponchaud2. The next day Lon Nol then executed one hundred unarmed civilians. Centuries old violence erupted with Lon Nol inciting the killing of Vietnamese civilians living in the country along with fighting those who supported King Sihanouk. The whole time America was secretly “carpet” bombing Cambodia’s boarder with Laos and Vietnam, only a few in Nixon’s cabinet knew of this, Henry Kissinger stated at a later point of the King’s “acquiescence to the bombings” in interviews saying “he didn’t approve of attacks in Cambodian territory but did not know was happening in the Vietcong held part of the country”3. Nixon also at this time sends US troops to invades Cambodia with the intention of chasing out the South Vietnamese and destroying the “headquarters of the entirety of South Vietnam, operating sanctuaries in blatant disregarded to Cambodia’s neutrality” (Nixon speech to the invasion, and attack on “COSVN Headquarters”4 which were outside the operation of the invasion and intelligence showed it was of no importance to the Vietcong and nothing more then a “Fox whole with radios- Brig. Gen. Douglas Kinnard”5. This takes place, again like the bombings, without the consult or notification to the government or King Sihanouk. US troops are met with little resistance and mass looting happens as they operate without impunity. It was at this time that American generals learned not only of the bombings them selves but to what extent they had taken places. Between 1969-1973 (especially during six months of 1973 over a quarter million tons alone were dropped) the US dropped more explosives, especially of the one ton variety and higher, then by all sides in Europe in both World War I and II combined6. The US strategy in 1970 for leaving Vietnam, with pressure from Americas protest to the Vietnam War back home, was to have all out war broken out in Cambodia to fight the Communist forces in the South Vietnam. Under the Nixon doctrine, American aid pored into Cambodia and under the same doctrine Nixon invaded Laos in the north attacking the Ho Chi Min Trail, with no wringing to the Laotian Government. America begins to loose large numbers of its forces and back out, leaving the South Vietnamese and Laotians to fight the Vietcong alone, who then break and flee against the North Vietnamese forces.
1973; The “Nixon Doctrine” is failing as claims it is working in Cambodia but there are “no American combat troops operating in country”7, at the time non-uniformed US troops were leading and in charge of training and military operations in aid of the Lon Nol ‘s government, who with out the Nixon’s backing of founds, weapons, air and ground support could not remain in power. As so much aid money is flowing into Cambodia, corrupt leaders in Lon Nol’s government begin embezzling money by making up enlisted solders, further destabilizing the civil war by endangered already thin lines. At this time in 1973, King Sihanouk reenters northern Cambodia after his long exile in China, where he joins forces with the Khmer Rouge. The KR had grown in popularity as most people believed it was the way to oust the Lon Nol and reinstate the King. The US backed bombing and Kings call to fight saw a sharp increase in KR troops, rising form seven thousand to over sixty thousand troops in just three years, mostly due to the extreme US bombing which now again intensifies. Its the peasants, farmers, villagers and civilians that are suffering, they are shell shocked, the KR take this opportunity to use the bombings to gain further support. Educating people against the US and Lon Nol, with the craters and shrapnel left behind. Nixon had waged war in Cambodia without Congressional approval until its the Senates discover in July 1973, leading to his first call for impeachment, it was carried out by political word play by his advisers and Henry Kissinger, who saw no wrong in what the had conducted. The defense was that American troops were only attacking enemy troops taking sanctuary in a neutral country, and killing US solders, at this point only three US service members had been killed in Cambodia. This is all important to understand the simple complexity in the rise of power of the Khmer Rouge, and Democratic Kampuchea. Until the coup and resulting civil war, Cambodia had been experiencing blossoming cultural scene along with a thriving society amid nations at war. Its prosperity brought mid century architecture along with modernization of buildings and infrastructure, encouraging a vibrant traditional and contemporary art scene. With its cultural and social scene came a distinctly modern while renaming uniquely Cambodian counter culture of Rock and Roll. Social programs were beginning to be put into place. All of which was supported and to some degree by King Sihanouk, who denounced US actions in the region, thus black listing him and his neutrality in Americas sight. It was not over night that the KR were able to gain the peoples support, nor by mistake, but failed design of the United States and Nixon’s secret wars. The US backed wars had destabilized the region, leaving King Sihanouk little option but to join forces with his former opponents in hopes to regain power, and bring peace and stability back to his country. It is this recycled history, blinded by greed and lust for power leaving a stain that still last in modern Cambodia.
