S-21: The Torture and Killing Machine
Yesterday I went to the Dutch premier of the documentary The Khmer Rouge and the Man of Non-Violence. In this documentary the French lawyer of Duch, the leader of the infamous S-21 prison camp in Cambodia, was followed. It showed a defence team in disgrace within a troubled tribunal and reminded me of the blog I wrote earlier: was the tribunal worth it? It also reminded my of the time of which I studied all the transcripts of this trial to create some understanding of what happened. It took me almost a year to draw this picture. Underneath is an article derived from this extensive research, for this occasion a bit more text than the usual blog. You can also download the full article it here, including references, acknowledgments and a diagram. For those who find it to too much of a read, the video above was created to explain the basics of the functioning of S-21.
Democratic Kampuchea’s (DK) main prison, S-21, was established in Phnom Penh on August 15th, 1975. Initially intended to hold important prisoners only, S-21 was soon also used for ordinary prisoners from all over the country. It was the country’s most extensive confession machine. Consequently, it contributed significantly to upholding the absurd (world)view of the regime and the justification for terrorising the Cambodians. Altogether, S-21 played a key role in national security operations in DK.
The prison had a capacity of around 1,500 prisoners. Most chambers were situated in the three-storey buildings in the area surrounding the central compound, including cells and interrogation offices. In general, prisoners were put together in dirty, dark and overcrowded cells. Often they were handcuffed and shackled together for nearly twenty-four hours a day to a bar about 0.7 meters long in groups of ten people. High- profile prisoners were imprisoned in individual cells to prevent them from influencing the interrogation through mutual communication. During detention all the prisoners were under strict and constant guard, not only to avoid escapes, but also to prevent suicides. Strict control was exercised over all aspects of the prisoners’ lives.
In S-21 at least 12,273 people were killed after being brutally tortured. Without any form of trial they were abused and slaughtered by their fellow Cambodians in this total institution. The perpetrators seemed like monsters, but it is important to take into account, in the words of former prisoner of the Khmer Rouge and French scholar Bizot, that: “If we turn these people [the perpetrators] into monsters, a category apart from human beings with which we can have no identification as human beings – not identification with what they’ve done as criminals but identification as human beings – then I think there is no way we can have any kind of grasp of what they’ve perpetrated.”
This approach is consistent with a plethora of research in the field of holocaust and genocide studies. Countless pages have been written on examples where ordinary people committed the most terrible crimes. One example is Nazi Germany: at the Nuremberg Trials experts were called in to study the psychological state of mind of the most important Nazi perpetrators alive at that time. These experts concluded that those perpetrators had no psychological deviations. Another study concluded that more than 90% of the SS members, both leaders and soldiers, were mentally stable and could have easily passed the psychological tests of, for example, the American army and police. In her famous book about the trial of Eichmann, Arendt stressed that “the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Browning demonstrated, by researching the actions of a Nazi Reserve Police Battalion, that ordinary people are capable of the worst crimes imaginable. His conclusion is terrifying: “If the men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”
Not only the Second World War created such atrocities. There are many more contemporary examples known, such as in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, where ordinary people acted as killers. It is justified to conclude that the behaviour of people in these extreme situations is only partly influenced by their psychological nature and is highly influenced by the circumstances they are in. Consequently, the focus of this research is on the situation the perpetrators find themselves in and not so much on the characteristics of the individual perpetrators.
The lawsuit against the former leader, Duch, at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) between March 30th and November 27th 2009, gave a unique opportunity to research S-21 and gain comprehension on how at least 12,273 people were killed and tortured in this prison. In this essay, based on transcripts of this trial, I will investigate if two famous theories in the field of genocide studies, namely the concept of obedience as described by Milgram and the theories of conformity, can be applied to S-21. To do this, a description of the hierarchy of S-21 is given to elucidate the concepts of obedience and conformity. Additionally, I will research how the staff was organised and related to each other to further investigate the conditions for the adoption of behaviour of peers. Then the theories of conformity and obedience will be discussed to show to what extent they can be applied to S-21.
