khmer

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?

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Sounding on Southeast Asia for February 23, 2010

  • Do a search for Mekong and Naga lately – lots of news.  Here’s a review in the Nation (Thailand) of a new book relating the Mekong and the Naga.  Good stuff, want to read.
  • I’ve got a couple of students who are writing a grant to go work and study with the awesome group in Cambodia Tiny Toones.  Tiny Toones is an organization founded by Cambodian Deportee K.K., who was one of those young Khmer Americans forcibly deported from the US (usually the only home and dominant culture they’ve ever known) because he never applied for citizenship and got into trouble with the law.  Sounds like he had a pretty rough life, but he’s making a seriously positive difference in Phnom Penh, where he teaches breakdancing, life skills, and literacy to street children.  Here are a couple of mass-media articles about the group. Time Magazine | NYT

And oh yes, this is what this web site sounds like if it were music.

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SOUNDING on Cambodia: Hun Sen and Preah Vihear

shot caller

Paul Vrieze publishes a review of Hun Sen‘s 25 years in power. Hun Sen’s greatest asset has far too often been seen by his critics as a weakness: he was on many different and conflicting sides in the conflicts of the 70s and 80s – just like the majority of Cambodians. Unlike most Cambodians, in addition to having had a kaleidoscopic history of shifting political loyalties, he has only every really been on one side: his own. [link, via]

Despite his political skills, Hun Sen did not shy away from using violence against political opposition. In 1997, he took over thegovernment by force and the ensuing fighting killed about 100 people, mostly from the rival Funcinpec Party, according to a 2008 US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, which referred to the takeover as an “unlawful seizure of power”.

Before the military takeover, a grenade attack hit a peaceful opposition rally in Phnom Penh, which killed 16 children, men and women and wounded more than 100 others. Recent disclosures of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) probe into the attack, which was conducted because an American citizen was injured in the blast, were made under a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Cambodia Daily, a local English-language newspaper.

The investigation, which was cut short due to intensifying threats to the FBI agent, found evidence that directly implicated Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit and the CPP, while highly placed witnesses declined to cooperate with the FBI, according to the records disclosed to the newspaper. The US government reacted to the violent events of 1997 by banning direct aid to Cambodia for a decade. As the US Congressional Research Service noted, “The autocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Hun Sen have discouraged foreign investment and strained US-Cambodian relations.”

And oh yes, the Dry Season is here – so it’s about time for violent misunderstandings at the Cambodian-Thai border, over the Khmer temple of ប្រសាទ​ព្រះ​វិហារ Prasat Preah Vihear (Thai: Phra Viharn). [link, link]

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Southeast Asia Sounding: 1/18/2010

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SOUNDING for Week Ending 1/15/2010

Cambodia

KI-Media consolidated a series of youtube clips from a French-language documentary film about the Khmer Republic under Lon Nol, from 1970-1975. Very worth checking out, especially if you can understand French. [link]

Whenever the topic of the Khmer Rouge comes up, you’re bound to hear someone impugn Noam Chomsky as a Khmer Rouge apologist. Here’s a new review of the evidence, which seems pretty evenhanded to me. Check it out. [link]

Milton Osborne wrote an essay on “The Mekong River Under Threat” for Asia-Pacific Journal, reprinted here in Japan Focus. Milton Osborne, “The Mekong River Under Threat,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2-2-10, January 11, 2010. [link]

Important statements from Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), on the reason why there were fewer labor actions in this last year:

The president of the Cambodian Free Trade Union of Workers stated that there were more than 100 demonstrations and strikes held by workers in 2009, but this number is less than in previous years. However, the decline in numbers is not due to better working conditions, but due to restrictions imposed by the government on demonstrations and strikes, especially due to suppression of workers movements by the local authorities. [Daem Ampil, translated by the Mirror. link]

Mony has also written to the US government asking for them to drop all export tariffs from Cambodian goods to the US. [link]

The International Republican Institute (IRI), rather infamous among those who pay attention, even rising to the level of international scrutiny during the US 2008 presidential election (McCain is a booster), declares that Cambodia’s government just keeps getting better. Read it here. [link]

Buddhist

Thich Nhat Hanh has finally spoken out forcefully, laying the blame for the violent evictions of students, monks, and nuns in Vietnam, upon mobs for hire at the command of the Vietnamese government. This is important; wait for more. [link]

Another positive review of Anne Hansen’s excellent book How To Behave, by Craig Reynolds. [link] I reviewed Hansen’s book previously for the Journal of Asian Studies, 67.3, pp. 1123-1127.

World

Of course, the biggest news of the week is the unimaginable devastation ongoing in Haiti. It’s unbearable. Please consider giving money to worthwhile organizations.  William Easterly, the most prominent critic of bad development aid and proponent of effective aid, has a blog called “Aid Watch.” Over there, Laura Freschi has published suggestions.  Please take a moment. [link] Avaaz has other good suggestions [link]. You might also read Anthroman’s reflections on Pat Robertson’s horrific comments.

Thinking

Not that this is really news, but the World Food Program announced the other day that of all the world’s hungry people, three-quarters are the rural poor. [link]

I’m digging on the Middle Mekong Archaeological Project’s weblog. Check out these two posts: Guano and sacrificial pigs, and A family in every pot. The latter includes this awesome, death-related, photograph.

Oh yes, Google might stop helping the PRC censor its citizens. [link]

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“Maybe the dead were starving…”

Excellent two-part documentary from Al Jazeera on the ongoing Cambodian tribunal of the Khmer Rouge. There’s little discussion (but some) on the extremely limited number of leaders in the dock, but some great discussion. The talented Nic Dunlop, author of The Lost Executioner, takes lead on this report.

In the clip above, starting at about 10:43, note the following quote, which is characteristic of the way in which people have talked to me about ghosts and the dead during the Khmer Rouge period (Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979). Seng Yao, 81 year old survivor of prison camp M-99, says

At least ten prisoners died each morning and we would take the bodies away. We kept moving the corpses. I was not afraid of ghosts at that time. I would sometimes sleep on graves but ghosts did not haunt me. Maybe the ghosts did not have the energy left to haunt us because they died of starvation.

[Note that the speech in Khmer is actually somewhat less conditional about the reasoning]

I only interviewed a few survivors of Khmer Rouge prisons during my fieldwork. But such expressions and reasoning about ghosts were common among many survivors, not just former prisoners.  I was frequently told that “there were no ghosts during the Pol Pot time,” because “they had nothing to eat.” I had a hard time understanding this at first, because it was my assumption that whenever there was mass death there would necessarily be more ghosts, not fewer.

But the explanations I received were consistent with what Seng Yao expresses in the documentary clip above. In January 2005, an 85 year old man in rural Kompong Cham province expressed it this way:

When the country is rich, there are lots of ghosts. When there is nothing to eat, what will the ghosts eat? Nowadays, there are lots more ghosts than during the Pol Pot time.

Note that the reciprocity between humans and the dead is assumed to be the basis of the ‘health’ of the dead, and that the basis of this reciprocity is food. This point underlies almost all my work thus far on death and deathpower in Cambodia.

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