April 12 1975; Amid anti war demonstrations and calls against Americas involvement in South East Asia, be it for noble causes, leave US backed collaborators without their guaranteed and desperately needed support (chillingly parallel to current issue with US regulation and support in Iraq and Afghanistan). Phnom Penh finds itself completely surrounded by The Khmer Rouge, US troops evacuate out of Cambodia, airlifting those officials from Lon Nol’s government who choose to leave safety outside the country, most receiving pensions upwards of one million dollars. This unfolds in the shadows, with the secrecy bestowed by Nixon in Cambodia and Laos, the eyes of the world focused on collapse of Vietnam (the fall if Saigon taking place April 20, 1975).
Dear Excellency and Friend:
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we all are born and must die (one day). I have only committed this mistake of believing in you the Americans. Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.
The city was swollen with over two million refugees from the country side flee both KR aggression and US bombs. Until April Phnom Pehn had experienced little of the outside violence (seeing the coup by Lon Nol 1970 and an attempted assault by KR forces in 1973). Refugees how ever had been surviving on meager rations provided by the US. The KR had begone daily rocket attacks, and on April 17 1975 Khmer Rouge troops marched through the streets of Phnom Penh.
Greeted initially a liberators, coming to reinstate the deposed King to unify and return peace and prosperity to the land. People cheered and celebrated, welcoming the forces. After two hours the KR called for the evacuation of the city telling the people they would be mass US bombing of the city, to leave everything and that they could return after a few days to regain their belongings. Over two million people fled the city, families torn apart in the chaos, some being taken or told they would be reunited after going where the KR had told them, many never to be seen again. This would later become know as the beginning of “Year Zero”10 and the “New people after April 15”11, unbenouced and with fanfare the people of Cambodians welcomed in the KR initiating a brutal regime and the beginning of mass genocide.
With the evacuation of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge took power, and began the systematic execution of undesirables. People of the Lon Nol government, ruling class, rich, educated, teachers, people trained in Europe or holding foreign ties, and any one of the arts. They set up power in total secrecy as the Angkor. They had struck with such viciousness, without people knowing even who “they” were, creating a power in rumor and secrecy, that it became a possible death sentence to where glass as to be called out as an “educated”12. The Angkor is watching, became the slogan to ruling, people being turned in by sister, neighbor, uncle and friend for eating an apple or hiding a handful snails. The KR had numbers but most had joined in resistance to reinstate the King and weren’t necessarily aligned to the party’s ideals. King Norodom Sihanouk was only given an honorary position, in order to keep ties with the people but he held no governing power. The ruling agenda was that of a wiping of the slate, year Zero, the rebirth of an Agrarian society. The working class was the only class. People were driven from the cities, stripped of their possessions and homes, families displaced never to be reunited, people sent to countryside to become farmers. Along with their brutal regime came the rejection to most of the outside world and modernity, instilling a four year plan mostly focusing on the production rice. Urban people were forced to be farmers over night with the expectation of producing three tons per hector13, one ton for domestic two tons for foreign trade consisting of much needed munitions and armaments (including the United States) They People were forced to work twelve, sixteen even twenty hour days in order to produced yields. Families often starved in order to meet the outrageous demands. The secrecy and fear of the Angkor effected even governing officials, and especially those in the country side. Rural governors began lying about yields cause more, forcing people to work harder on less. People were sent away never to return, most being beaten with rudimentary objects just outside of ton and thrown into mass graves14.