The hierarchy of S-21
Hinton pointed out in his research about the Cambodian genocide that there was a strict hierarchical thinking embedded in Cambodia’s tradition of Buddhism. He stressed that the Buddhist tradition resulted in the view that each being has a different store of merit that determines their place in the social order. For example, there has always been a strict hierarchy between Buddhist teachers and disciples. Thus, a strict notion of hierarchy had already been constructed before the Khmer Rouge rose to power.
This hierarchical thinking was continued under the rule of the Khmer Rouge in an extreme way, especially with regard to S-21. S-21 was the only prison under strict and direct authority of the most powerful organ of DK: the Standing Committee. According to Duch, who led S-21 from March 1976 until the end on January 7th, 1979, the monitoring systems of the DK leadership were strict. For instance, the only communication possible was a strictly vertical reporting system between the chairman of S-21 and the highest level of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Horizontal communication was perceived as having treasonous intent, which meant the death penalty in DK, and therefore all communications between S-21 and other security centres, zones and divisions had to go through the upper echelon. As a result, a clear line of obedience was established.
At the top of the S-21 hierarchy was the three-person S-21 Committee led by Duch. Besides giving daily orders to manage S-21, Duch had to give permission to torture and to kill. Many orders in S-21, especially to the interrogators, were explicit to maximise obedience. The staff was, for example, confronted with a broad set of rules which they had to memorise and obey unquestioningly. The orders which were implicit could lead to a situation in which staff members utilise the freedom they were given to conform to what they thought was expected and approved by the authorities. According to Duch, this freedom resulted in more cruel torture. Nevertheless, S-21 was run along strict hierarchical lines in general. Most crimes were committed by a system of strict orders given by authority figures to separated units creating a system of great obedience.
The psychological analyses of the leader of S-21 stressed that even though he had a strong need for affiliation to a group and also a great need to be recognised and acknowledged by his superiors, he did not have any mental disorders. Furthermore, Duch regarded communism as the absolute truth and remained a passionate communist during most of the time he headed S-21.When his former teacher, whom he greatly respected as a teenager, was brought to S-21 his reaction was: “As long as a prisoner arrives at S-21 he is an enemy.” His strong belief in serving a higher ideological purpose and the desire to be part of the ruling group partly explains Duch’s great motivation to run S-21 as effectively as possible.
Further psychological analyses stressed that the fear of being executed started to get a grip on Duch towards the end of S-21. His fear has been intensified by the fact that his predecessor and other authority figures had been killed as well. The turning point was when Vorn Vet, his respected former superior at the M-13 prison which Duch led before he was transferred to S-21, was imprisoned in S-21 in 1977. He realised that nobody was immune for executions ordered by the DK leadership. Instead of questioning his job, the psychological analysis stated that Duch probably worked even harder to please his superiors. He repeatedly stressed that many of his friends were imprisoned at S-21: “yes, I acknowledge I was a coward and even beyond that because I betrayed my friends, my teachers, in order to survive myself.” According to Duch, his complete loyalty to the leaders of DK resulted in the fact that he is still alive today.
Monitoring systems at all levels were established. Self-criticism meetings were used as part of the monitoring system and consisted of openly reflecting on yourself and giving advice to each other. Such meetings were held for the complete staff including its leaders. The concept of self-criticism was regarded of such great importance in DK that it was included the CPK statute: “The CPK takes criticism and self-criticism as its daily routine and as its means to struggle to build the Party internally in eradicating and altering faults and various confusions inside the Party, and to push to expand the good qualities of the Party to prosper quickly non-stop.” In addition, the revolutionary autobiographies, which every staff member had to write every year, were reviewed and used for monitoring the staff’s ideology and functioning. Nobody could escape the strict monitoring system, with omnipresent social control.
This social monitoring got another dimension, because the staff was encouraged to spy on each other. When witnessing at Duch’s trial, former guard Nai stressed: “everybody just spied on anybody else and then reports were made and more people were arrested. So we had to be straight and well-disciplined.” The constant threat of being spied on and the system of “guilt by association” created distrust among the staff. Together with the system of self-criticism and other monitoring systems this caused the staff to feel as if they were constantly under surveillance, which created widespread fear. This fear was exacerbated by the complete arbitrariness of arrests.
