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Bangkok Post Perspective May 30, 1999
Notes from a slaughterhouse

Khmer Rouge Atrocities:

As head of  security, the notorious Deuch ran Tuol Sleng, the regime's bloodiest prison.

Ben Kiernan

In June 1967, a group of Cambodian youths, inspired by the Chinese Cultural  Revolution and enraged by criticisms of China published in a Khmer newspaper, sacked  the paper's offices. A photograph of Prince Sihanouk was torn from the wall and a statue  of the Buddha overturned. Mao's Little Red Book was being widely distributed, and  student unrest was mounting.

Leaflets distributed in Kompong Thom province by Pol Pot's underground Communist  Party of Kampuchea (CPK) called on people to "rise up" in rebellion. Their author was  the principal of the local Balaing College, a tall, thin, pock-faced science teacher named  Mam Nay. The College's deputy principal, leader of another 1967 incident in which  rioters burnt a bus outside a police station, was a short, spindly Sino-Khmer named  Kaing Khek Iev. He later became Mam Nay's superior in the CPK. After their party had  taken power in 1975, Iev, using the revolutionary name Deuch, ran the Khmer Rouge  regime's national security apparatus, the Santebal. Deuch and Mam Nay supervised the  torture, interrogation and execution of around 15,000 Cambodians whom they and Pol  Pot suspected of anti-Khmer Rouge dissidence. Their most famous victim would be the  Cambodian leftist politician Hu Nim, a Minister in the Khmer Rouge cabinet until his  arrest in 1977.

In 1967, Prince Sihanouk had put Mam Nay in the same category as Hu Nim, but  ironically described Hu Nim as "the most dangerous". The Prince singled out the "pro-Chinese left" for "its subversive work". He banned the Khmer-Chinese Friendship Association, the local Hsinhua bulletin, and the General Association of Khmer Students.

The CPK was already set on its course. Hu Nim's "confession", his prison account of  the ensuing events, composed in 1977 under torture by Deuch and Mam Nay, reveals the role played by the Party underground, in particular its Northern Zone leader, Koy Thuon, who "pushed the situation further, and made it more tense by presenting a motion of  protest.. demanding that Sihanouk re-establish the Khmer-Chinese Friendship Association. Sihanouk was very angry with me."The Prince indeed concluded that "Hu Nim and his associates have excluded themselves from the national community", and told them to go live in China. Nim received quick orders from Pol Pot's CPK "Centre", to take to the jungle. The party proclaimed: "Khmer people, Khmer youth, rise up and overthrow the corrupt, ictatorial and anti-popular regime!"Nim left for the Cardamom mountains from the Phnom Penh house of his brother-in-law. "It was raining.. Comrade Kun came to meet me and asked me to cover my read with a raincoat and walk right across in front of the intelligence agents who were sheltering near the house."Police arrived quickly. They claimed that Nim's brother-in-law poured petrol over his own clothes and set fire to himself. Student leader Phouk Chhay was gaoled; another associate was killed in police headquarters. Mam Nay, Deuch, and four other teachers and two students from Balaing college were also gaoled.

According to a student at the time: "Sihanouk gave orders for the execution of many teachers and students who were suspected communists. They were arrested and brought in from very distant places and killed in a special place in Kong forest near Skoun. I saw them being taken there. People were denouncing one another, people they did not like, as communists."Deuch and Mam Nay were released after Lon Nol's coup against Sihanouk in 1970. When they returned to Phnom Penh with the victorious Khmer Rouge army in 1975, they made the Sihanouk regime's repression of teachers, and its fostering of secret mutual denunciations, look like child's play.

From 1971 to 1975, Deuch ran the security forces of the CPK insurgency's Special Zone, under Son Sen, who took charge of security issues for the CPK Centre. A CPK defector who met Deuch in 972-73 recalled him as "ill-tempered, impatient, and doctrinaire."The CPK security forces came to be dominated by a cabal from Pol Pot's native province of Kompong Thom, with connections to Son Sen. Sen and Deuch had both taught at the National Pedagogy School. Sen taught Mam Nay, who graduated in 1956. Another leading Santebal official was Sen's relative Nat (Ny Korn), a former mechanic in the Kompong Thom electrical works.

