The Dim-Post

March 31, 2009

Anatomy of Nightmare

Filed under: books,general news — danylmc @ 1:44 pm

My wife Maggie is in Cambodia covering the genocide trial of former Khmer Rouge leader Kaing Guek Eav. One of her stories is up on Stuff:

Former teacher Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch as he is known, is on trial before two international judges, New Zealand’s Dame Silvia Cartwright and Frenchman Jean-Marc Lavergne, and three Cambodians, Nil Nonn, Ya Sokhan and Thou Mony.

Together they form the “Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia”, more commonly the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, which is trying senior leaders of Pol Pot’s brutal regime under which 1.7 million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979.

The court seats 494 and is, an ECCC official says, the largest in the world.

The audience watches from theatre-style seats while proceedings carry on behind thick bullet-proof glass.

To add to the sense of theatre, a curtain is drawn when privacy is required.

Duch, 66, the former head of Tuol Sleng, or S21 torture centre and prison, looking frail and dressed plainly in a white shirt and dark trousers, spoke clearly when asked to give personal details after the hearing was officially opened.

Charges against him – crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Convention and violations of the Cambodian penal code including premeditated murder and torture – were read out to get the trial under way.

Duch sat in the centre of the court reading paperwork and appearing uncomfortable when his face appeared on the screen in front of him.

Indictments against him detailed how the prison was established and how the conservatively documented figure of 12,380 prisoners were interrogated, tortured and later executed.

Some died in prison cells from starvation, disease or their injuries. Only about 10 prisoners survived.

Prisoners arrived blindfolded, were photographed, stripped and shackled. They were not allowed to speak and the only hygiene was an occasional hosing from the door of their cells.

Prisoners suffered brutal torture, blood draining and medical experiments.

Duch has admitted the crimes that happened under his command but says they were carried out on the orders of his superiors.

He is the first of five senior Khmer Rouge leaders to be tried by the UN-backed tribunal.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979.

Duch’s trial will be followed by that of Ieng Sary, who was one of the intellectual leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement. Pol Pot – or ‘Brother Number One’ as he was known – died peacefully in his sleep back in 1998. Sary is said to be in ill health and might not survive the trial.

I’ve only ever read one book on Cambodia, Phillip Short’s Pol Pot. (The name is a nom-de-guerre, by the way, Pol Pot’s real name was Saloth Sar, which sounds to me like the name of a villain in a Star Wars prequel.) Short’s book was controversial – he argues that Cambodia’s Theravada Buddhism influenced Khmer Rouge Marxist-Leninism in the same way that Confucious influenced Mao, and that the Buddhist influence and Cambodia’s terrible history of atrocities were the ultimate causes of the genocide. This is a departure from the the standard left-wing analysis which holds that Nixon’s secret bombing campaign (‘back to the stone age’) led to the Killing Fields, in the same way that the treason of Malinovsky and attempted assasination of Lenin are supposed to have led to the terror of Stalin and Yezhov.

As a history of modern Cambodia Short’s book is excellent, but as a biography it is not so good. Pol Pot is ultimately mysterious; virtually nothing is known about him, his motives – Buddhist, Marxist or otherwise – remain opaque. He was a peasant who studied engineering and marxism in Paris but spent most of his lifetime in the jungle – with a brief four year stint as head of state in which he murdered about a quarter of the population of his country.



  1. In defence of Pol Pot: he wasn’t blinded by free market ideology.

    Comment by Berend de Boer — March 31, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

  2. I don’t really think an awful lot got through the murderessness.

    Comment by StephenR — March 31, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  3. Your wife is a brave woman. Writing about gross human rights abuses is not pretty work (not as bad as suffering them, obviously). I hope she’s doing well!

    Comment by George Darroch — March 31, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

  4. What George said.

    Comment by Paul Litterick — March 31, 2009 @ 11:39 pm

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    Pingback by Khmer Rouge tribunal: Historic apology - and an obstructing prime minister | Cambodia Tales — April 1, 2009 @ 6:57 am

  6. An excellent book on Pol Pot and his regime is David P Chandler’s Brother Number One. Get the second edition, published after Pol Pot’s death (2001, I think). It dwells heavily on his origins, early influences and responses to particular issues of the period rather than simply trying to infer an ideological programme from the events of Democratic Kampuchea.


    Comment by Lew — April 3, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

  7. Berend,

    In defence of Pol Pot

    Any comment which starts like this is manifest idiocy, but nevertheless:

    In defence of Bernard Madoff – he didn’t force people to dig their own graves and then order their relatives to beat their skulls in with shovels in order to save bullets.


    Comment by Lew — April 3, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  8. One book is not enough, Maggie! This is ridiculous!
    I have read hundreds of them, all I could (and still) get in the last 11 years,since we first have been in Cambodia. Judgement is not getting simpler, however. To many people have quick ideas.

    Comment by Christine Gruber — September 7, 2009 @ 9:28 am

  9. One book is not enough, Maggie! This is ridiculous!
    I have read hundreds of them, all I could (and still) get in the last 11 years,since we first have been in Cambodia. Judgement is not getting simpler, however. Too many people have quick ideas.

    Comment by Christine Gruber — September 7, 2009 @ 9:33 am

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