Staff members who made even the slightest mistake could be immediately punished or even killed. When Duch or his subordinates suspected somebody, the request was sent to the Standing Committee to decide on their imprisonment. There is no evidence the Standing Committee ever having denied such a request. Duch himself confessed about S-21 workers who were arrested: “If I remember well, there never were any exceptions: I always reported to the superiors and they always ordered the arrest of the persons implicated.” Staff members suspected of ‘sabotage’ or spying were sent to a camp for re-education or became detainees in S-21 and were subsequently killed. As a result of this strict and violent internal hierarchy at least 155 former staff members of S-21 were detained at their former place of work and killed.
Duch was the only person at S-21 authorised to report mistakes by the S-21 staff to the upper level, and thus could make life-and-death decisions. Some former perpetrators played down any guilt by stating they just followed orders. As an S-21 guard who stressed: “I would like to say that the work that I did at S-21 was under the order or instruction from the upper echelon. Whatever I was ordered, then I would need to perform it. If I did not do it I would be punished.” Such statements can be interpreted as an excuse for the perpetrators’ deeds, but it is too easy to dismiss this as rationalisations for the crimes they committed. Duch and his superiors had the power to give the orders to arrest and kill S-21 staff and used it regularly: on average, around one staff member was killed every week. The great fear for their lives resulted in loyal obedience. A former staff member testified: “I was losing some of the people who were working with me (…) they were killed. I felt anxious. I thought: ‘today is their turn, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.’” There is much evidence that most staff feared Duch and the other leaders of S-21. Altogether, the great fear and distrust between staff members led to the notion that their lives depended on the whims of the leaders, which they had to face without any help from others.
The staff and their tasks
The number of staff members differed throughout the years and was quite numerous. During his trial, Duch explained how he selected his workers personally. He selected staff among the most trusted people he had worked with in the former Khmer Rouge prison M-13. In addition, he selected lots of experienced military personnel. Thus, many staff members had experience with working in prisons and killing people before they were employed in S-21.
The staff consisted not only of experienced personnel. Duch also recruited children and adolescents who, according to himself, could easily be indoctrinated. Nearly all of the lower ranks were young unmarried men. They were often uneducated people of poor backgrounds with limited job opportunities in former regimes. They had “pure” biographies, because they came from remote and impoverished countryside areas. It was believed that this would decrease the likelihood that they were influenced by foreign, urban, capitalist or feudalist thinking. As a result, those children were seen as “a blank piece of paper” on which you could write whatever you wanted.
Many youngsters worked in S-21. For example, 82 of 111 wardens that worked in S-21 in early 1977 were between the age of 17 and 21. Duch told the court that he recruited children as messengers, but also as guards and executioners. He stated that the youth in S-21 was trained “so that they can adhere the extreme situation that they dare interrogate their race, and they’re to do anything ordered. (…) They became from the gentle to become cruel (sic).” Interestingly, former interrogator of S-21, Nai, stressed at Duch’s trial that some of the elder staff were former teachers, which is perfectly understandable with many youthful colleagues. Altogether, the S-21 staff consisted of an efficient mix of experienced workers together with youngster who were easy to indoctrinate.
In a functioning killing machine most staff members have facilitating jobs other than killing. Moreover, people feel less emotional objection when they conceive themselves to be merely a small cog in a killing machine. Thus, to create a functioning killing and torture institution the work division is essential.
S-21 was divided in two main sectors. One was the security sector and the largest was the military sector. Duch stressed that the military (also called defence) sector was responsible for all tasks relating to the transport, guarding and execution of prisoners. This sector consisted of regular guards and special forces and was headed by Hor. The regular guards watched over the ordinary prisoners so they would not escape or die before confessing. The special forces had such tasks as guarding the high-profile prisoners and the killing fields of Choeung Ek. They further transported victims to these killing fields and were, together with other staff, responsible for the killings. The special forces were all recruited because of their experience in killing before they worked in S-21: they came from one of the most important units during the war before the Khmer Rouge seized power.
