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  • The Long Shadow of S-21:Letter from Phnom Penh
  • Christopher Thornton (bio)

SEVERAL hours a day Bou Meng sits in the courtyard of the former Tuol Svay Prey High School in central Phnom Penh and signs copies of his memoir. For visitors who have gathered at his table on the other side of the walkway, Chum Mey also sells and signs copies of his memoir. As the crowd thickens, both are peppered with questions. Mey stops signing books and stands to better see the faces pressing forward. Unlike most Cambodians, he is tall, and at eighty-three years of age still stands ramrod straight, with a bearing that would satisfy a military drill instructor.

The former high school lies in a nondescript neighborhood a few blocks from Preah Sihanouk Boulevard, which is lined with motorbike dealers peddling two-stroke Hondas and Suzukis to the city’s emerging middle class. Small grocery shops and juice bars fill the side streets. Near the school’s gates, snack vendors manning pushcarts sell soft drinks and bottled water to sweating tourists. The banality of the setting belies its notorious history. Shortly after the Khmer Rouge forces took control of the Cambodian capital, on April 17, 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School became Tuol Seng Prison, or S-21, named for the walkie-talkie code it was assigned by the newly entrenched and ideologically fanatic communist authorities. Rusted coils of barbed wire still top the cement wall encircling the compound, and signboards advise visitors not to raise their voices or engage in laughter while strolling the grounds, out of respect for the thousands of Cambodians who died there.

In the three-and-a-half years that S-21 was in operation, an estimated seventeen thousand Cambodians were either tortured to death by interrogators who extracted mostly bogus confessions or were trucked out to the killing field of Cheong Ek, now in the Phnom Penh suburbs, to be summarily executed. Usually their skulls were bashed in with iron bars to save bullets. Bou Meng and Chum Mey are two of only seventeen survivors of S-21. Only seven of the seventeen are still alive. Bou Meng’s life was saved because he was a professional artist who could paint propaganda [End Page 650] portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and other communist figures. Chum Mey was an experienced mechanic who could repair vehicles and the sewing machines needed for the production of the Khmer Rouge’s signature black caps and uniforms. Without those skills, neither man would still be alive.

The broad outlines of the rise of the Khmer Rouge have been permanently etched into the history of Southeast Asia. In the early 1950s Pol Pot, the eventual leader of the Khmer Rouge, traveled to Paris as a nineteen-year-old student to study radio electronics. Instead he cultivated an interest in French literature and the communist philosophy of Karl Marx. In 1953 he returned to Cambodia and became active in the communist cause, both as part of the leftist groups that operated openly under French colonial rule and the more strident, underground communist movement. He was not alone. Ieng Sary, Khieu Sayphon, and Hou Yuon, student comrades from his Paris days, had also returned to Cambodia, and had brought with them the ideas that would form the cornerstone of the Khmer Rouge ideology: that urbanization and industrialization did not preclude social and economic development; that Cambodia had to wrest itself from its reliance on developed countries; and that it would only recover its true, historic identity by harkening back to the glory days of the Angkor Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia from the early ninth to the fifteenth centuries. With this ideology came a virulent strain of ultranationalism. Like many radical movements, the Khmer Rouge defined itself more by what it was against than by what it was for. It was not only anti-Western but anti-anything that was not ethnic Khmer. It was a toxic blend of paranoia—directed at the outer, more developed world—and xenophobia, directed regionally toward Cambodia’s Asian neighbors.

The genesis of the Khmer Rouge was in the 1950s. The Kampuchean People’s Republican...


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