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)

Mekong Review

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The third issue of the Mekong Review is out. Will secular saint Aung San Suu Kyi face a lonely old age? Is Pulitzer-winning Nguyen Than Viet, author of The Sympathizer, a novel, and Nothing Ever Dies, memoirs, the true heir to Graham Greene? Does Southeast Asia needs more Silkworms? (Answer: yes).

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…Vietnam was a very literary war, producing an immense library of fiction and nonfiction. Among all those volumes, you’ll find only a handful (Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” comes to mind) with Vietnamese characters speaking in their own voices.

Hollywood has been still more Americentric. In films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” the Vietnamese (often other Asians portraying Vietnamese) are never more than walk-ons whose principal roles seem to be to die or wail in the ashes of incinerated villages.

Which brings me to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.

But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.

Serious praise: we hear about Southeast Asia overwhelmingly from the outside; where is the fiction about the lives of Khmer-Americans deported back to the homeland they never knew, for example?

lady-and-the-generals.jpgThe piece on Suu Kyi is a review of Peter Popham’s recent biography, The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom. Essential point: the people adore her but the generals don’t, and if she loses the adoration factor it’s hard to see a soft landing.

[T]he run-up to the historic election in Myanmar, last November that swept the Aung San
Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD)
to power was punctuated by long-time NLD activists complaining of being side-lined or simply dropped by their leader. More damaging to her reputation globally has been the criticism by the Western media, as well as by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama, for supposedly turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Then there’s her haughty and authoritarian style. She declared before the 2015 election that she would be “above” whoever takes the presidency that she craves, but is barred from by the army-written constitution because her two children are British citizens.

Political life is only going to get harder for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Indeed. And the loss of saint-hood is a given – politics is like that, just ask Tony. (Which Tony? Any Tony; Tony seems to be a very unlucky name for politicians).

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Elsewhere, Khac Giang Nguyen asks what a man who is a tree portends for democratic reform in Vietnam, Liam Kelley surveys the academic landscape of Asian Studies in Australia and finds is bleak (I vaguely remember being told by my betters that Australia’s future lies in Asia, that this was the Asian Century, and that we all had to prepare for it, but that was in another country, and besides, the policy is dead), and Robert Turnbull writes about politics and patronage in Cambodia – patronage of the arts, that is. Did you know that Hun Sen likes to jot down ideas for poems in classical Khmer meters as he helicopters from one meeting to the next? Neither did I, and it’s fascinating to know; but the more important point is that without patronage of some kind, Cambodian classical performing art will become a tourist ghetto, as has happened in Bali. (Or I believe it has – perhaps the next edition of the Mekong Review will set me right).

And much more. Mekong Review is available on paper at Monument Books (which also has The Sympathizer – $15) and online as pdf.