The security sector encompassed many units. The most important one was the interrogators unit. This was one of the largest units and included four teams. Each team had their own head and generally consisted of five to ten persons. Numerous other units and sub-units existed as well.
The economic unit consisted of approximately 25 persons of whom most members were responsible for the supply of food and its preparation. The administration employees were responsible for the registration not only of victims, but also for the registration of the staff members. According to Duch, it was an important component of monitoring the S-21’s own staff. This unit was also responsible for registering new prisoners and the deceased, as well as documenting confessions. In order to run this unit as effectively as possible it was further divided in sub-units: the typing or documentation sub-unit, the telephone sub-unit and the photography sub-unit. This last sub-unit took pictures of the arriving prisoners and produced the identification photographs of the staff. Over six thousand photographs produced by this unit still exist.
The small medical unit encompassed three to five staff members who had never studied medicine and were not supervised by medical doctors. Most of those ‘medics’ were youngsters. Initially, this unit was mainly used for the treatment of cadres. When later in time those cadres were brought to a nearby hospital, the medics were only used for prisoners of S-21. They had the main duty of keeping prisoners alive to extract as many confessions as possible.
According to witnesses, most staff lived on or near the compound of S-21 and they were generally not allowed to visit their family or go back to their home village since they had to consider Angkar, the name for the superior organisation of DK, as their family now. The units were strictly separated and therefore the one unit did not exactly know who worked in the other unit and what they did. They were not allowed to wander freely through the S-21 compound and had to stay where they were assigned to work. Some staff members were even forbidden to talk with other staff members. All the former staff members who acted as witnesses in Duch’s trial stressed that there were many buildings on the S-21 compound which they never entered. Former interrogator Nai stressed: “I had no right to walk freely or to interfere with other people’s affairs. I was only knowledgeable of the affair or duties assigned to me [sic.].” He further added, when he was asked what happened with the prisoners after the interrogation was conducted: “I am unclear on this matter. After the interrogation was complete, the detainee would be taken back to his holding cell.” Contact between different staff members was deliberately prevented.
Most staff members were assigned to a specific task, and this was the only thing a staff member was worried about. Every unit had its own task without being confronted with the total result, although it is unlikely that the staff could not imagine what happened with prisoners. Still, many staff members were only indirectly involved in the killings as a small cog in the killing machine, which leads to the ignorance and minimisation of the feeling of responsibility of the harmful results from their actions.
Nevertheless, S-21 staff treated the victims brutally. The most common methods of torture that were used were: forcing prisoners to pay homage to images of a dog with the head of Johnson or Ho Chi Minh, beating with a stick, electrocution, placing a plastic bag over the head, water boarding, removing a finger or finger- and toenails, burning, piercing and forcing prisoners to drink urine. Scarce food rations were served to break the resistance of the victims and to keep them passive through hunger and exhaustion. After the prisoners confessed what the interrogator wanted to hear, they were killed. Initially, stabbing them with a knife was the method victims were killed. Later prisoners were killed by a hit on the base of their neck using steel clubs and water pipes and often an axle from a wagon as weapons. Subsequently, they were kicked into the pit, and, occasionally, their throat or stomach was cut. Sometimes their handcuffs were removed along with their clothes to be used for other prisoners. When a pit was full, it was covered with earth. Withdrawing a large quantity of blood to be used in hospitals killed prisoners as well. Others died by medical experiments, by, for example, performing anatomy on bodies and testing medicine and poison. Small children were killed by picking them up at their legs and swinging their heads against a tree, crushing the skull. What can explain that people could commit such brutal atrocities?
Can theories of conformity and obedience be applied to S-21?
Two explanations for the behaviour of perpetrators, namely conformity and obedience, are often postulated in the field of genocide studies. Sherif showed in an experiment in 1935 that people tend to conform to an established norm. He used the phenomenon of the autokinetic effect: the perceptual illusion that occurs when a single dot of light appears to be moving in a darkened room, but in reality does not move at all. The participants were asked multiple times how much the light was moving. Their estimations differed initially, but over time the group settled on an estimate range. Then the group left and the individual was left alone and the experiment was repeated. The individual estimations fell in the group’s formulated range, significantly different from the earlier personal estimations: a norm had been created.
