Tales

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cambodia revisited

Comrade Duch

Comrade Duch Image
“A half a day per victim.” That’s how an outraged bystander parsed the prison sentence given to Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch, by the hybrid Cambodia-United Nations Extraordinary Chambers in Cambodia. The sentence amounted to nineteen years for the murder of fourteen thousand people in the torture and interrogation facility Duch ran as an official of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. Duch was the first of four henchmen of Angka (the KR name for its purified communist Cambodia) to go on trial, and the only one likely to apologize. The fourteen thousand victims were a drop in an ocean of 1.4 million Cambodians who were starved, worked to death, and murdered by the KR between April 1975, when they overthrew the infirm and corrupt Lon Nol regime, and January 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded and took power.
There was no lack of evidence in the trial, even though only twelve prisoners are known to have survived Duch’s prison (a number of prison personnel survived and can be seen reenacting their gruesome chores in Rithy Panh’s fine documentary about Tuol Sleng, S-21). Because he had a Stalinist penchant for meticulous documentation, there are reams of heart-wrenching confessions made under torture and a photo archive of prisoner mug-shots the Vietnamese found when they arrived. The Vietnamese also left the facility intact almost as it was, and it is now Phnom Penh’s premier site of dark tourism, a museum that thousands visit each year. The prisoners’ photographs, which are at the heart of the museum’s displays, give a sense of the demographics of the “enemies of the people” Duch processed: little boys, mothers with babies, stony-faced KR cadre, toddlers, frightened teenagers.



You would have to be to be endowed with a certain magic, Mark Helprin observes of one of his criminal characters, to see a baby in a mother’s arms and want to kill them both, and Duch had that magic.
In the trial, Duch took pains to point out that he didn’t do any of the dirty work himself. But what he did do, incontestably, was administer the place with savvy, purpose, and efficiency. Professional pride occasionally crept out into his testimony. Duch is a born-again Christian, who admits he did wrong—he apologized profusely. Taken to the killing field of Choung Ek outside Phnom Penh where prisoners were trucked to be executed, he even wept. A self-professed child of God, he maintained his innocence. It was the Nuremberg defense: they made me do it, I was a cog in a machine, if I hadn’t killed I would have been killed.
Duch would never have been before the court if it weren’t for Nic Dunlop, a British photojournalist who found him living under a new name in a town near the Thai border in 1999. Like many people who live in Cambodia, Dunlop was obsessed with the genocide. But he was especially obsessed with Duch and carried his photograph in his pocket in the hopes that he might find him some day. Traveling on assignment in the countryside, he ran into a guy working for an NGO who readily copped to his suspicions. Dunlop tells the amazing story, along with the biography of Duch he pieced together afterwards in his book The Lost Executioner—which I recommend, if you’re one to stray (literarily-speaking) to the dark side.
Duch is a cross between a KGB thug and Adolf Eichmann. He has the Soviet thug’s proximity to the bloody work itself. A smart boy from a village who worked his way up to become a school teacher in the 1960s, he was with the KR on its Long March, going underground to the jungle camps in 1966 and making his mark as a torturer. But like Eichmann, he was a born bureaucrat with a penchant for stream-lining and efficiency; and like Eichmann, he worked on a grand scale. Tuol Sleng was the nerve center of the party, and Duch set up a system so successful in extracting confessions of spying, sabotage, and treason that it became a kind of production line of death, churning out the corpses to sustain the cadre’s bottomless appetite for purging itself of internal enemies.
For all that, nineteen years? Cambodia doesn’t have the death penalty, but why not life? Many were outraged, but the protest wasn’t unanimous. Judging from the international and Cambodian press, others thought the sentence was good enough. That the man was hauled into the dock, made to answer for his crimes, and questioned by aggressive prosecutors who raked over his self-exculpation seemed victory enough. And the fact that there is a verdict is a triumph. Problems of financing and carrying on in a country known for pervasive judicial corruption have dogged the Extraordinary Chambers from its beginning in 2006. Skeptics thought that it would never work, or that it would knuckle under to pressures from the autocratic government of Hun Sen, who took power in 1994.
Finally, Duch has already served sixteen years awaiting trial, and the sum total of that plus the nineteen year sentence is not wildly off the mark of the forty years the prosecution asked for. He’s an old man by Cambodian standards, and even though the sentence can be shortened with good behavior, he’s likely to die in prison.
If we’ve learned anything from the trials for genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Cambodia, it’s that they don’t dispense victor’s justice. The sentences lean toward the light side. Homicidal maniacs who kill thousands—millions—of people are generally better off than killers of one person, or ten people. The modesty of justice before mass murder is a painful thing to behold.
The enduring effects in Cambodia are more likely to be political. No one has accused the court of corruption or venality. A national audience gathered to watch the televised verdict—an extraordinary phenomenon in a country where Hun Sen’s strongman-rule has stunted civil society. Citizenship in Cambodia mostly means buckling under to corruption and autocracy, and being harnessed to a past that is at once relived as endless story-telling, pushed under the surface, and distorted with paranoid conspiracy-mongering. To discuss, to argue openly as a nation about the future—to see justice, however small the dose dispensed—it’s a small opening in an otherwise massively blocked political situation.

Image: Photos of those killed at Tuol Sleng (Gary Jones / Wikimedia Commons / 2004)




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