News: Duch Sentenced

I typically have avoided much discussion of the Khmer Rouge Tribunals, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. But today Duch was sentenced. [PPP Article]

Duch (:wiki: for non-Khmer speakers, it’s probably best to try to pronounce it “DOE-ik”; please don’t pronounce it as “Dutch.”) was, of course, the administrative head of the notorious Khmer Rouge Torture and Execution center, S-21, sometimes today known by the name “Tuol Sleng.”  He directly ordered (under the higher orders of his chain of command, almost certainly ending with Nuon Chea, “Brother Number 2”) torture and execution.  Of all the thousands of people murdered (perhaps about 16,000) under his direct authority at the prison (or at the site approx. 17 km to the South, known as Choeung Ek (pronounce “Jung Aik”), only 14 are known to have survived.

He is a monster. Certainly he is a fascinating one.  He is brilliant: he possesses a very keen mind, especially for mathematics and some forms of moral philosophy.

He is almost entirely unself-conscious: the evident hypocrisy and outstanding repugnance of his views, when discussed with his famous captive François Bizot (:wiki: ), was not only denied by him, but not even apparent to him. He clearly loves being in the spotlight, and a major part of his life these last few years has been made up of his efforts to take center stage, announcing bizarre strategies for justice (allowing his victims to stone him to death?) and a desire for complete self-sacrifice and an acceptance of guilt, along with an almost bizarre lack of emotional depth behind any of his statements.

He’s a Christian convert: Former Khmer Rouge stalwarts who have been the only consistent missionizing ground for Christian evangelists in Cambodia, and it’s likely that his personal conversion narrative shares much with these others, which could very easily be interpreted as an appeal to the Christian doctrine of forgiveness and the erasure of sin, something which (those angry at the ignorant Brit Hume aside) Buddhism in Cambodia does not offer.

All of this makes for a fascinating figure. But here are some of the stories that I want to hear about, stories that aren’t getting written (or read by me, anyway), and stories that I think are really in many ways more important to understanding what’s going on here.

  • I’m already seeing a lot of outrage from the Khmer expatriate population over the interw3bz about this verdict.  I am not in Cambodia, so cannot speak to how folks from different age groups and class groups are responding on the ground.  I would very much like to see those stories.  Some of that is starting to come across, especially in the Phnom Penh Post, which is writing biographical stories in frames of talking to his neighbors.  A nice touch, really, but I’d like more detail about current responses.
  • What about the age gap in terms of aspirations for this trial?  Although many thought the entire thing was doomed to fail, and thus paid little attention (see below), for those who did support it, were there significant differences in what they hoped to get out of the trial?  How does this verdict and sentence affect those aspirations?  If both groups are disappointed, are they disappointed in different ways?

Finally, let’s be frank: lots of us thought this was doomed from the beginning. Between the notoriously corrupt Cambodian Judiciary, the ongoing hostile relations among the Cambodian Lawyers Guilds themselves, the constant, unending, delays in beginning, the narrow scope of indictments, and a plethora of other damning problems, we just couldn’t see this trial leading anywhere positive.  It was also rare to hear Khmer people outside of the legal and NGO worlds speak up for the specific process involved; most were disappointed from the beginning.

The strongest realistic statement promoting the possibility that the sentencing of Duch could help reform the Cambodian Judiciary was  just published via the East-West Center. Judy Lederwood and Kheang Un, both of Northern Illinois University, in a paper that can be downloaded and read here for free. (“Is the Trial of ‘Duch’ A Catalyst for Change in Cambodia’s Courts?“) It’s an important paper, but as it was written in anticipation of this verdict, we now have the opportunity/responsibility to update it with observations.

But many of us, and specifically, I myself, restrained our criticisms, not only publicly, but privately. Whenever I have given thought to this trial process, I have had a lengthy mental combat with myself.  It seemed so self-evidently doomed, that I couldn’t imagine supporting it in any way; it almost seemed cruel to set this up when some people wanted genuine justice and simply were not going to get it.  But I desperately wanted something to work, for someone.  Even if it only gave some small sense of emotional closure to those 14 survivors, I thought it would be worth it.  Maybe in that sense, it was.

