The soul of Comrade Duch

comradeduch1.jpgIn 2008 Duch, commandant of the Khmer Rouge torture centre at S-21, was interviewed by two psychologists. Their conclusion: We could all have been Duch, given his opportunities.

His childhood was marked by hardship, but not by trauma. He was poor, he suffered from chronic skin lesions and diarrhoea – perhaps he was suffering malnutrition. His father was deeply in debt, and this seems to have been the root cause of the family’s poverty. When he was older he came to understand the lesson: if life is suffering, it is because society is unjust.

He was an outstanding student at school. He changed his name to Guek Eav, alias Duch. Standing stiffly to attention with his arms tight at his sides he explains the meaning of the name Duch: “The schoolboy who stands up when the teacher asks him to stand up.”

He discovered mathematics. He loved mathematics. In the world all was in disorder, but in mathematics  every problem had its solution, and the solution was always beautiful.

He fell in love with a girl. She was studying French literature. He tried to persuade her to take up mathematics instead, but she left him for a boy from a richer family. He was devastated.

He found inspiring teachers who introduced him to communism. Like mathematics, communism was beautiful. Its explanations held the answer to Cambodia’s poverty and social injustice, the poverty that had dogged his father and the injustice that had destroyed his hope of love. He embraced it.

He rose to become head of S-21. At first he was enthusiastic and diligent, but gradually he realised that the Organisation was arbitrary, vicious, and heartless. Anyone might be arrested, tortured, executed, despite their demonstrable innocence. The deaths of children he found inexcusable. Long before the end, he lost his faith in communism.

He found Christianity. His motive, he said, was the love of God. Also, Christianity is the most powerful organisation in the world today, for see how Christianity defeated communism in Poland. And like mathematics and communism, it was from somewhere that was not Cambodia.

Karma is impersonal, it holds out no hope of forgiveness, just an eternal cycle of sin, suffering, and death, in life after life after life. Duch doesn’t deny his sins: “I have done very bad things before in my life. Now it is time for the consequences. (…) My unique fault is that I didn’t serve God, I served men. I served communism. (…) I feel very sorry about the killings and the past. I did not take any pleasure in my work.” Duch has no hope of forgiveness, and wants only peace. Duch-007.jpg

Duch is intelligent,  obsessive, diligent and punctilious, with a keen capacity for analytical thinking. These qualities permitted him to be a brilliant administrator of S-21.

He has a great need to believe and belong. His ability to express emotion is extremely limited, and his ability to empathise with others, to imagine another person’s point of view, is almost totally absent.

He lacks a centre. He has sought certainty, first from mathematics (representing France and science), then communism, finally Christianity. He loves Cambodia and justice and hates lies (mathematics never lies). The flip side is that everything has to be clear-cut, black or white, right or wrong. When he was a communist he was right, and all those who differed from him were liars and traitors.

His advice to the youth of Cambodia: “Making a decision takes a split second, but the suffering lasts a lifetime. My life is filled with regrets. At first I thought the communists were capable of saving my country … Deciding takes a split second, (but) decisions have to be made. They must be very careful in the decisions they make.”

At the end he made two requests of his interviewers: first, a Khmer-French dictionary, French being the language of intellectual discovery; and second, the opportunity to be reunited with the girl he loved in his youth.

 Source: Psychological Assessment Report Concerning Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.

Francoise Sironi-Guilbard and Sunbanaut Ka, for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

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Review: Christophe Peschoux’s “Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer”

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Christophe Peschoux interviewing KR soldiers, 1993

Over May 4-6 1999, in a village near the Thai border, Christophe Peschoux interviewed the notorious Duch, one-time commander of the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre S-21. Duch was arrested two days later and has been imprisoned ever since for his offenses against humanity. By mutual agreement the interview was kept in a drawer until preparations for his trial got underway in 2006, at which point it became part of the public record. In the course of his trial Duch denounced the interview, claiming it had been extorted under false conditions. The charge shocked Peschoux, who devotes several pages to refuting it and suggests that the about-face may have been connected to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political campaign to eviscerate the international tribunal in order to prevent it implicating past Khmer Rouge who now serve in his government.

