On April 17, 1975, forces of the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, triumphantly entered Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Although his crimes never rivaled those of political idols Mao Zedong or Josef Stalin in terms of sheer numbers, the victims of Khmer Rouge violence and brutal Pol Pot crimes endured a reign of terror and cruelty that ranks among the cruelest in modern history.
Motivated by deep class resentment and a fanatical desire to wipe out any vestige of urban culture or enlightenment, Pol Pot unleashed a genocide that exterminated at least 25% of Cambodia's population of eight million, and perhaps more. The Khmer Rouge relied on methods of torture and execution that were atavistic in their savage cruelty and depraved barbarity. Despite a four-year regime of state terror and horrible Khmer Rouge war crimes, Pol Pot, like other prominent war criminals of the 20th century, was never held accountable for some unspeakably horrible things.
Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar in central Cambodia in 1925. He attended school in Phnom Penh as a teenager, and qualified for a technical scholarship in France, emigrating to Paris in 1949. There, he became a radicalized Marxist, interested in the anti-colonial movement sweeping Southeast Asia. A mediocre student, he flunked out of his technical school and returned to Cambodia in 1953.
Initially a teacher, Pol Pot eventually took control of a Cambodian Marxist political movement known as Khmer Rouge. After a lengthy and arduous guerrilla conflict, in 1975, Khmer Rouge prevailed in its struggle against government forces supported by the United States. Because of its small size and relatively controllable population, Cambodia was an ideal country for Pol Pot to attempt to implement his uniquely horrific vision of a Maoist, agrarian society without any taint of modernity or class.
Khmer Rouge began an immediate, radical program to transform Cambodia. Contacts with foreign governments essentially ceased, schools and hospitals were closed. Banking, currency, private property and commerce were abolished. Religion, entertainment, foreign fashion, and anything associated with Cambodian tradition was prohibited. All urban populations, including the residents of Phnom Penh, a city of almost three million people, were told to evacuate to rural areas, where society would be reorganized as farming collectives.
Families were separated. Those who refused to relocate were executed on the spot, their homes burnt to the ground. Pol Pot summarized this new approach to governance by stating, "We will burn the old grass and the new will grow."
During the Khmer Rouge's reign, the country was centrally governed by a committee of high-ranking officials known as Angkar. Loosely translated as The Community or The Organization, Angkar was led by Pol Pot, who was designated Brother Number One. His underlings were referred to as Brother Number Two, Brother Number Three, etc. Numerical designation depended on political prominence.
Eventually, Angkar became a concept of total obedience to the regime, as exemplified by the slogan "Angkar wills it." Governmental policy, individual torture and execution, or really anything performed in any official capacity at even the remotest levels of authority or governmental organization, was justified with this peremptory statement.
The regime quickly began to identify those suspected of being enemies of Angkar. Because Khmer Rouge considered urban areas infected with Western influence and the much-loathed educated and/or wealthy classes, urban residents were termed New People and deemed subordinate to peasants and rural Cambodians, known as Base People. Upon seizing power, Khmer Rouge began a campaign to identify enemies and determine whether they were more suited to "re-education" or extermination.
In their zeal to root out unworthy New People, Khmer Rouge targeted a number of demographics in Cambodian society. Any member of the defeated Cambodian army, doctors, teachers, religious figures, journalists, lawyers, and government workers were treated with the highest suspicion and frequently targeted for immediate liquidation. Many such professionals were murdered along with their entire extended families.
As the regime's stranglehold on society tightened, radios and music were banned, and any social unit of more than three people, and those suspected of hoarding food or valuables - those who weren't killed by Khmer Rouge were forced to work endless hours at no wage, and were afforded meager rations - were liable to be arrested and executed. Any citizen denounced by another citizen or member of Khmer Rouge, under the slightest pretext could be designated for arrest and detention. Which basically means you could tell on someone you didn't like to get that person and his or her entire extended family tortured and executed.
Certain groups, like ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, Cambodian Christians, and the Cham, a sect of Cambodian Muslims, were unconditionally exterminated. Eventually, people wearing eyeglasses, in possession of a wristwatch, or who spoke a foreign language faced execution, as those attributes are stereotypically associated with intellectualism, education, and academia. As one infamous Khmer Rouge saying went, "To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss."
The most notorious Khmer Rouge punishment-and-interrogation facility was a former high school on the edge of Phnom Penh. Like Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, the regime had a mania for obtaining detailed written confessions from all its victims. Once an individual was transported to S-21, he or she was essentially doomed.
At least 13,000, and maybe as many as 30,000, individuals passed through the doors of the facility. Only seven are believed to have survived, for reasons having nothing to do with guilt or innocence, merely because they possessed a valued talent or skill, like mechanical repair or the ability to paint portraiture.
Important prisoners were shackled on their backs in individual cells, feet chained in a crude device. Hundreds of others were crammed into orderly rows, chained together by their feet, barely clothed. They remained in this position 24-hours day, forbidden to speak. Prisoners were occasionally fed a few spoonfuls of gruel. A gulp of water was distributed by request from time to time, and excretion was performed into a bucket or shelled coconut. Those who spilled bodily fluids during this process were beaten by guards.
"Showers" consisted of a fire hose sporadically turned on the prisoners where they lay. Guards and other prison staff were mostly 16 to 19 year olds, living in fear of violating a rule that would cause them to be placed in confinement, a not infrequent occurrence. Victims were photographed immediately upon arrival, and in a matter of days or weeks, the interrogation process began. All questions were aimed at a prisoner's alleged involvement with enemies of Angkar. Written autobiographical statements were requested, as were confessions.
As accusations often involved preposterous and fanciful allegations such as interaction or co-operation with the CIA, KGB, Vietnamese government, or other such agencies, even prisoners willing to cooperate were confused, or professed innocence. When confessions weren't made forthwith, interrogators applied so-called hot or cold methods of persuasion. Cold were psychological approaches like verbal remonstration, shaming, or the inevitability of confession. Hot were beatings with rattan whips, lashings with split electrical cords, removal of fingernails, water boarding, electric shock, and blunt force trauma. Murdering prisoners during interrogation was discouraged, as it would render a confession meaningless.
When confessions were extracted, they were sent to prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav, aka Brother Duch, who made detailed notes in the margins and sent them back for correction. If a prisoner refused the changes, became obstinate, or regressed to claims of innocence, the level of brutality was increased until a confession was exacted to the satisfaction of Brother Duch. Once the confession was complete, Duch officially order the individual's execution, employing the euphemism "smashing" the condemned.
Dutch was also known to give advice to interrogators struggling to get a confession. Such advice might include “Remind him about the welfare of his wife and children; does he know that his wife and children have been detained; now that he is here does he know what has become of his wife?”