In 1976, being unable to withstand hunger, my father caught tadpoles for food. He thought they were small fish. One day a Khmer Cadre killed a poisonous snake and placed it on a fence. Though he knew the snake was poisonous he still ate the snake, which killed him. My sisters and her children died of starvation. My own family was in the same condition. We had a lot of farming but no rice to eat. Being hungry too, I picked wild arum as food. After eating, we all became very itchy. One day I went to fish. The unit chief said, “you behave with very low character. Be great full Angkor will take you for execution”. Because of inadequate food, one of my children became seriously sick, so I exchanged my last necklace for rice and cooked it for her. She ate a lot, but became sicker. She died as a result. The other two children and my husband became sick because of malnutrition. However, we miserably managed to survive.
-Um Saret, 57 Phnom Penh.15
The city’s were ghost towns overnight, site twenty one was set up for questioning this turned in by community and family, accused of being collaborators with the CIA and Vietcong (who had officers who had stayed behind but were killed, causing ties to be broken and centuries old aggression to be reignited). Hill of poisonous trees Tuol Sleng, “the place people go in, people do not come out”. In its begging some 20k people lost their lives there, after the need for a larger grave was found in what is now known as the Killing Fields out side of the city. This is where those found guilty, or more those accused with the sentence of “better to cut out an innocent, then to have one collaborator go free!” 1617 . People sent to Tuol Sleng were starved, beaten and tortured till they were forced to confess often to things they had no idea about. CIA, FBI, KGB were not commonly known but often people confessed too collaborating with them as well as adding names to the list of enemy of the state. After three days of starvation, being shackled together at the ankle and being held at violence to silence and sleeping chained together without movement, they were then taken to questioning. Here they were questioned about their involvement with the enemies of Angkor, and without mercy or warning they were brutally tortured, further beating, caged with starved rats, electrocution, burning. Vann Nath, a survivor sent to Tuol Sleng for being an artist and spared for the same reason, was forced to document such daily events at the prison. Such things as the torture of one inmate where he was hosted backwards by his arms, struck and lowered then being dunked in pot of urine and feces 18. Along with his daily documentation Vann Nath also was in charge of painting portraits and overseeing the commission of bust of Brother Number One, Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot was central at the beginning of the KR, but didn’t step from the shadows as leader to after 1975, and was recognized as part of the true unified government by the UN and United States while they knew of what was going on. The portraits and bust of Pol Pot that were not to standard were not destroyed but rather buried as he was seen as god like and even his image held power19. This was found out during some excavation of S21 in the early years after the KR. The conditions at S21 and documentation of the condemned where held in accordance to Angkor law. The interrogators were not allowed to act of personal feeling, anger or malice and no one was to be killed with out proper permission and document. Though a lot of the documents have been lost or left incomplete the regime was well at showing peoples confessions, along with photos of the accused and exterminated. At first it was those loyal to Lon Nol, engineers, architects and monks who died here but soon those who didn’t fit in or follow the meter of the law where held and killed here. As one confession from a previous inquisitor stated he was sent to the prison for beating a woman to death who denied his physical advancements20. With out consent from those in charge, prisoners were kept alive by makeshift doctors, who kept people alive with crude drugs, salt and chalk mixed with lime to make vitamins c tablets, and coconut water. Often those in severe conditions died. This resent history has cast a dark shadow over Cambodia, in secrecy America pushed this to the braking point and in the light the US still hides from our responsibility to its actions and failed policies in the region. Sadly it is the most recycled theme in history, happening again today.
1“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)”pg. 10 Khamboly Dy
2Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide
3Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide
4Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide
5Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide
6Tuol Slang Genocide audio guide tour information Stop #4
7Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide
8Tuol Sleng Genocide audio guide tour information stop #13
9“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” pg 14 Khamboly Dy
10“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” pg. 16 Khamboly Dy
11“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” pg, 15Khamboly Dy
12“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” pg. 18 Khamboly Dy
13“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” pg. 26 Khamboly Dy
14“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” pg. 26 Khamboly Dy
15“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” pg. 15 Khamboly Dy
16Tuol Sleng Genocide audio guide tour information Stop #16
17“A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” pg.55 Khamboly Dy
18Tuol Sleng Genocide audio guide tour information Stop #16
19Tuol Sleng Genocide audio guide tour information Stop #20
20Tuol Sleng Genocide audio guide tour information Stop #23