Asch demonstrated twenty years later that in a situation where there is a clear correct answer people tend to conform to a norm as well. In his experiment a group, consisting of all confederates except one, was shown three lines varying in length. The group was asked to determine which line was identical to the target line and the answer to the question was obvious. All the group members had to say their answer out loud and the confederates purposely answered the question wrong half of the time. The real participant, who was sitting in one of the last seats, went along with the group’s wrong answer 75% of the time even though that contradicted his or her perception. Hence, when individuals are confronted with a social reality that conflicts with their basic perception of the world, they often adopt the view of the others. Further research, including neurological studies, supports these conclusions and shows that an emotional barrier exists to deviate from the group. Consequently, individuals yield to the group norm to replace differences with similarities: seeing is not believing, but believing is what the group tells you to believe.
Obedience is established when a person carries out someone else’s will. It can be extracted through methods of fear of punishment, or through the simple assertion of a certain authority exercising control over a person. In the famous experiment of Milgram a subject was asked by an authority figure to give electric shocks to a confederate if he answered a certain question wrong. Every time the voltage was increased. The subject did not know the shocks, as well as the screaming response to stop, were fake. When the individual hesitated to go on, the authority figure pressured him verbally. The results are shocking: 65% of all them went all the way up to the maximum 450 volts. The level of obedience was practically identical for men and women and across all levels of society. Other similar tests only confirm these findings.
Milgram showed that individuals are sensitive to the authority figure, whom they obey simply because this person is higher in the hierarchal order. In experiments where the authority was less overt, the subjects were less obedient. He stressed that in a situation of war and violence there are persons who feel pleasure in sadism, but most people obey orders without any form of anger or vindictiveness towards the victim. Other studies confirm this finding. In various experiments where people became frustrated and angry but did not have to obey an authority, they reached significantly lower levels of violence compared to the levels of violence achieved under obedience with the absence of anger. He stressed that the key to the behaviour of people does not issue from anger or aggression, but from the relationship with an authority figure.
Obedience and conformity differ in important ways. First, there is the matter of hierarchy. Obedience occurs when an individual is ordered by someone above him in the hierarchical structure. Conformity regulates behaviour among those of equal standing. Second, conformity leads to a situation in which individuals adopt the behaviour of peers. Obedience has to do with carrying out orders, not with imitating them. Third, conformity occurs based on implicit pressures, where obedience occurs based on explicit commands. Fourth, when individuals obey a command, they can deny any personal involvement and impute their behaviour to an external authority, whereas with conformity individuals retain a sense of responsibility of their own actions.
The human tendency to obey an authority, as Milgram described, could have contributed to the fact that S-21 could function as a killing machine. However, there were many more factors that enforced obedience than Milgram described. The strict monitoring system, partly based on staff members checking each other, created much distrust among the staff. Especially the system of self-criticism, the constant spying of staff members on each other and the system of “guilt by association”, caused great distrust among the staff. Distrust led to fear through the arbitrariness of arrests and the brutal consequences of an arrest. This fear was validated by the fact that on average, around one staff member was killed every week. Thus, the S-21 staff could not trust each other and only relied on the authority, which they greatly feared. They feared that this only base of reliance would turn against them if they did not obey. In addition, there is evidence that even the authority figure that the staff feared so much, Duch, started to fear for his own life towards the end of the existence of S-21. In sum, a system of fear was created enabling loyal obedience.
One of the most interesting outcomes of this research lies in the fact that the widespread theory of conformity did not apply in S-21 for a great part. On the contrary: everything was done to demolish group formation in order to create complete loneliness of staff members and to increase loyalty towards superiors. After selecting the most loyal staff members, especially vulnerable youngsters, those staff members became subject to the strict regime of S-21. They were strictly separated in different units so that most of the staff did not know who worked in other units. S-21 personnel were ordered specific tasks and were pressured to heavily concentrate on this task and not to think about other tasks and the greater picture. Most of the staff were not allowed to leave S-21 or to walk freely on the S-21 compound. Some of them were even forbidden to talk with colleagues. Furthermore, the monitoring system led to distrust among the staff members, who would, consequently, avoid mutual contact. Additionally, the orders from the S-21 leadership were mostly explicit in order to maximise obedience, instead of implicit, which would increase opportunities for conformity. Altogether, this minimised the situation of individuals adopting the behaviour of peers.
