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Tuol Sleng: Cambodia's Haunting History Revealed

Feb 29


Tuol Sleng, once an ordinary high school in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was transformed into one of history's darkest symbols of human cruelty. Known also by its code name, S-21, this site became a notorious prison and interrogation centre under the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, between 1975 and 1979. The transformation of a place of learning into a centre for torture and death is a stark reminder of the depths of human depravity that can emerge under totalitarian rule. The history of Tuol Sleng is not just a Cambodian narrative but a global warning. It serves as a harrowing testament to the suffering endured by countless innocents and stands as a sentinel against the recurrence of such atrocities.

The significance of understanding and remembering the history of Tuol Sleng goes beyond historical interest; it is a moral imperative. Honouring the victims of S-21, estimated to be in the thousands, demands more than passive remembrance. It requires an active engagement with the past to educate future generations about the dangers of ideological extremism and the importance of safeguarding human rights. Through the lens of Tuol Sleng's harrowing past, this article aims to shed light on the shadowy corners of human history, urging a collective effort to prevent the reiteration of such horrors. The lessons gleaned from Tuol Sleng are not confined to Cambodia's borders but resonate worldwide, reminding us of the cost of silence and the price of freedom.


Origins of Tuol Sleng

The 1970s in Cambodia were marked by the catastrophic rise of the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist movement led by Pol Pot. The regime sought to transform the country into a rural, classless society, which led to the forced evacuation of cities, mass executions, forced labour, and famine. This period of Cambodian history is one of profound turmoil and suffering, with the Khmer Rouge's brutal policies resulting in the deaths of an estimated two million people, nearly a quarter of Cambodia's population at the time.

Tuol Sleng, initially a high school known as Tuol Svay Prey High School, became one of the most infamous symbols of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. In 1975, the regime transformed the school into a security prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). Its classrooms were converted into tiny cells and torture chambers. The barbed wire that lined its walls was a grim testament to its new purpose: to detain, torture, and execute anyone deemed a threat to the Khmer Rouge's power. The majority of those detained at Tuol Sleng were accused of espionage or sabotage, but in the paranoid atmosphere cultivated by the regime, accusations often required no evidence and could arise from mere suspicion.

The conversion of Tuol Sleng from a place of education and growth into a centre of unimaginable suffering epitomises the tragic inversion of human values under the Khmer Rouge. This transformation highlights not only the regime's ruthless suppression of dissent but also its utter disregard for human life and dignity. Understanding the origins of Tuol Sleng is essential for comprehending the scale and nature of the atrocities committed within its walls, serving as a stark reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink in the absence of empathy, justice, and respect for human rights.


Operations of Tuol Sleng

The operations of Tuol Sleng, under the codename S-21, stand as one of the most chilling examples of systematic human rights abuses in the 20th century. The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, employed brutal methods of interrogation, torture, and execution to eliminate perceived enemies of the state. Within the walls of what was once a place of learning, detainees were subjected to unimaginable horrors designed to extract confessions for crimes most had not committed. The methods of torture used at Tuol Sleng included waterboarding, electric shocks, and the removal of fingernails, often leading to death or leaving the victim wishing for it.

At the helm of Tuol Sleng's nightmarish operations was Kang Kek Iew, also known as Duch. As the chief of S-21, Duch was responsible for overseeing the torture and execution of thousands of men, women, and children. Under his command, detainees were meticulously photographed and forced to write confessions, admitting to counter-revolutionary activities. These confessions, often obtained through severe torture, were used as justification for their execution. The majority of those who entered Tuol Sleng never left; they were transported to the "Killing Fields" of Choeung Ek, where they were executed and buried in mass graves.

Duch's meticulous record-keeping has provided a harrowing insight into the operations of Tuol Sleng and the broader genocidal campaign of the Khmer Rouge. His role in the atrocities committed at S-21 has made him a central figure in the subsequent efforts to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. The operations of Tuol Sleng under Duch's administration underscore the regime's systematic approach to terror and genocide, serving as a sombre reminder of the potential for evil in the pursuit of ideological purity.


Prisoner Experience

The experience of prisoners at Tuol Sleng was defined by extreme suffering, both physical and psychological. The living conditions within the prison were deplorable, with detainees often shackled to iron beds or crammed into tiny, brick cells where movement was nearly impossible. The lack of sanitation, coupled with insufficient food and water, led to disease and death even before many could reach their inevitable execution.

The treatment of prisoners at Tuol Sleng was merciless. Torture was routine, aimed at extracting confessions for supposed crimes against the Khmer Rouge regime. Techniques varied from beatings and electric shocks to waterboarding and the use of scorpions and spiders to inflict pain. The psychological torment of knowing that death was imminent yet unpredictable left an indelible mark on survivors, many of whom continue to struggle with the trauma.

