Category Archives: Khmer Rouge



Never Forget

Once upon a time—1975, actually, in Cambodia—there was a regime so evil that it created an antisociety where torture was currency and music, books, and love were abolished. This regime ruled for four years and murdered nearly 2 million of its citizens, a quarter of the population. The perversion was so extreme, the acts so savage, that three decades later, the country still finds itself reeling.

July 2009



ON THE DAY THE MAN was reunited with his wife (thinking her already dead), how could he have known that she had just seventeen more hours before disappearing? They were prisoners of the Khmer Rouge, herded in different groups, in the last hours of the regime, chaotically fleeing the Vietnamese. Even now, he remembers first seeing her again, the heightened metabolic state of happiness, and though he revealed no emotion (even the act of smiling—something Cambodians do so readily—was thought by the Khmer Rouge to be unrevolutionary), he watched her carefully as she walked ahead with their small son, both dressed as he was: in black pajamas. When the guards were at a distance, he spoke to her once about the scenery.

They did not touch.


AT THAT TIME—during the nearly four-year reign of Angkar lasting from April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979—the killing was so random and widespread across Cambodia that death became a near certainty, especially if you were sent to the prison camp known as S-21. While the odds were roughly one in four of dying—and worse depending on your demographic (for instance, adult men died in much higher percentages)—your chance of survival at S-21 was .04 percent.

Or put the opposite way, the odds of your death were 99.96 percent.

Before death, though, a prisoner confessed, over and over again, until he’d named sometimes hundreds of “traitors,” in order to stop the pain of torture. The man who would soon lose his wife and who, as it turned out, was a mechanic with dexterous hands, had been named and arrested, taken away blindfolded to the place where 15,000 others were sentenced and exterminated in nearby pastureland famously known as the Killing Fields. But then, as fate would have it, he would emerge as one of only seven survivors from the prison camp. He became living proof that somehow surviving the absolute certainty of your own death can be as horrific as murder itself. For in the end, you’re the only one left to carry the memory of 15,000 terrors.


THE MAN WAS 44 years old when the body of his wife disappeared, the same age as I am right now. There is no equivalence; this is only a fact.

And one other: At this same age, though I have three children, he’d already lost four.


FROM THE BOOK of Atrocities, the evil fable begins like this: Once upon a time, a group of men educated in Paris and steeped in communist ideology had a dream for their homeland. To create a Cambodian society that surpassed the greatness of Angkor, the kingdom that reached its pinnacle under the god-king Suryavarman II in the twelfth century with the construction of Angkor Wat. From the jungles—where their leaders had fled to escape the repressive measures of Prince Sihanouk in 1963—they fought a guerrilla war, led by a soft-spoken, enigmatic schoolteacher named Saloth Sar. These communists, however, did not believe in gods, kings, or culture, as it turned out, but they were good at biding their time. In the vacuum of power left after the eight-year American bombing of Cambodia, they swept east across the lowlands to the capital, Phnom Penh, finally wresting control from the corrupt U.S.-supported regime in 1975. (The premier, Lon Nol, had already fled to Hawaii.) Their first act was to evacuate the city, hurrying the populace under the pretense that the Americans were coming to bomb again, emptying hospitals, setting millions of people—including the elderly, lame, and pregnant—walking on the roads that led to the countryside, a scene of hunger and corpses straight out of Brueghel.

What the Khmer Rouge had in store was a radical agrarian revolution, one with the professed aim of completely renovating society while giving the peasants a better life, of evening the rewards and feeding the hungry, of bringing a rational and utilitarian nation-state into being. At first, without the world knowing their real intentions, they were partially applauded, even by American journalists and politicians. Prince Sihanouk assured Congress that the Khmer Rouge would establish “a Swedish type of kingdom,” and Senator George McGovern believed that the new regime would be “run by some of the best-educated, most able intellectuals in Cambodia.” But almost immediately the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary pretenses gave way to the sickening irrationality of brutes. In that first spasm of violence, everyone wearing glasses was killed. Everyone who spoke a foreign language was killed. Everyone with a university education was killed. Word was sent to expats living abroad to come home and join the new Cambodia; when a thousand or so arrived on special flights from Beijing, they were killed. Monks, so revered in Cambodian society and long the voice of conscience there, were killed. Lawyers, doctors, and diplomats were killed. Bureaucrats, soldiers, and policemen, even factory workers (who in the minds of the Khmer Rouge were equivalent to industrialization itself), were killed.