I spun out all sorts of theories for myself; perhaps it would act as a spur to the reform of the Cambodian Judiciary, or increase popular pressure on the Judiciary. Maybe it would spur on conversations and provide some sort of rapprochement between the generations that survived the period and those born after.

These things could still happen, but it appears clear that this sentence, in which Duch could get out of prison after only 19 years, is a message of some sort, from the court.  Of course, it’s likely that Duch will die in prison.  But the relevance of this verdict is in the message it sends about the court’s ability to prosecute and sentence those indicted. Given the weight of the evidence against him, and his complete acceptance of all responsibility and throwing himself upon the court, this should have been the clearest court victory out of all the indictments.

That’s what I think, and what I’m thinking about.  How about you?


2 thoughts on “News: Duch Sentenced

  1. Alberto says:

    While some folks may be following the trial and concerning themselves with the outcome, the overwhelming majority of people born since the KR period are unaware of the proceedings and mostly ignorant of the events of the civil war period. There are a whole lot of people that would like to see this all go away so that Cambodia can move on and talk about the pressing issues that face it. Through this trial and the action of foreign governments and NGO’s, “Cambodia” has been effectively reduced to the KR period in the same way that the word “Vietnam” as a shelf title in a bookstore means “the Vietnam War” and not some other aspect of Vietnamese culture and history.

    There is something really troubling about this. Cambodia is a country chock full of interesting history, culture and human experience – so how did it all get decanted into the KR period? In Spain, we had a brutal civil war that put a dictatorship in power for 40 years, but at no point did the history and civilization of Spain get condensed into the that single moment. I would suggest that in essence it is a question of the needs of a class of American politicos – the same class of people who thought it was a good idea to bomb the country, the same class of people who thought we should back the KR against the Vietnamese. The KR is well known as a despotic and brutal regime – a sort of latter day Nazi regime and so being attached to efforts to ‘bring justice’ have obvious propaganda value, mostly because there is no possible backlash against the prosecutors since the KR are out of power and no one in Cambodia is in any position to speak out in any meaningful way against the subordination of justice in Cambodia to the demands of the West.

    It isn’t just the waste of time and money, or even the symbolism of a cadre of foreign judges brought in just to drive home the point that Khmers are too incompetent and corrupt to handle these kinds of affairs on their own, it’s the insistence by the outside world that this was not only the best, but the only way, to deal with the aftermath of the KR period. The spread of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions like the one in SA and later in Rwanada is predicated on the Oprah-esque contention that the way to manage grievances is to have an open exposition of the facts, the reality however is this is not always the best way to get through this. The death of Franco in Spain led to an understanding that we were going to move on as a people and not talk about the events of the civil war or the dictatorship. This isn’t all that satisfying for people who insist on justice, but it did create a working compromise to create a country where today everyone is well-fed, healthcare is universally available and the trains are very very fast. This meant that a lot of people that maybe should have gone to jail didn’t, but most people, at least at the time thought the trade off was worth it. I have remarkably little knowledge of what my family did during the war and I plan to keep it that way. There is no way that knowledge could be helpful to me and a number of ways in which it could be hurtful.

    In a sense, the KR Tribunal represented an attempt to impose openness and justice on a population that for the most part had passed on in terms of its concerns. Many foreign NGO’s have for their part fought against this loss of memory, but all it means is that we get treated to the ridiculous spectacle of kids born in the late 80’s contributing to art exhibits at Meta House that highlight Cambodia’s Pain (or Trauma or Anguish….) Instead of hearing what these young people have to say about finding meaningful work in a country where there are no jobs, or of getting educations in a society that doesn’t take learning all that seriously, or about defining personal relationships in a city where most people are rural transplants; we are stuck with really crappy culture-production inspired by a Western need to rescue rather than by any true interest in hearing their concerns.

    Like Nuremberg, the only things these trials prove is that winners can judge losers. No Allied war criminals were judged at Nuremberg, just like Kissinger wasn’t forced to take the stand in Phnom Penh and explain his actions before the eyes of the nation he helped to destroy. It’s sad, sad shit and there isn’t anything good to say about it.

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