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 attendant 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 and Rwanda. 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.
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.
"The Khmer Rouge terror constitutes one of the most horrific instances of mass murder in the twentieth century, and Chandler has immersed himself in a unique and largely unexplored collection of primary sources from hell. This will be a very important and enduring work. . . . Moreover, no scholar is better situated to undertake this project than David Chandler."—Craig Etcheson, Director, Cambodian Genocide Project, Yale University
"A truly impressive book that clearly transcends the realm of Cambodian and South Asian studies. Not only has Chandler worked through a massive amount of material, he has also situated his analysis within a knowledge of Khmer history that is without equal."—Charles Keyes, University of Washington