Santebal – The Secret Police of Democratic Kampuchea

The Santebal (Khmer: សន្តិបាល) which literally means “Keeper of the peace” was the secret police of the Communist Party of Kampuchea during the time of Democratic Kampuchea.

Its name is an amalgam of two words: sântĕsŏkh (សន្ដិសុខ) meaning “security” and nôkôrôbal (នគរ បាល) meaning “police”.

Technically it was in charge of internal security within Democratic Kampuchea it was also more importantly in charge of prison camps such as S-21.

It was put straight into force as soon as Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge and the Royalist Forces of GRUNK.

History of Santebal

As early as 1971 the Khmer Rouge northern zone was deemed large enough that a secret police needed to be formed. This initially occurred in 1971 when military leader Son Senn made Comrade Duch the leader of Santebal. Him and his deputies mostly hailed from Kampong Thom.

Following the victory of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 Santebal was moved to Phnom Penh with Comrade Duch eventually taking over S-21 alongside his former colleagues.

With the country already for all intents a prison camp Santebal activity throughout the general populace was relatively limited with almost everyone being used as an informant.

In this respects the main function of the secret police was to deal with the “enemies” sent to the prison camps. Although S-21 was the most famous of these by far, Santebal actually managed a huge network of more than 150 prison camps. All of these were required to keep meticulous records, records that have survived to this day.

Technically the secret police ended in January 1979 after the fall of Democratic Kampuchea. Most of these involved not only stayed involved with the Khmer Rouge, but maintained a security apparatus in the areas under Khmer Rouge control.

Mam Nai who was a senior figure in Santebal managed to not only stay with the Khmer Rouge until 1997, but also avoid prosecution for his role in the atrocities.