Like Son Sen, Deuch moved his operation to the capital after the 1975 victory. Some of  the prisoners he brought along were held there for nearly two years. Deuch's  headquarters was now renamed "S-21". He continued to report to Son Sen. Deuch  recruited 57 new prison guards between June and December 1975. During that year, 154  prisoners were incarcerated, mostly in Phnom Penh's former Bethlehem chapel.

 In January 1976, Deuch moved S-21 to Takhmau, on the southern outskirts of Phnom  Penh. By March, he had employed another 20 warders. In June, the prison moved again  to new premises, the former high school now known as Tuol Sleng. This site could hold  1,500 prisoners. The Santebal flourished. By early 1977, Tuol Sleng employed 111 new  warders, most aged 17 to 21. A mere half-dozen had joined the revolution before 1973,  and only two had worked for the Santebal before April 1975. These people were to  imprison and kill the vast majority of veteran CPK cadres, from Hu Nim and Koy Thuon  down.

Six weeks after Thuon's imprisonment in January 1977, Deuch wrote him a polite letter. It began by noting from Thuon's latest "confession" that the prison "environment" had "helped to educate you a lot. "Deuch went on: From what I personally observed from all your reports so far, I see that you yourself.. carry out strenuous activities because of your strongly-held beliefs. I observe that this accords with the truth. I would like to express my thanks and appreciation. But please make a further report, clearly and correctly, as follows: Why is your belief so wholehearted-if the CIA is discredited, Vietnam is discredited, and the Free Khmer movement is discredited, and their physical forces have suffered disintegration, defeat and dissolution more than is thought?This is the issue that you have not yet accurately reported. This is the issue that you are avoiding. In the hope that you will report frankly.


This deadly letter encapsulates the process and mentality of Deuch's Tuol Sleng. His acknowledgement that dissidents like Koy Thuon had acted from political conviction is  important. It was a rare and private concession.

Prisoners were routinely forced to confess that they were not Cambodian political actors,  but mere agents of foreign powers, motivated by greed or cowardice, not conviction or dedication. Deuch consciously required such statements for propaganda purposes. He  saw the danger in revealing the fact that leading Cambodian communists could honestly  dissent from Party policies.

However, he still considered CPK dissenters to be objectively working in concert with  foreign powers. Thus, he queried their hope for success without the ability to rely on foreign material aid. Koy Thuon was executed.

Khieu Samphan later told Sihanouk that Thuon was "an agent of the Vietnamese and the CIA. "Sihanouk pressed: "Are you sure?"Samphan confessed: "No."To celebrate the second anniversary of the CPK's victory over Lon Nol, Deuch had his staff compile a list of all prisoners arrested in the two months prior to April 17, 1977. The 1,566 names on the list roughly equal the number arrested in the whole of 1976. Those arrested in this period included Phouk Chhay and Hu Nim, who "gave himself" to the Party on April 10, after "two work meetings with Brother No.2", Pol Pot's deputy, Nuon Chea.

