Posts filed under 'Cambodia'

1975: Sisowath Sirik Matak, Cambodian prince

1 comment April 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1975, Sisowath Sirik Matak was executed with his aides by the Khmer Rouge.

As a young royal in French-administered Cambodia, Sirik Matak had had a shot to be selected as king in 1941. Instead, that dignity went to Norodom Sihanouk — and with it, Sihanouk would later charge, Sirik Matak’s lifelong resentment.

Sihanouk the “god-king” dominated the ensuing decades of Cambodian politics, and he kept Sirik Matak well away from domestic influence throughout the 1960s by shunting him off to a series of overseas diplomatic appointments. But the arch-conservative Sirik Matak’s longtime ally Lon Nol became Prime Minister in 1969 and took Sirik Matak on as his chief aide.

Sihanouk’s complex political career had by this time seen him abdicate the kingship as well as the Prime Ministership. Now he was head of state under the title “Prince” but by the end of the Sixties his power was faltering: an alliance with China yielded little as that country navigated the turbulent Cultural Revolution, while the Vietnam War next door fed into a Cambodian Civil War, too. (Sihanouk permitted the North Vietnamese to use bases in Cambodia.)

On March 18, 1970, Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk in a bloodless coup — but it was Sirik Matak who orchestrated the move. There’s even an account that says Sirik Matak forced a wavering Lon Nol at gunpoint to go through with it.

The United States strongly supported the regime change, which was not exactly a portent of its success. Prince Sihanouk might be gone, but he did not take Cambodia’s civil conflict with him; arguably, his ouster intensified it, for Sihanouk was far more popular with the peasantry than the new, Washington-backed leaders. The existing secret bombing campaign the U.S. was directing at North Vietnamese refuges in Cambodia vastly intensified, becoming a campaign against the Khmer Rouge that outlasted the Vietnam War itself. Tens of thousands of people died under those bombs, and millions more were made refugees — and the insurgency only multiplied.

The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide … the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent …

[T]he bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas … scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”

Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:

Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…. The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…. Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.

Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen*

Within a few years, the capital fell to the growing insurgency. The U.S. offered asylum to the leaders of Cambodia’s collapsing government; many accepted it, but many others refused. Preferring near-certain execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (his name was already published on the movement’s list of “seven traitors”) Sisowath Sirik Matak reproached his U.S. patrons in a letter to the American ambassador declining evacuation.

Dear Excellency and friend,

I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.

As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.

But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.

Please accept, E

Just days into the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Phnom Penh, the Communists forced the French embassy to hand over Sirik Matak and a number of aides who had taken temporary refuge there. They were summarily executed (apparently by shooting) at the old Cercle Sportif swimming pool — a site that has since become the location of the new U.S. embassy.

* Taylor Owen has mapped the known U.S. bombing sorties into Cambodia; he discusses that project, and the ways the bombing impacted the Khmer Rouge, here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cambodia,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Royalty,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

1964: Preap In, Khmer Serei operative

2 comments January 20th, 2013 Headsman

“It was at that point that I began to hate Sihanouk.”

-Khmer writer Soth Polin on Preap In’s treatment

On this date in 1964, Cambodian dissident Preap In was shot in Trapeang Kraleung … an execution so public that every cinema-goer in the country would witness it.

This is the Cambodia of Narodom Sihanouk — “a libertine and a francophile, a filmmaker and a painter, a serial husband and father and philanderer, a cherubic but ruthless god-king,” in the words of one obituary when he died late last year.

Plucked from the distant branches of the royal family tree and set up on the throne as an 18-year-old French puppet in 1941, Sihanouk cast a long shadow over his country for the balance of his long life. He surprised his colonial overseers by agitating, successfully, for independence, adding to his regal stature the laurels of national patrimony.

He would in 1955 abdicate the throne — settling for “Prince Sihanouk” — to operate as a conventional politician. One who was the father of his country and the shadow-king. Needless to say, Sihanouk dominated the ensuing era of Cambodian politics.

That politics makes for dizzying reading. At one level, Sihanouk was basically an autocrat with a fairly corrupt developing state. But his statecrafting finesse elevated him far above the bog-standard Cold War dictator. Sihanouk dextrously played the French off against the Americans, East off against West, and shifted the tone of his domestic governance from socialism to Buddhism to nationalism with everything in between. He was a consummate survivor steering a small state on an independent course through the dangers of Cold War ideologies and allegiances.

In 1963-64, Sihanouk’s relations with the United States were on the outs.* Although Sihanouk was also a rival of the late Vietnamese ruler Ngo Dinh Diem, he can’t have welcomed that man’s ouster and execution with the blessing of the superpower sitting right next door with so much megatonnage.