Peschoux, who was representing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, has now published the text of the interview “to put it at the disposal of those who are interested in the history of Cambodia and of the Khmer Rouge movement, and the role of that S-21 played in that history.” It forms the core of this important book, which is essential to any study of the Khmer Rouge period. Peschoux’s Introduction forms an equally important part of the story, setting out the context of the interview, the history of the subsequent trial, and a nuanced and humane sketch of a man who has come to be seen as a monster, the embodiment of inhuman evil.

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Comrade Duch

Duch was born in 1942 to a humble family in Kompong Thom province. Thanks to scholarships he was able to study at the elite Lycee Sisowath in Phnom Penh and the National Institute of Pedagogy, from which he graduated in 1965, and was sent to teach high-school mathematics at Skoun in Kompong Cham, where he was remembered later for his commitment to his students and to social equality.

But Duch had imbibed socialist ideas at the Institute and in 1967, as Sihanouk cracked down on leftists, he joined the armed resistance in the maquis (the forest). The teacher had become a revolutionary. In 1968, following a spell in Sihanouk’s prisons, he joined the infant Communist Party of Kampuchea and was assigned to run the security police of the “Special Zone” surrounding Phnom Penh. Thus began the next stage in Duch’s career, the one that was to earn him the title of chief torturer to the Khmer Rouge.

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Duch with staff and families at S-21, 1977

Duch’s work at rooting out Sihnouk’s spies seems to have pleased his superiors, for following the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 they appointed him to head up S-21, the new party security office in the capital, in which position he was responsible for the torture and death of some 14,000 people.

S-21 was where the Party uncovered traitors within its ranks, and all inmates were Party members. Duch stresses his lack of autonomy within the system: he sent nobody to S-21, all arrests were ordered or authorised by the senior members of the Standing Committee, namely Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Pheum, and Ta Mok. Even this overstates the case, as Sao Pheum was distrusted by the other three and was about to be arrested and sent to S-21 himself when he committed suicide in 1978.

Nor, according to his own account, did Duch have any control over what happened inside S-21. His political masters expected him to produce confessions, and confession meant interrogation, both “hot” (with torture) and “cold” (without). Duch says he did not believe torture to be effective and wanted to dispense with it, “but the abilities of my subordinates were limited and I was unable to achieve this. … Sometimes, my subordinates used methods which I could not believe they had employed. … I learned that my former primary school teacher [Din Saroeun] had been tortured by insertion of a piece of wood into her vagina. … I was shocked…” (Peschoux notes that the torture and execution of his primary school teacher and her husband, and a handful of others whom Duch had known intimately and respected, were instrumental in his ultimate loss of faith in the Party and its cause).

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Duch with one of his aides, Phnom Penh, 1976

The point of the confessions was not to discover truth – the fact of arrest presupposed guilt – but to uncover “threads” (khsae in Khmer), the vertical networks of patronage and loyalty that give structure to Cambodian society. Every Khmer is either a patron or a protégé, and one man’s protégé is another man’s patron. “[I]f one person is considered an enemy, all persons linked to that person are likewise.” Once uncovered, the threads had to be destroyed. “[A]ll those who were sent to me had to be killed, whether man, woman or child, without distinction.”

Peschoux: “Even the children? Were they also considered as enemies?”

Duch: “Yes, even the children.” (Peschoux has a footnote: “Kaing Guek Eav averted his face, visibly affected, and plunged into his memories.”)