In that first moment, the lucky ones were directed to keep walking to their home villages—some traveled for months this way—where they were sorted, sent to collectives, and worked from sunup to twilight. A person’s worth was eventually measured by his ability to move cubic yards of earth. “To keep you is no profit,” said the executioners to the unworthy before killing them, “to destroy you is no loss.”


THE MAN WHO would survive S-21 but lose his wife—the man named Chum Mey—realized that the troops first entering Phnom Penh were mostly lost boys from the jungle, dirty and ragged with blank expressions, who, within hours of being greeted as liberators by cheering crowds, turned on the masses with their AK-47’s. In the south of the city, they fired warning shots; in the northwest sector, they fired on people. Never having seen toilets before, the soldiers drank from them as if they were cisterns, shat on the floor, wiped themselves with sticks that they left strewn about abandoned houses.

It was April, the hottest month. Fires ringed the city, the roads were so packed you could only progress in baby steps, parents were separated from their children, the sick and old laid themselves down, moaning. The man had his wife and children. At night he went down to the river to get water for them and found himself standing on bodies, and then in the water surrounded by bodies, so thick in places you couldn’t drink.

Funny, a repugnant memory such as that clung with an almost humid fondness now, thirty-five years later, for as horrible as the moment was, his family was still gathered about him. When he carried the water back, there was still thirst to quench, voices calling for their father and husband: Here, Pa! Here! Terrible things gathered around them, but lying down for the night, he could whisper to his wife:

Is this really happening?


THE LEADERS of the revolution were designated as Brother Number One (Pol Pot), Brother Number Two (Nuon Chea), Brother Number Three (Ieng Sary), and so on. And they were nothing if not ambitious in trying to build a new society. The Brothers abolished courts and banks. They abolished money and holidays and love. They abolished time and history, setting everything back to Year Zero. And they abolished the four things Cambodians hold most dear: food, family, village, and Buddhism. Those who hailed from the city were branded with the designation “New People,” versus “Old People,” who were from the country. New People were those most often badly punished. The entire populace was forced to wear black pajamas, the women Maoist bobs. So secretive were the Brothers that for a year no one knew who was running the country. Until Saloth Sar emerged under his new revolutionary name of Pol Pot, it was as if the faceless godhead Angkar decided all.

When it came to song, workers were only occasionally allowed to sing from a menu of revolutionary anthems like “Struggling to Build Dam and Dig Canals” or “Bravery of Construction Revolutionary Soldiers” or “Best Wishes to People in Northwestern Zone.” But a jingle secretly murmured by workers at the time spoke the truth: “Angkarkills but does not explain.”


ON THE ROAD from Phnom Penh during those first days, a Khmer Rouge cadre said to the man with dexterous fingers, who would soon lose his wife: “See nothing, say nothing, do nothing against Angkar and you may survive.”


I FIRST WENT TO Cambodia in 2002, primarily, as it turned out, to change diapers. My wife had work in Phnom Penh, and thus left with her driver and translator early each morning and returned later each night, while I took care of our firstborn son, who was 2 at the time. Initially, I thought we’d have some cultural moments out in the city, but soon realized that we were destined to spend an abnormal amount of time eating grilled-cheese sandwiches by the pool.

When we ventured out of the hotel, I pushed him in a stroller along the Mekong River, drifting with the hordes to the center of town, to a park there, where under a brutal sun, in the sticky, soaking heat, one could ride an elephant for a dollar. With son in arms, I climbed a rickety metal ladder, sat warily on the huge beast (his legs were chained to each other), and one with the pachyderm now, we lumbered the circumference of the park while my son, in silent panic, clutched me like a snake-spooked chimpanzee. Everyone—the mothers clutching their own babies, the fathers hand in hand with their daughters—pointed and smiled at us.

Back at the hotel, we ate our sandwiches, swam in the pool, went to bed. We understood nothing, of course. Our ignorance was willful. We tried to sleep but couldn’t. I lay awake, remembering all the smiles in that park. Why had everyone been smiling? It made me suddenly paranoid. Was there something I hadn’t known about that elephant, that park, that set of operators? Was the joke on me? And if so, what was the joke?