A natural suspicion, only heightened by known CIA patronage of the Khmer Serei (“Free Khmer”), right-wing but anti-monarchist guerrillas led by a longtime Sihanouk foe named Son Ngoc Thanh.

Long story short, Sihanouk as part of his geopolitical machinations had been firing demands at the Americans that they prevail upon their Southeast Asian clientele to put the screws to the Khmer Serei — who used extraterritorial bases to send radio broadcasts into Cambodia. In late 1963, the young engineering student Preap In, who had become a Khmer Serei operative, slipped back into Cambodia with a safe conduct from his uncle In Tam.

Though he would later help to overthrow it, In Tam was a powerful political figure in Sihanouk’s state, at this time governor of Takeo. But he was setting up his nephew or else someone else was, and the “safe conduct” proved an utter sham.

On November 19, at a special national congress, Sihanouk announced the arrest of the two Khmer Serei operatives, Saing San and Preap In … After several conversations with officials in Takeo, In and Saing San had been arrested peremptorily, brought to Phnom Penh under guard, and put on display in cages at the national congress. Facing the prisoners and surrounded by thousands of supporters, Sihanouk denied making any special arrangements with them, and the congress soon became an impromptu judicial hearing. Sihanouk asked both men to admit that the Americans were aiding Son Ngoc Thanh and providing the Khmer Serei with radio transmitters. Saing San said yes to both questions and was immediately released. Preap In, apparently in shock, stared straight to the front, refusing to answer. Sihanouk then demanded that he be subjected to the “will of the congress.” Hundreds of spectators stormed the cage where Preap In stood in silence, bombarding him with rubber sandals, debris, and abuse until he was hustled away to face trial at the hands of a military court. (Source)

Sihanouk’s official version: Preap In “spontaneously confessed” to treason.

Sihanouk not only advanced the public shooting of the young Khmer Serei, but he ordered it filmed; the graphic 15-minute newsreel was played before feature attractions in cinemas throughout Cambodia for weeks to come, while still shots of the execution were distributed on propaganda posters.

Authoritarian Sihanouk may have been, but theatrical bloodletting wasn’t otherwise known as his style. Preap In’s lasciviously rough treatment stood out for its novelty and revolted many Cambodians; David Chandler would remark that this event “frequently surfaced in the 1980s when informants sought to date the beginning of Sihanouk’s decline.” Despite that onetime multimedia exposure, if the video or still images from it are accessible online I have not found them. This still image from a (I believe) Sihanouk-era firing squad execution is the best I’ve got, but as my Khmer is a little rusty, I’m at a loss to identify the unfortunate fellow on the post.

* For the view from Washington, see this contemporaneous CIA analysis, a FOIA’ed pdf.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Cambodia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Treason

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1977: Hu Nim, Cambodian Minister of Information

1 comment July 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1978, peripatetic Communist intellectual Hu Nim vanished into Khmer Rouge Cambodia’s charnel house along with 126 others at Tuol Seng.

The child of a poor peasant’s family, Nim was a gifted young state worker who studied in Paris in the 1950s, where he met several future Khmer Rouge leaders.

Nim charted an independent — some might say hypocritical — course over the next two decades, serving uneasily as a leftist parliamentarian in Prince Sihanouk‘s nationalist coalition government, fleeing ahead of a conservative purge into the bush to join Communist guerrillas, then returning once more to Sihanouk’s now-leftist Chinese-backed government-in-exile. It’s a period whose interests and alliances don’t map straightforwardly onto the familiar Cold War axis.

Hu Nim’s stature as Minister of Information in the government-in-exile transitioned directly to that same portfolio when the Khmer Rouge came to power.

Maybe those old ties to the ancien regime did him in — Vietnam, after invading Cambodia, would seize on the late minister’s reputation for independence to damn the Khmer Rouge for purging a moderate socialist — but there was no ideological talisman for safety during those terrible years. Hu Nim’s longstanding pro-Chinese position was also a dangerous association come 1977, and Phouk Chhay, a fellow officer of the Khmer-Chinese Friendship Association, was among the batch of prisoners shot along with Hu Nim this date.

Early in 1977, a massive internal purge shook the regime; as many people (some 1,500) went to Tuol Sleng from mid-February to mid-April of that year as had gone in all of 1976.* Almost every one of these humans would be, in the terrible bureaucrat-ese of the security apparatus, “smashed.”

Hu Nim was one of these, a denunciation wrung from a local commander leading to his April 10, 1977 arrest. Under repeated torture over the ensuing three months, the ex-Minister of Information would write and re-write his confession, fashioning himself “a counterfeit revolutionary, in fact … an agent of the enemy … the cheapest reactionary intellectual disguised as a revolutionary,” a stooge of the CIA since the high school, and a skeptic of the disastrous forced agricultural collectivization who had swallowed his doubts lest “I would have had my faced smashed in like Prom Sam Ar.” The confession ultimately tallied 200-plus pages. (Here’s some of it.)

