Stark reminder of human cruelty

Former Cambodian school-turned-prison houses memories of genocidal past.

November 08, 2010|David C. Henley, Special to the Daily Pilot
  • David C. Henley stands in front of the Cambodia Genocide Museum in Phnem Penh, Cambodia. The museum occupies the former Tuol Sleng Prison, where the Khymer Rouge regime tortured and killed many of its victims.
David C. Henley stands in front of the Cambodia Genocide… (Courtesy David…)

Editor's note: This corrects the caption of the photo of David C. Henley in front of Tuol Sleng Prison.

Editor's note: The following article is a first-person account of a visit to the former Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia by David C. Henley, a Newport Beach resident. Henley is a former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Examiner, the Christian Science Monitor and Knight-Ridder Newspapers. He and his wife returned home Saturday from a trip to Cambodia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — From a distance, the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School provided no outward evidence of the horrors that took place there more than three decades ago.

I pulled up to the front gate aboard a "tuk-tuk" taxicab, a small, two-wheeled canopied trailer pulled by a motorcycle. Set on a narrow side street in this chaotic and poverty-stricken capital city, the complex of five, three-story concrete buildings surrounded by a playground, palm trees, small shops and food stalls appeared commonplace and ordinary as Kosal, my 35-year-old tuk-tuk driver, let me off at the gate.


But first impressions can be deceiving.

In the 1970s, the former school that had accommodated 1,000 students was converted into the Security Prison-21, or Tuol Sleng Prison, by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime after the K.R. toppled the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in April 1975.

Tuol Sleng, which was also known as "S-21," soon became the nation's largest penal center. Thousands of men, women and children were interrogated, beaten, tortured and killed inside the prison's walls until it was shuttered four years later.

Now a genocide museum, the old prison serves as a testament to the irrationality and cruelty of the radical Khmer Rouge movement, which was led by the infamous "Brother Number One," Pol Pot, from 1975 until Vietnam's 1979 invasion of Cambodia.

During their reign, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh and other cities, forcing their inhabitants to move to the countryside and work as slave laborers in an effort to create a fundamentalist, agrarian utopia in which money, machinery, automobiles, modern medicine, religion, private property, education and all semblances of modern civilization were abolished.

Daily Pilot Articles Daily Pilot Articles