The interrogations and killings at S-21 can be viewed as a logical conclusion to the KR obsession with spies, played out within traditional Khmer client-patron networks. This explanation seems unconvincing: Cambodia is still built on khsae, but today’s leadership does not find it necessary to discover and destroy entire “strings” of real or imaginary opponents, including children.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 4.34.15 PM.pngPeschoux believes, as Duch came to believe, that what was at stake was much simpler: the cold-blooded pursuit of power. During the armed struggle of the five years before 1975 the various KR regional commanders recruited their own troops, who were loyal to them, not to the Party. (This, incidentally, has always been the way armies were raised in Cambodia; the creation of a professional army answerable to a single central authority is one of the unremarked but essential steps in the creation of a “modern” State). When the stage of armed struggle ended in 1975 Pol Pot and his innermost circle had no troops under their direct control, and thus were at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the zone commanders. Peschoux remarks: “One of the historical interpretations of the conflicts and bloody purges of the following three years sees [them as] Pol Pot’s effort to impose his direct control of the true power that was in the hands of the heads of the zones.” Duch ultimately came to believe that Pol Pot and his circle had no real interest in whether the people he interrogated and killed were really spies, but only in rooting out potential rival khsae. His reaction was to withdraw from politics after 1975 and, eventually, to return to being a village schoolmaster.

So who is Duch? In Peschoux’s words, he was “an intelligent, gifted, well-taught, and generous young man of modest origins, animated, we suppose, by an ideal of liberty and justice, [who] joined the revolution and became, little by little, a cold and pitiless torturer. … [O]nce the ashes of history had cooled and greater [personal] autonomy was regained, he became again an ordinary man, capable of exercising choice and moral discernment.”

Peschoux says of his first sight of Duch: “He resembled any man of his age, a benign Cambodian grandfather—timid, affable, and very ordinary. … [N]othing in his appearance or his manners suggested a devilish personality or character. He was an elderly, very ordinary former torturer.” The transformation from teacher to torturer had been motivated by the noblest of mirages, a world of justice and liberty, but it led Duch to monstrous crimes; when circumstances changed, he again became a teacher.

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Duch’s confession to Peschoux is certainly self-serving to a degree. It lacks the realia conveyed in this underling’s report of the interrogation of Kim Huot, Duch’s revered former teacher and husband of the Din Saroeun who was tortured with a piece of wood in her vagina, a report which was delivered to Duch in the routine way:

  1. In the morning of 18.7.77 1 decided to employ torture. I told the prisoner that I was doing this because I had not grasped the weak points of what he had said, and my pressure had not had any results. This was my stance. I watched his morale fall when I administered torture, but he had no reaction. When questioning began, it was still the same. As for his health, he ate some gruel, but he was not able to sleep. The doctor looked after him.
  2. On the morning of 20.7.77 I beat him again. This time his reaction was to say that he was not a traitor but that the people who had accused him were the traitors. His health was still weak, but was not a serious problem.
  3. In the afternoon and evening of 21.7.77 I pressured him again, using electric cord and shit. On this occasion he insulted the person who was beating him: “You people who are beating me will kill me”, he said. He was given 2-3 spoonsful of shit to eat, and after that he was able to answer questions about the contemptible Hing, Chau, Sac, Va, etc.
  4. That night I beat him with electric cord again. At present he is a little weak. The doctor has seen him. He has asked to rest.

To paraphrase Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, our sympathy for the murderer is not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy, but we would do well to remember that he is a man like us. Or as Peschoux puts it, Duch’s testament is “an occasion to reflect on what this extreme experience can teach us about ourselves and our humanity, and what our humanity can turn into when crushed in the jaws of history.”

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Christophe Peschoux and Haing Kheng Heng, Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer: Interview with Duch, Former Khmer Rouge Commander of S-21, Silkworm Books, 2016, 204 pages.  (This review appears in the May-July 2016 issue of the Mekong Review)

The pastor and the monster

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Pastor Christopher LaPel in Ratnakiri – from his Facebook page.

Christopher LaPel’s father was a Brahman priest serving Cambodia’s king in his role as the earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu. Imagine the shock and horror, therefore, when one evening at dinner he saw a cross hanging around his son’s neck:

One day while our family had supper … I reached to pick up food and the ivory cross hanging around my neck fell forward. My dad, when he saw the cross, raised his voice and cursed at me. He pulled me and said, “You shouldn’t wear the cross. Remember we are a Buddhist family, we don’t want you to wear the cross.” I didn’t even know what it meant.

