Khmer Rouge Division 703

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan


Khmer Rouge Division 703: From Victory to Self Destruction: Vannak Huy

This monograph traces the history of an elite division of the Khmer Rouge, from their inception in the battlefields in the early 70s, through their triumphant entry to Phnom Penh, and on to their role as camp guards in S21 (Security Office 21, also known as Tuol Sleng), and S21D (also called Prey Sar prison), to their eventual demise at the hands of the revolution they had served so faithfully.

The Division is chronicled here from its creation in the Khmer Rouge’s Region 25, roughly synonymous with modern day Kandal Province. The Eastern Zone borders which later became the site of the worst purges during Democratic Kampuchea borders this region, and we learn that conflicts with this zone began early, and that even in 1972 Eastern Zone soldiers were routinely captured and shot on the spot if caught “wandering freely” by Region 25 members. Within a couple of years they had started to co-operate.
The recruitment, volunteering, propaganda and conscription which created the division are detailed here, as is the final approach and liberation of Phnom Penh from Lon Nol’s forces. The book describes in detail how the city was divided up by section by the various Khmer Rouge zone forces for the evacuation to their prospective areas in the provinces.

After the victory, soldiers from Division 703 with clean backgrounds were given positions in various roles at S21 prison. At first S21 was located near Psah Thmei, in the compound of the National Police commission, but was later, in around March 1976, moved to the better known site at Tuol Sleng. It was at that time much larger than the part that is preserved today, surrounded by a corrugated iron fence that extended on the north to Sihanouk Boulevard, on the east as far as Monivong, to Mao Tse Tung on the south, and Street 163 to the west.

It also had many other branches, including S21D, at Prey Sar prison, S43 to the west of Wat Langka, an execution site at Choeng Ek and, surprisingly, an animal husbandry unit at Boeng Tumpoen.

The whole paradox in Democratic Kampuchea seems to lay in the fact that the more involved you were in the organization, the more likely it was that you would disappear in the night. This certainly held true for the cadres and combatants of Division 703, who could within an unfeasibly short space of time find themselves jailed in the very place they had just been guarding.

Even the combatants who didn’t end up incarcerated or killed seem to have had miserable times. In common with most accounts of the time they were constantly dislocated, overworked and hungry, and more times than not left questioning what they had got themselves into. Sent to work in farms on the outskirts of the capital, they seemed to be have been locked in a never-ending cycle of self-criticism sessions, back-breaking work and pointless discipline.

As searches for enemies in Democratic Kampuchea moved from the earlier Lon Nol officials and on to internal enemies, many Division 703 members found themselves under arrest, some to suffer re-education at Prey Sar, and more others to eventual execution at Choeng Ek. Many among the few who survived the period came under persecution during the PRK regime and were imprisoned for long periods in the 1980’s.

Those division members who weren’t sent to work at the various prison units were sent to the eastern battlefields to either fight the eastern zone troops deemed as traitors, or the Vietnamese army. Through casualties on the battlefield, or purges in its ranks, the approximate 5000 men and women of Division 703 had shrunk to only about 1000 by the time Democratic Kampuchea fell in January 1979.

There is a palpable theme of loss and betrayal running through this book, where those who initially saw themselves as an elite force, and perhaps deserving some reward, were used, abused and eventually disposed of. It seems there were no winners here, only losers.

Dermot Sheehan

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