Survivor testimonies offer a window into the harrowing reality of life within the walls of S-21. One survivor, Chum Mey, has spoken of the unbearable pain and the loss of his family to the regime, his story representing just one of the thousands of lives irrevocably altered by their time in prison. Another survivor, Bou Meng, whose artwork now serves as a testimony to the atrocities committed, has recounted the constant fear and the determination to survive despite the inhuman conditions.

The narratives of those who lived through the nightmare of Tuol Sleng are crucial in understanding the depth of cruelty inflicted upon the prisoners. Their testimonies not only serve to remember and honour the victims but also act as a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable horror. The experiences of these survivors underscore the importance of bearing witness to the past to ensure such atrocities are never repeated.


Liberation and Aftermath

The liberation of Tuol Sleng in January 1979 by Vietnamese forces marked the end of one of the darkest chapters in Cambodian history. As the Vietnamese troops advanced into Phnom Penh, they uncovered the gruesome reality of S-21. The prison, abandoned in haste by the Khmer Rouge, contained thousands of photographs, meticulous records of torture, and instruments of death. The discovery of mass graves in the vicinity, filled with the remains of executed prisoners, provided stark evidence of the scale of atrocities committed within its walls.

In the aftermath of its liberation, Tuol Sleng was transformed into a genocide museum, serving both as a memorial to the victims and as a centre for education on the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge regime. The preservation of the site, including the cells, torture instruments, and photographic records, aims to confront visitors with the harrowing realities of genocide. This effort to maintain Tuol Sleng as a testament to the past is driven by a commitment to remember the victims and to educate future generations about the dangers of totalitarian ideologies and the importance of human rights and justice.

The impact of Tuol Sleng's preservation as a genocide museum has been profound, drawing visitors from around the world and serving as a pivotal site for the collective memory of Cambodia's tragic history. The site stands as a symbol of resilience in the face of tyranny, a reminder of the price of silence, and a beacon of hope for a future where such atrocities may never recur. Through the continued efforts to remember and learn from the past, Tuol Sleng plays a critical role in Cambodia's healing and in the global fight against genocide and oppression.


Lessons Learned and Remembrance

The story of Tuol Sleng is a stark reminder of the depths of cruelty that humanity is capable of when driven by ideology and fear. Remembering the victims of S-21 and acknowledging the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime is crucial in honouring those who suffered and died. It serves not only as a process of collective mourning but also as a potent tool for education and the prevention of future atrocities.

The significance of preserving the memory of Tuol Sleng extends beyond the borders of Cambodia. It embodies a universal call to uphold human rights, seek justice for victims of atrocities, and work towards reconciliation. The lessons learned from the Khmer Rouge era underscore the importance of vigilance against the erosion of democratic values and the need for a global commitment to prevent the recurrence of such horrors.

As we reflect on the tragic history of Tuol Sleng, we are reminded of the resilience of the human spirit and the capacity for healing and forgiveness. The survivors and the memories of those lost compel us to advocate for a world where respect for human dignity and freedom prevails over hatred and tyranny. By promoting human rights, justice, and reconciliation, both within Cambodia and worldwide, we honour the legacy of the victims of Tuol Sleng and ensure that their suffering is not in vain. In remembrance lies the power to change the future, safeguard humanity from repeating past mistakes, and build a more just and compassionate world.



The enduring legacy of Tuol Sleng is a sombre reminder of the human capacity for cruelty, as well as the resilience and courage of those who suffered. The transformation of a high school into a site of brutal torture and mass executions under the Khmer Rouge regime serves as a powerful testament to the dangers of unchecked power and ideological extremism. As we confront and learn from Cambodia's haunting history, it is imperative that we recognise the importance of preserving memory, promoting human rights, and fostering reconciliation to prevent the recurrence of such atrocities.

Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is not merely an act of historical curiosity but a profound gesture of respect towards the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. It offers an opportunity for individuals from around the world to bear witness to the atrocities committed, to honour the memory of those who perished, and to reflect on the lessons that this dark period of history imparts. The museum serves as a crucial educational tool, enlightening visitors on the importance of vigilance, empathy, and the collective responsibility to uphold the dignity and rights of all individuals.

In conclusion, the story of Tuol Sleng is a potent reminder of the need to confront our past, however painful it may be, to ensure a future where such tragedies are never repeated. By keeping the memory of the victims alive and learning from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, we honour their legacy and contribute to the building of a more just and humane world. Let us all be inspired to visit Tuol Sleng, not just as tourists but as individuals committed to understanding and preventing the atrocities of history.