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The royal Brahmans at the Sacred Ploughing Ceremony, 2015

Then came 1975 and the Khmer Rouge. Christophe’s mother and father were worked to death, and his sister and brother were executed. Christopher himself narrowly escaped death:

I worked 14 to 16 hours a day without food, sunrise to sunset. I lost a lot of weight—70 pounds in that time. Two-thirds of my friends died of either execution, malnutrition, overwork, or disease. One time I was very ill, I had a high fever—I’m not sure if I had malaria or typhoid, but I had missed work for three or four days. During that time, missing work for a couple days meant you were useless to the Khmer Rouge, they didn’t want to keep you.

We knew, during this time, if someone calls you during the night you would die. One night they called me to meet the Khmer Rouge comrade to ask why I was missing work. I knelt down, shaking from fever, when one of them put his hand on my chest and my head. He opened my shirt and touched my ivory cross. At that moment I heard a voice, I’m not sure who, say, “This guy is really sick, we need to let him go take a rest.” I came back to my hut and thought: There’s something about my cross, it’s amazing!

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Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, Thailand, where Christopher LaPel found his vocation

Christopher escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he converted to Christianity. Later he relocated to Long Beach, California, became a Christian pastor, and embarked on a life of turning others to Christ – and, might I say, treading truly in Christ’s footsteps.

In late 1995 pastor LaPel was conducting baptisms and training sessions in western Cambodia when village mathematics teacher called Hang Pin came to one of the sessions. Hang Pin said he was not a Christian, but had come at the urging of a friend. Under LaPel’s teachings he was accepted Christ and was baptised. The previously withdrawn man was transformed. He became relaxed and outgoing, teasing others, dressing neatly, sitting in the front row and taking notes. Filled with enthusiasm, he told his pastor that he could hardly wait to get home so that he could spread the good word. Which is what he did, establishing and leading a village church with 14 families.

But there was something dark about this newest convert. Prior to his baptism he wondered aloud to LaPel whether his brothers and sisters in Christ could forgive the sins he had committed in his past. His only consolation was that God forgives everything – “Thank God that the Lord forgives me!” LaPel didn’t ask questions – his role is to lead sinners to God, not to judge them.

LaPel had no idea that the star convert named Hang Pin was actually Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, who as director of the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre known as S-21 (or Tuol Sleng)  was responsible for the torture and murder of 14,000 men, women and children.

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Enough has been written about Tuol Sleng. Far more interesting is Duch’s soul, and that of Pastor LaPel. Early in their relationship Duch told the LaPel that he had never felt love in his childhood or later. “When he turned to Christ, love filled his heart.” What he seems to have felt before he met LaPel was deep and consuming guilt, as he told Christophe Peschoux, country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shortly before his arrest in 1999:

“[A]ll those who were sent to me [at S-21] had to be killed, whether man, woman or child, without distinction.”

Peschoux: “Even the children? Were they also considered as enemies?”

Duch: “Yes, even the children.” (Peschoux has a footnote: “Kaing Guek Eav averted his face, visibly affected, and plunged into his memories.”)

LaPel-with-Duch-rdg-Bible.jpgChristianity seems to have brought Duch a measure of peace in the prison where he serves a life sentence for crimes against humanity, the only KR commander to have accepted his guilt and expressed remorse.

I think he must be the loneliest man in the world.

Christopher LaPel testified at his trial. He didn’t ask for leniency (nor did Duch), but testified to the power of God to transform a sinner. To this day he visits Duch in his cell, where they read the Bible and break bread together.

 Sources

• Brad Dupray, Interview with Christopher LaPel, Christian Standard, 4 August, 2010.

• Caroline Gluck, The Killer and the Pastor, TIME magazine, July 12, 1999

• Christophe Peschoux and Haing Kheng Heng, Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer: Interview with Duch, former Khmer Rouge commander of S-21 (to be published later in 2016).

• KarstenRauPhotography.com (photo of child victims at Tuol Sleng)