Four days after his arrest, Hu Nim submitted the first of seven draft “confessions” to his interrogator, who appended a note to Deuch, saying: “We whipped him four or five times to break his stand, before taking him to be stuffed with water.” On April 22, the interrogator reported: “I have tortured him to write it again.” Five weeks later, Hu Nim was abject: “I am not a human being, I am an animal.” (Source

* Official count for all of 1977: 6,330 “anti-party” types tortured and executed at Tuol Sleng, as against “only” 2,404 in 1975-1976 combined.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Cambodia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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1977: 178 enemies of the people

1 comment July 23rd, 2009 Headsman

A final example of the S-21 archives discovered by the Documentation Center is more mundane, yet poignant and telling. This particular document is of a type we refer to as an “execution log,” a daily record of executions at a given security center, in this case, at Tuol Sleng itself. Dated July 23, 1977, it is signed You Huy (a chief of guards) and authorized by Hor, the deputy director of S-21. The typewritten form lists biographical details on eighteen prisoners executed that day and, almost as an afterthought, in Huy’s handwriting a note at the bottom adds, “Also killed 160 children today for a total of 178 enemies killed.” This chilling glimpse into the Khmer Rouge internal security services is but a tiny example of the tens of thousands of documents discovered by the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

The “You Huy” named in Craig Etcheson’s After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide is this man, Him Huy:

Huy survived his stint as a guard at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, which was no mean feat: guards were routinely arrested and executed themselves. (Of course, prisoners had it worse.)

Now a 54-year-old farmer, Huy has been a spellbinding presence at and outside of Cambodia’s ongoing-as-of-this-writing “mixed tribunal”, reckoning with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Like the method of execution.

All prisoners were blindfolded so they did not know where they were taken and their hands were tied up to prevent them from contesting us …

They were asked to sit on the edge of the pits and they were struck with stick on their necks …

Their throats were slashed before we removed their handcuffs and clothes, and they were thrown into the pits.

Him Huy has argued that guards like him “were victims too”. At least some victims and outside observers view him as a man more important to the killing process than Huy makes himself out to be.

Both accounts, though, could be true simultaneously: everyone in Cambodia was in danger of being purged, and guards at Tuol Sleng could find themselves inmates for the slightest derelictions of duty or enthusiasm. From April 17, 1975, Cambodia fell into madness.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cambodia,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Ripped from the Headlines,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1975: Long Boret, on Day One

2 comments April 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge — Day One, Year Zero of its nightmarish four-year reign over Cambodia.

That very day, the Prime Minister of the defeated regime, Long Boret, was arrested and summarily shot at the city’s Cercle Sportif.

Only weeks earlier, he had been furiously trying to negotiate any sort of peace with the advancing guerrillas … but his doomed government had little leverage. Boret was among several high-ranking officials whose names were on a death list the Khmer Rouge announced publicly; when the United States abandoned its support and evacuated days before, it was a surprise that Long was not among the Cambodian officials joining them.

He did have a good idea to get out in these very last hours — he and General Sak Sutsakhan, two of the last of the ancien regime remaining. Here is American correspondent Arnold Isaacs’ account of their last meeting:

When Phnom Penh awoke on the 16th, even the hard-line members of the Supreme Committee saw at last that further resistance was impossible … [and] agreed to … the immediate transfer of power to the revolutionaries. They asked only that there be no reprisals against officials and soldiers of the Phnom Penh regime.

As dawn broke on the 17th, the dispirited group returned to Long Boret’s house, where they finally received [the Khmer Rouge’s] reply to the previous day’s peace offer. It was a flat, frightening rejection. Not only would the liberation forces accept no arranged handover of power, but the membership of the Supreme Committee had been added to the seven original “traitors” on the Khmer Rouge death list.

Stunned, members of the government walked out of the prime minister’s residence and dispersed, leaving a “strange calmness,” General Sak later recalled. Only he and Long Boret were still there when an army officer arrived to report that a few helicopters were preparing to leave from the Olympic Stadium. The two leaders, each in his official car, reached the stadium shortly after eight o’clock and boarded one of the helicopters waiting there. A few minutes later, however, Long Boret’s wife, two children, and his sister, along with some family friends, arrived at the landing zone, and he stepped down to join them on another helicopter. With him went his close friend, Information Minister Thong Lim Huong.

General Sak, with his wife and children, took off at eight-thirty. From the air, as they rose over the city, they could see the prime minister’s party switching to still a third waiting helicopter. Whether both craft were mechanically unflyable or failed to take off for some other reason is not known. But Long Boret never left Phnom Penh. He was seen under arrest that afternoon, and shortly afterward was executed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cambodia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions


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