On the Trail of a Killer
By Bertil Lintner
This compelling tale of one man's search for the commandant of a notorious Khmer Rouge death camp sheds light on the complexities of a grisly era in Southeast Asian history
The Lost Executioner, by Nic Dunlop. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. 326 pages
What turned Duch, once an idealistic mathematics teacher, into a brutal killer? That remains an enigma, but Nic Dunlop does an excellent job trying to find an answer to that and many other questions about the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in Cambodia in the late 1970s. During the 1,364 days they were in power, two million people died as a result of mass executions, starvation and other hardships--approximately 1,466 people a day. Duch's duty as commandant of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh was to oversee the interrogations and confessions of alleged spies and saboteurs--most of whom, needless to say, were absolutely innocent. Of the 20,000 who passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng, only seven survived.
Dunlop first became aware of Cambodia from a National Geographic article in the early 1980s. Along with the photographs from ancient temples in the jungle were images of mass graves that had just been exhumed. He decided to become a photographer himself, and, in 1989, at the age of nineteen, he left art school in London for Cambodia. He later moved to Bangkok but traveled frequently to Cambodia, including the remotest corners of the country, to document the sufferings of that tragic nation. In 1994, his pictures appeared together with text by Paul Davies in a much-acclaimed photo book on landmines in Cambodia.
Now, the photographer has become a writer, and a good one at that. In his years spent working in Cambodia, Dunlop became obsessed with the idea of tracking down Duch, whose picture he had seen in Tuol Sleng, which has since become a museum dedicated to the victims of the Cambodian genocide. And he found him. In March 1999, Dunlop hitched a ride with a mine clearance organization to a small village near the Thai border. There he spotted a short, wiry man wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with the initials ARC, the American Refugee Committee. He politely introduced himself as Hang Pin, and apart from being a volunteer with the ARC, he had also become a born-again Christian. As a lay pastor, he had managed to convert many Cambodians, and he was often seen with a Bible in his hand. He had aged a little, but the likeness to the photograph from Tuol Sleng was unmistakable. Hang Pin was Comrade Duch.
Dunlop later returned to the village together with Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review to confront him with documents from Tuol Sleng. At first, Hang Pin feigned ignorance about the Khmer Rouge; then he gave in and confessed that he was indeed Comrade Duch, ex-commandant of Cambodia's equivalent of Dachau or Bergen-Belsen. He also gave himself up to the Cambodian authorities, awaiting a tribunal of former Khmer Rouge leaders that never seems to materialize.
Dunlop traces Duch's life from his childhood in the Cambodian countryside to his time as an outstanding student in Phnom Penh, a teacher, an executioner at Toul Sleng, and then as a humanitarian aid worker, who was much liked by neighbors and fellow villagers. .He displayed the same diligence with [Tuol Sleng's] bureaucracy that he had with his studies,. Dunlop writes. As a mathematician he found the mapping-out of conspiratorial frameworks intellectually pleasing. As a teacher he reveled in the position of total power he commanded over his subordinates and got a perverse thrill toying with prisoners during interrogations. And he showed the same fanatical zeal as a preacher, referring constantly to God and God's will.
Did he show any remorse? Yes, he did, and, according to Dunlop, his attitude contrasted sharply with the arrogance and grudging apologies by other former Khmer Rouge leaders. How genuine that remorse was is impossible to say, and, as Dunlop also points out, his tales contained both prevarications and outright lies. But at least he did confess. Regrettably, Dunlop writes, he is kept incommunicado in a Phnom Penh prison, muzzled from telling the truth. Here Dunlop questions his own role in Duch's incarceration, which may not have served any other purpose than to shut him up. The truth, if it came out, could be more than embarrassing to the many people in Cambodia, China, Thailand and elsewhere, who at one stage or another cooperated with the Khmer Rouge.
The Lost Executioner is a brilliantly written book with a deep human touch to it. And it is much more than a biography of a complex character. Dunlop examines how a seemingly peaceful nation could give birth to one of the most bloodthirsty revolutions in modern history, and, with a photographer's sense for detail, makes even horrid events come alive.
This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, September, 2006
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