Tuol Sleng, known as S-21, was one of the major prison camps of the Khmer Rouge, between 1975-79. It was an old high school, and the classrooms were converted to cells and “interrogation” rooms. The museum was a similar experience to the 9/11 museum in New York – a must see that is totally depressing; not a fun day. It’s terrible that we know so little about the Khmer Rouge atrocities, their path to power and the state of affairs after the Vietnamese invasion/liberation in 1979.

The museum is just the prison after a bit of cleaning. The horror comes to life through the tour guides, and through films that are shown through the day. Whereas the 9/11 museum has thousands of artefacts from the towers, planes and first responders, there were very few here – a couple of old bed frames and restraints used for torture, an exhibit on some of the tools used for torture and execution and some galleries of the famous arrival mugshots of each prisoner. We tagged on to a couple of museum-guided tours and heard about the use of each room and the stories behind some of the many mugshot photos. Every prisoner had a numbered tag attached to their shirt by a safety-pin. Those not wearing a top had it pinned to their skin.

Around 20,000 prisoners came through S-21, and fewer than a dozen survived. We watched a documentary film in which one of the survivors and some of the surviving guards spoke remarkably frankly about their experiences. It’s interesting to see the extent to which the guards were desensitised to beating and murdering their prisoners, and how they appeared actually to believe the nonsense confessions that they forced their captives to sign, so instilled was their obedience to the Angkar. (The CIA, KGB and various capitalist imperialists would have to have been running half the population as agents.) The consistency with which they described that they had no choice in what they were doing was remarkable; none of them broke down in tears about how many they’d killed, none of them gave an apology, it’s all very matter-of-fact. Perhaps (armchair psychology alert) it’s a sort of defence mechanism – there was a note that there’s been little research on PTSD-related conditions for the perpetrators, only the direct victims. I suppose there’s a certain selection bias in the sense that the guards who were still alive at the end of the regime were precisely those who weren’t executed for refusing orders.

I haven’t been to Auschwitz or Dachau, but Jo remarked on the similarities: the segregation of people into their role without knowing about others; the forensic level of documentation about arrivals, deaths, confessions, when prisoners were fed; and the totality of the conditioning that enabled guards to beat and kill the enemy so easily. This happened in Cambodia thirty years after it happened in Europe, and after 1979 the US (with others) backed the Khmer Rouge because they had been displaced by Vietnam. The mantra about never forgetting these atrocities clearly doesn’t hold water.

While I think my parents know something about the Khmer Rouge from news at the time, I wasn’t yet born and I assume it’s too recent or distant for secondary school history. There were two of the very few survivors at Tuol Sleng today, one of whom is there every day in his capacity as part of a victims association. We spoke briefly with him. There was little to say, other than to express the dismay at our level of ignorance about this.