Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | October 14, 2010

Chum Mey’s Mission

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum | Phnom Penh, Cambodia | 13 October 2010

Chum Mey was in his late forties when the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge arrested and detained him and his family at Security Office 21 — a school converted into a center for the detention, interrogation, and torture of those deemed a threat to Democratic Kampuchea. By some estimates, as many as 20,000 men, women, and children were killed at S-21. Those who entered through the gates of S-21 found themselves in a lose-lose situation. The Khmer Rouge’s regulations made hope of survival impossible. Today, these regulations are posted at Tuol Sleng or S-21. Imagine yourself having to abide by the following regulations (as posted at Tuol Sleng, unedited):

1. You must answer accordingly to my questions. You must not turn them away.

Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.

3. Don’t be fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.

4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reelect.

Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.

While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet,when I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.

Don’t make pretext about Kamouchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.

If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.

If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

The interrogation process was slanted toward the side of death. The Khmer Rouge needed little excuse to torture or to kill detainees. A friend who survived imprisonment at another location spoke to me about the capricious nature of the interrogators. He told me that even a “right” answer was no guarantee that you would be released. And so, in a period of three years, more than two-million Cambodians were brutally tortured and killed at the hands of other Cambodians. Of the thousands who were detained at S-21, only seven survived. Today, Chum Mey is one of only three remaining survivors.

I met Chum Mey when I visited S-21 in August of last year. He is a quiet men with a gentle but sad countenance. He lives in Phnom Penh and returns to S-21 several times a week to tell his story. He speaks just above a whisper in one of the rooms where an old black and white photograph of him and the other survivors is on display. I had an opportunity to meet him again this week. With the assistance of Karony, my interpreter, I learned a little more of Chum Mey’s story. Standing in a corner of the room, he shared that his wife and four children died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. As he spoke, I looked over at a young British girl who was listening to our conversation. She was weeping.

My heart sank when Chum Mey talked about his family. Because of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, Chum Mey is an 89-year old orphan in every sense of the word. He has been alone for the past forty years, robbed of the opportunity to grow old with his wife and to bounce grandchildren on his knee. He has no one. For the past forty years he has returned to the place where he was tortured and where he lost his family. He returns to this sad place in order to tell his personal story to visitors from around the world. This has been his consuming mission, passion, and purpose in life. As we said our good-byes he said one final thing— “Please tell others what happened here so that it will not happen again.” I promised him that I would.

Chum Mey has been on a mission for the past forty years — a mission to promote the sanctity of human life. He personally knows what can happen when you live in a place where those in power have no regard for the value of life. He has thought about it for forty-years of lonely nights and eating meals alone in a quiet house. He is motivated to get up every morning to use his voice to tell a story that must be told again and again. Speaking to audiences of one and two or a few at a time, he has repeated his story countless times. As Christ-followers, we too have a story to tell — the story that life is a precious gift from God and should be handled with love and care. May we be as intentional and faithful to tell our story as Chum Mey has been to tell his.


  1. Omar, I am so glad you took the opportunity to meet with Chum Mey again on this visit. I recall how Chum Mey quietly told us of his past when we met him at S-21 last year. I vividly recall how he told us of his experiences. I doubt he can truly explain how he felt while, as a prisoner himself, he laboriously painted torture scenes while listening to the screams of others being tortured. Thanks for meeting, sharing his testimony and agreeing to spread Chum Mey’s message.

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