There is, in fact, no evidence of a desire by staff members to be part of a group or a fear of being rejected by the peer group. The only account found of conformity lies in the fact that Duch himself had a strong need to affiliate to a group, such accounts were not found when concerning Duch’s subordinates. Nevertheless, towards the end of his leadership of S-21 fear for his life would predominate in his motivation to excel in his job. Besides the staff conforming to the ruling norm of DK there is no evidence they conformed to each other. As a result, staff members faced the authority in great isolation with great fear for their lives, only relying on the hierarchal system.
Fear was not only widespread in S-21, but also among the whole population of DK. In Cambodia, the family was traditionally the base of trust and safety, upon which one could build. Under the Khmer Rouge families were broken up. People were forced to live and work on cooperatives. Even children were separated from their parents and raised by Angkar. By cutting the family ties all aspects of human life depended on Angkar. Furthermore, in cooperatives the people could be closely watched and were encouraged to spy on each other. Together with the complete distrust of the CPK towards its citizens, the system of guilt by association, the complete arbitrariness of arrests and the extreme violence and deaths, this led to the situation in which the lives of the Cambodians did not depend on each other but exclusively on the notions of the DK government. As shown, this policy was for a great part continued in S-21, and consequently S-21 can be seen as seen as a micro version of DK in extremis.
Within Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia an effective killing machine was established, where the special selected staff obeyed orders – by doing their specific task as a small cog in a great killing machine – in a strict hierarchical structure, with great fear for their lives. If the Vietnamese had not invaded Cambodia, this machine could have functioned for many more years. With its hundreds of thousands of pages of confessions, S-21 contributed to the upholding of the artificial reality of the regime and justified more killings. The truth or untruth of those, often preposterous, confessions is of no importance in such a world. S-21 was not only used as a tool to uphold the artificial reality and justify crimes, but also as a place arising from power politics to eliminate those who the regime felt threatened by. As a result, many high-ranking officials of DK were killed here.
Most revealing is that an institution was created, as part of the Khmer Rouge’s extremely violent regime, where widespread theories of genocide did not apply for a great part. Although the leader of S-21 did his best to be part of the ruling group, there is no further evidence that theories of conformity played a decisive role in S-21. Everything was done to demolish group formation: the creation of mutual distrust, the establishment of strictly segregated units and the staff was assigned specific tasks on strict orders. They were even not allowed to walk freely on the S-21 compound, to leave it and in some occasions to talk with colleagues. Also the theory of obedience from Milgram cannot fully explain that 12,273 people were murdered after being brutally tortured. The S-21 policy was focused, as in many places in DK, on demolishing all friendship and family ties of the staff so that their lives exclusively depended on the notion of the authority. They faced this authority with great fear of their lives. Thus, obedience was established by many more substantial factors than the assertion of an authority exercising control over a person and conformity was minimized by the fact that everything was done to avoid and destroy group formation.
The findings of this research contribute to the understanding of mass murder and the functioning of S-21. Nevertheless, to get a more complete insight into how S-21 functioned, such aspects as the influence of dehumanisation of the victims, training of the staff, normalisation of the assigned task, indoctrination and ideology need to be taken into account. Also special elements of total institutions should be researched. Goffman, for example, outlines which factors of total institutions one could focus on, such as how the daily activities of the prisoners are imposed and how the rules were enforced on them. Furthermore, it is important to research the authority structure, policy processes and ruling norms of the regime, since what happened at the micro level was part of a greater picture. Thus, much more research is needed to get a complete insight of S-21. Duch’s trial can be a valuable source for further research. One lesson we can learn from this trial is that the circumstances of the staff of S-21 were so extreme in terms of cruelty, fear and loneliness that theories which have been widely applied to different cases of mass murder throughout history cannot be simply applied to S-21