Wading Into the Grey
The Master of Confessions: The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torture
When all is said and left undone, it may fall to history to record that one person was convicted by an international court for the massive, auto-genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge. The murderous, paranoid regime starved, exhausted, and executed approximately 1.7 million Cambodians from 1975 – 79. Millions more were left without families, a functioning government, or a past. The organization kept up its war against time until the end of the millennium when, in 1998, the government was at last able to capture the Khmer Rouge’s final stronghold in Anlong Veng. Offered amnesty, countless former members of the brutal regime melted into new, post-Khmer Rouge lives or joined the government. (Hun Sen, Cambodia’s current prime minister and de facto despot, is himself a former Khmer Rouge member.)
It wasn’t until 2003 that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (E.C.C.C.) received U.N. backing as the first concerted effort to place the Khmer Rouge on trial. Since then, Hun Sen and his party, the Cambodian People’s Party, have sought to keep the court limited in its review of suspects. Accordingly, only five individuals have been indicted—and thus far, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, is the sole figure to be convicted.
Duch is the former chairman of the infamous S-21 prison camp where over 14,000 people were interrogated, tortured, and then taken to killing fields to be “smashed” (as the Khmer Rouge called it). Ironically, Duch’s conviction was in part due to his own meticulous notes, an archive of files—with victims’ photos, bios, and their confessions—that established his crimes.
Among those in attendance at Duch’s trial was French journalist and international tribunal maven, Thierry Cruvellier. Uniquely informed, Cruvellier has attended trials at all modern day international tribunals for war crimes and crimes against humanity—the only journalist to do so. His account of Duch’s trial, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, is observant and patient. With a careful eye, Cruvellier builds an ambivalent yet incrementally damming report of the proceedings. He does not dismiss the many contradictions on display, choosing instead to portray Duch as an irreducible composite and the court as a simplifying institution, the manifold parts of an uneasy whole.
Witness to so much courtroom-refracted horror and absurdity, Cruvellier can be biting and hard-bitten. He is enormously critical of international tribunals—expensive, interminable affairs where comedy and incompetence reign as much as truth and justice. A trial is many things to Cruvellier, but simple it is not. “A trial is a physical, violent act that elicits vehement reactions from its participants and observers,” he remarks. “A trial drains souls, frays nerves, makes the pain worse.”
Similarly, Duch could be infuriatingly mercurial. During his trial, he is apologetic at times, sneering at others. He is powerful and he is pathetic, capable of controlling his own case—with countering statements and expert explanations—or of obfuscation, as when he slinks to taciturn responses. By turns and evasions, Duch’s identity becomes something like a human labyrinth:
Duch tries to keep his answers to the bare minimum: “That’s wrong,” “That’s not true.” He knows that only by economizing his words can he stop himself from falling into the abyss of emotion that he has so carefully kept at bay for four decades.
Cruvellier uses it all, building up his description of Duch like a mason, adding more and more to his unwieldy portrait.
The Master of Confessions is a precise, caustic, sometimes even humorous catalogue of the court’s main character: how Duch appears when he is in control and when “it seems he has at last been broken”; the bored, indifferent appearance he presents to those for whom he has nothing but contempt; a moment when he drinks “more water than usual.” Cruvellier constructs a tangled picture of Duch—not a monster, but a man. Cruvellier may find him contemptible, but he is a man nonetheless. “In order to find the root of evil that was implemented every day at S-21,” he writes, paraphrasing the historian David Chandler, “we should not look any further than ourselves.”
It’s an approach that recalls Hannah Arendt’s seminal account of war crimes and denial, Eichmann in Jerusalem. At first blush, Duch and the Eichmann of Arendt’s portrayal may strike as vile analogues, middle-men and followers of orders—individuals, who in other scenarios would have been teachers or bureaucrats, not managers of institutionalized murder. (In fact, prior to joining the Khmer Rouge, Duch was a much-admired math teacher.)
However, new scholarship presents Eichmann as a manipulative figure, a virulent anti-Semite, and an enthusiastic participant in the Holocaust. By contrast, Cruvellier finds in Duch glimpses of genuine remorse, a man crushed and tormented by the weight of his crimes. (The E.C.C.C. created a document that collected the 30-plus statements of apologies Duch made during his trial.) He did his duty, as incomprehensible and damnable as it was, though he did not seem to enjoy it. Nor did he seem to have much of a choice. The majority of those killed at S-21 were Khmer Rouge; if he wasn’t loyal and productive, Duch knew where he could end up.
The Master of Confessions can therefore be a frustrating vision as Cruvellier’s perspective lacks the comfort of sureness and closure of a writer like Arendt. But perhaps she may have made matters too comfortable. Mark Lilla argues in “Arendt & Eichmann: The New Truth” for the New York Review of Books that Arendt packaged Eichmann as an object lesson of the banality of evil because she needed to “find a schema that would render the horror comprehensible and make judgment possible, [which] in the end led her astray.” Cruvellier has no such need; tidying up Duch’s contradictions is a project he leaves to the reader.
In many ways, he deals as much with Duch as he does with the context at large—in which Duch is simultaneously a prisoner of the court and an inhabitant of the world. “Duch’s choice reveals to us a lot about him even as it confounds us,” he writes of the defense team’s last minute, about-face demand for acquittal. “Those who like certainty can have it. Those who tolerate doubt can keep tolerating it. Duch comes from a background in which survival trumps everything else, and he is showing us that it is the only thing that he strives for.” Cruvellier wades into the grey of humanity. Duch committed horrific acts and is guilty of these crimes, but should that be all he is? And all he ever will be? The Master of Confessions does not settle for black and white, it does not settle for easy exits—for Duch or for us.
A son of the Chicago suburbs, JEREMY POLACEK has somehow lived in New York City even longer even than in that metropolis of the Midwest. Often found in the dim light of the theatre or library, he tweets at @JeremyPolacek.