For each of the prisoners apprehended in the two months to April 17, 1977, S-21  carefully recorded their name, alias, gender, position, organisational unit, date of entry,  and "miscellaneous" details. 633 names are followed by an abbreviation of "smashed"  (komtech). 107 prisoners were "smashed" between March 17-18, 1977. In January 1977, Hu Nim recorded in his "confessions", he had been "disturbed and tormented" by theoretical documents about collectivism distributed at a CPK study session. He related the suicide of Prom Sam Ar, a comrade whose feelings of despair and straightforward political complaints Hu Nim hints he shared, but suppressed: "If I had not done so, I would have had my face smashed in like Prom Sam Ar."On May 7, 1977, Tuol Sleng held 1,273 prisoners. Two were recorded as having "died under torture" in a mistake by staff, who were supposed to make victims talk. Four days after his arrest, Hu Nim submitted the first of seven draft "confessions" to his interrogator, who appended a note to Deuch, saying: "We whipped him four or five times to break his stand, before taking him to be stuffed with water."On April 22, the interrogator reported: "I have tortured him to write it again."Five weeks later, Hu Nim was abject: "I am not a human being, I am an animal."He was "smashed" on July 6, the same day as Phouk Chhay and 125 others. As the genocide gathered pace, more and more of the victims were non-political. On July 1, 1977, 114 women were killed in Tuol Sleng, including 90 whose "function" was listed  as "wives" of prisoners previously executed. Eight more were simply listed as widows, and two more as married to "unknown husbands." Two others were a mother and a sister-in-law of executed prisoners. The next day, 31 sons and 43 daughters of prisoners, 15 of them taken from "children's centres", and a nurse described as an orphan, were all slaughtered.

Seventeen Khmer "poor peasants" who arrived in Tuol Sleng from the Eastern Zone in  May 1978 included two boys aged nine, two ten year-old girls, and five others all under 16. Accused of association with a dissident "tendency," all were arrested because their parents or husbands had been.

 "Kill them all," Deuch wrote on May 30, appending his signature.  Pol Pot's return from a visit to China in September 1977 saw an acceleration of the  massacres. On October 15 alone, a record 418 Tuol Sleng prisoners were executed by the Santebal. Three days later, another 179 perished, followed by 88 more victims on October 20, and 148 on the 23rd. The centre kept a close eye on Deuch's work. On October 5, Son Sen had written to "Beloved Comrade Deuch," explaining: "It is necessary to conserve paper."He warned against accepting all statements from those being interrogated. "Some of their responses also attack us. Some of them attack purposefully. Some of them are afraid and just talk and talk."By the end of June 1978, the number of prisoners who had entered Tuol Sleng since January reached 5,675, a half-year total close to that for all of 1977. The Santebal recorded on November 21, 1978 that 1,824 "people from the old society" had been incarcerated in Tuol Sleng, while another "1,035" remained to be apprehended.

When the Pol Pot regime finally collapsed in the face of Vietnamese invasion in January 1979, Deuch was probably the last of its leading officials to abandon Phnom Penh. He was still in Tuol Sleng at noon an hour after the fall. Deuch had built up such a large archive of prison records and "confessions" that he was unable to destroy much of it, leaving over 100,000 pages of testimony to his activities since 1974.

He did see to the execution of several surviving prisoners, some of them chained to their beds. Deuch only just escaped. Following Hu Nim's footsteps from 1967, Deuch headed for the Cardamom Mountains. He reached safety in Thailand in May 1979.

The next year, journalists went to visit Deuch's mother in Kompong Thom. They told her that her son had been chief of Tuol Sleng prison under Pol Pot.

"Oh, I always knew he'd go far," she responded.

Now under arrest and back in Phnom Penh, Deuch is on the other side of prison bars, with a lot of questions to answer about the years since he was last gaoled there in 1967. One concerns a tiny rectangular notebook found in a house near Tuol Sleng. It contains  five handwritten pages on "Human Experiments" (pisaot menuh).

The notes record the results of 11 "experiments" with 17 prisoners, living and dead.  They begin:"1. A 17-year-old girl, with her throat cut and stomach slashed, put in water from 7.55 p.m. until 9.20 a.m., when the body begins to float slowly to the top, which it reaches by 11.00 a.m. "2. A 17-year-old-girl bashed to death, then put in water as before, for the same period, but the body rises to the top at 1.17 p.m."Similar details were recorded for "a big woman, stabbed in the throat, her stomach slashed and removed," and "a young male bashed to death," then "four young girls stabbed in the throat," and "a young girl, still alive, hands tied, placed in water.."If Deuch didn't write these lines, he knows who did.  Someone should ask him.

 * Ben Kiernan is Professor of History and Director of the Genocide

Studies Programme at Yale University.

 Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 1999

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