Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison / Edition 1

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The horrific torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge during the 1970s is one of the century's major human disasters. David Chandler, a world-renowned historian of Cambodia, examines the Khmer Rouge phenomenon by focusing on one of its key institutions, the secret prison outside Phnom Penh known by the code name "S-21." The facility was an interrogation center where more than 14,000 "enemies" were questioned, tortured, and made to confess to counterrevolutionary crimes. Fewer than a dozen prisoners left S-21 alive. During the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) era, the existence of S-21 was known only to those inside it and a few high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials. When invading Vietnamese troops discovered the prison in 1979, murdered bodies lay strewn about and instruments of torture were still in place. An extensive archive containing photographs of victims, cadre notebooks, and DK publications was also found. Chandler utilizes evidence from the S-21 archive as well as materials that have surfaced elsewhere in Phnom Penh. He also interviews survivors of S-21 and former workers from the prison. Documenting the violence and terror that took place within S-21 is only part of Chandler's story. Equally important is his attempt to understand what happened there in terms that might be useful to survivors, historians, and the rest of us. Chandler discusses the "culture of obedience" and its attant dehumanization, citing parallels between the Khmer Rouge executions and the Moscow Show Trails of the 1930s, Nazi genocide, Indonesian massacres in 1965-66, the Argentine military's use of torture in the 1970s, and the recent mass killings in Bosnia andRwanda.In each of these instances, Chandler shows how turning victims into "others" in a manner that was systematically devaluing and racialist made it easier to mistreat and kill them. More than a chronicle of Khmer Rouge barbarism, Voices from S-21 is also a judicious examination of the psychological dimensions of state-sponsored terrorism that conditions human beings to commit acts of unspeakable brutality.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Chandler presents a grisly but lucid historical accounting of S-21, the secret prison where at least 14,000 people were interrogated, tortured, forced to confess to counterrevolutionary crimes and executed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. This "anteroom to death," as Chandler labels it, was discovered by two Vietnamese photographers in the wake of the invasion that forced out the Khmer Rouge in January 1979. Drawn to the site by the smell of decomposing flesh, the men discovered the bodies of 50 recently murdered prisoners, an array of implements of torture and a vast abandoned archive of institutionally sanctioned torture and murder. (The area was immediately turned into a museum.) Chandler methodically reconstructs the history of S-21, working with both the archives discovered there and his own interviews with survivors of the camp; he offers some context for his evidence by drawing on his considerable knowledge of the region's past (the Australian scholar is the author of a history of Cambodia), for instance, identifying Chinese models for the camp. His assessment is of a government gone mad with paranoia, which must torture and murder its own citizens to protect itself against conspiracies that arise against it--"hidden enemies burrowing from within" who were viewed as more dangerous than outside threats. In attempting to understand how such evil arose, Chandler comes to the dismaying but arguable conclusion that places like S-21 and Nazi concentration camps originate in our own everyday capacities to order and obey, form bonds against outsiders, seek perfection and approval and vent anger and frustration upon the helpless. 13 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Judith Shapiro
In an effort to explain what happened inside Tuol Sleng (then known by the code name S-21), David Chandler, the preeminent historian of Cambodia, spent years examining the voluminous archives discovered in the compound when the Vietnamese seized power in Cambodia in 1979. He plumbed comparative materials on state-sponsored terror and sought insight in psychological studies of the human capacity to inflict pain. ''Voices From S-21'' is the wrenching and dispassionate result.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520222472
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/7/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 251
  • Sales rank: 1,422,331
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

David Chandler is Professor Emeritus of History at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. His published works include A History of Cambodia (1991, 1996) and Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot (1992). He currently lives in Washington, D.C.

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Table of Contents

1 Discovering S-21 1
2 S-21: A Total Institution 14
3 Choosing the Enemies 41
4 Framing the Questions 77
5 Forcing the Answers 110
6 Explaining S-21 143
Appendix Siet Chhe's Denial of Incest 157
Notes 161
Bibliography 207
Index 233
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2003

    an extremely important book

    Truly a book that you will find rare in it's own right, since the author has done thorough research and is also a gripping writer. I visited Tuol Sleng in 2003 and I read the book later. It would be better the other way around, though. It is one of the most terrible places on the face of this earth, and should be a museum. The current one lacks funds, which is a shame. The killers walk around free in Cambodia even today, which makes the experiece even more chilling.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2003

    an excellent addition to any personal library

    i first heard about this book on the history channel and eventually decided to look it up and have a go at reading it, seeing as i had nothing better to do. i was hooked from the first page on. i had read books about the awful things done to prisoners in russia and in nazi-controlled europe, but after reading this book, i see that brutality is found east of siberia as well. this book helps one see what lengths people will go to to prevent their tight, closed little systems from being infiltrated; even if it is by imaginary people and imaginary crimes. the pictures honestly made me cry when i saw them. and i thought i had seen everything.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2000

    It will haunt you long after you have finished reading it.

    An extraordinary view into the secret prison of the Democratic Kampuchean (DK) government of Cambodia (1975-79). This well researched book by a renowned historian provides the reader with an in-context look at the horrors of Pol Pot¿s regime and the consequences of his paranoia of ¿hidden enemies¿. Dr. Chandler¿s poignant use of confessions forced from unfortunate and often innocent victims paints a grizzly portrait of power without constraints. It mattered not that neither interrogators nor prisoners knew what crimes had been committed, it was merely enough they had been arrested and sent to S-21, therefore they were guilty. With their de facto ¿guilt¿ established, it was the interrogators job to obtain a proper confession of these unknown, but treasonous, crimes. With or without a confession, there was only one verdict¿death. Dr. Chandler has woven extracts from these confessions, interviews from the hand full of S-21 survivors, prison workers, and senior DK cadre, including Pol Pot, and a comparative analysis of other similar atrocities from the 20th Century into a balanced, historically accurate picture of the horrid activities that took place at S-21. This work will be useful text for any person interested in Southeast Asian history or human rights issues.

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