Cambodia Diary 7: The Making of a Mass Murderer

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Left: An undated picture of Kang Kek Ieu, known as "Duch', former director of the Tuol Sleng prison and, right, a photo taken in the military prison in Phnom Penh, on July 30, 2007. Photo: AFP >>View Larger Image

by Dan Southerland

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Try to imagine the top student in your class, the most conscientious student you ever met, the guy who became a caring teacher.

Then try to imagine that same person turning into a mass murderer.

That’s the mind game that you play as you attempt to understand Kang Kech Eav, widely known as Duch, the first Khmer Rouge official who will go on trial in Cambodia for crimes against humanity.

As a reporter in Cambodia during the war there from 1970 to 1975, I rarely saw the face of the Khmer Rouge.

I heard Khmer Rouge rockets whistling overhead. I saw the damage they caused.

I once came upon a small group of Khmer Rouge defectors and on another occasion I took a photo of a single Khmer Rouge prisoner with his arms tied behind his back.

But none of us who witnessed the war, as well as the majority of Cambodians, ever knew who the secretive top Khmer Rouge leaders were until after they came to power.

Search for justice

A Khmer Rouge soldier captured by Lon Nol government troops in eastern Cambodia in 1970. Photo: Dan Southerland

Though they now know these leaders’ names, many Cambodians would probably prefer not to relive that painful period after the Khmer Rouge took power. Under Khmer Rouge rule, up to 2 million people perished from starvation, overwork, torture, and executions.

But the much-delayed Khmer Rouge tribunal should at last give a sense of justice to many of those who survived.

And Duch, now 66 years old, seems the right choice to go to trial first. Though he is not the highest-ranking of the four Khmer Rouge officials so far to be charged and detained, Duch was the chief of the notorious torture center known as S-21, a former high school.

He took orders from top leaders and he kept meticulous records.

Equally important, Duch seems to be the only one of the four officials indicted so far to come close to telling the truth about what happened.

While the other three have denied any knowledge or responsibility for the killings that occurred throughout Cambodia during Khmer Rouge rule, Duch openly admitted to two journalists that he had overseen torture and mass executions at S-21

Understanding Duch

It’s not easy to understand how Duch transformed himself from diligent student and kindly teacher into the chief executioner at S-21, where at least 14,000 Cambodians died.

“Duch was a very smart student,” said Leam Sarun, 68, who met and befriended Duch in 1962 when Sarun served as a monk in a pagoda in Phnom Penh. Sarun considered Duch to be an idealist.

“He felt for poor people,” Sarun told RFA’s Khmer service director Kem Sos. “He would tell others not to hurt the poor.”

But, of course, many of those who ended up at S-21 were very poor. They included both men and women who fought for the Khmer Rouge but were then deemed to be traitors. Most had no idea why they had been imprisoned and tortured. Hundreds were children.

Thanks to two books published in recent years— The Gate by Francois Bizot and The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop—we can begin to understand Duch’s transformation into a killer.

But both authors seem to struggle and agonize over the question.

Ruled by fear

Bizot, a French expert on Buddhism and Khmer pottery who was held prisoner by Duch during the war, began to see Duch himself as a prisoner “inside a large machine from which he could no longer escape.”

“And so he like everyone from his fellow (Khmer Rouge) leaders to the humblest conscripts, was ruled by fear….,” writes Bizot, who was the only one of 30 foreigners captured by the Khmer Rouge who managed to survive.

Dunlop’s book describes his post-war quest to find Duch, who he discovers converted to Christianity after fleeing Phnom Penh and his life with the Khmer Rouge.

Duch is quietly working for a U.S. aid organization in the provinces when Dunlop identifies him from an old photograph. He finds Duch is the same punctual, disciplined man who carried out his torture center duties “by the book.” On the basis of this discovery, Duch’s conversations with Dunlop and journalist Nate Thayer, and his well-documented role at S-21, Duch was jailed by the Cambodian government. In July of this year, the government handed him over to a United Nations-supported tribunal comprising both Cambodian and international judges.

Duch’s trial could begin as early as the spring of 2008, according to tribunal officials.

In the meanwhile, S-21, now known as the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, has become a destination for thousands of foreign tourists and groups of Cambodians still struggling to understand what happened to them and their country.

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