Or had they merely smiled because they could?


I WAS TO HAVE one afternoon to myself in Phnom Penh, after my wife had completed her work. I scoured the guidebook—the Silver Pagoda, Wat Phnom, a drink at Le Royal—but got stuck on S-21, the famous prison camp located in a former school called Tuol Sleng. Even Lonely Planet couldn’t bring itself to recommend a visit to the site, which had been turned into a museum. Here’s what it said:

“Altogether, a visit to Tuol Sleng is a profoundly depressing experience. The sheer ordinariness of the place makes it even more horrific: the suburban setting, the plain school buildings, the grassy playing area where today children kick around balls, rusted beds, instruments of torture and wall after wall of harrowing black and white portraits conjure up images of humanity at its worst. Tuol Sleng is not for the squeamish.”

So that’s where I went.


IT WAS SILENT when I arrived, and I was trying to gauge that silence at the same time that I was guarding against it, with the same active ambivalence I’ve had visiting other holocaust museums and concentration camps. The mind glimmers with trepidation: How bad will this get? Which is another way of asking: Just how deep and dark goes the human animal? And: Am I willing to participate, even if just bearing witness? Which itself is a defense: bearing witness. After all, we are the animals, too, bearing witness to our accomplishment.

Tuol Sleng had all the Gulag charm of any nondescript cement-block three-story building complex blooming with mold, humidity stains, and the sickening presence of evil in the unwashable blood marked into the umber-and-white-tile-checked floor. People, tourists like me, moved through the old school in ghostly ministrations—as if the guards of yore—and in the background, seemingly far away, came the low rustle of the city.

S-21 had been directed by a man named Kaing Guek Eav, whose revolutionary name was Comrade Duch (pronounced “doik”). Once a teacher of mathematics, he’d first been conscripted by the Khmer Rouge to run a jungle prison camp, where he’d studiously refined his ideas about torture, and was then put in charge of S-21. It was here that he condoned “living autopsies” (the slicing and flaying of victims); that he demanded the extended use of torture to

obtain confessions (including near drownings, the removal of toe- and fingernails followed by a dousing of alcohol, electric shocks applied to genitals, suffocation with plastic bags, and forcing prisoners to eat human excrement); that he ordered the murder of at least 15,000 people, who were taken to the Killing Fields and shot or bludgeoned (with iron rods, shovels, and axes) and then dumped into mass graves.

Operating from 1975 to 1979, S-21 became the most infamous of 196 such prison camps the Khmer Rouge established throughout Cambodia, primarily because so many of its prisoners were the purged party loyal—and because Duch’s methods were so stunningly brutal. In 1979, when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power, they happened upon Tuol Sleng because of the stench of rotting corpses.

Now Tuol Sleng was a museum—and perhaps the most potent symbol of the Khmer Rouge’s dystopia. As I crossed the courtyard, the leaves of the palm trees and banyans shifted benevolently in a breeze, and detaching the scene from its history, one might have imagined this courtyard at a swank hotel in Honolulu: pleasant, tropical, hushed. But instead of someone taking drink orders, there was a billboard posted with security regulations. They began with their own warm welcome:
1. You must answer accordingly to my questions. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.



PRISONERS WERE HOOKED up to a pump and IV line and had all of their blood drained for use in the hospitals. According to witnesses, the breathing turned to gasps, then wheezing, until the victim’s eyes rolled back in his head, leaving only the whites. Bloodless, the corpses were then thrown in pits.


AT TUOL SLENG, you drift from room to empty room. Here stands that iconic rusted frame of a bed, used to bind prisoners. (6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.) Here the bolts that helped shackle up to fifty prisoners at a time, in holding cells, the bodies laid out on the floor like soon-to-be-gutted tuna. (7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders.…) In some rooms are photographs of the very same rooms, taken by the Vietnamese on the day they discovered the prison camp, a decomposed body left on the bed, a slit neck bled out in nearly black puddles. There are shackles and metal boxes that once held excrement for feeding. There’s a map of Cambodia on one wall, made from 300 skulls, and barbed wire on the upper balconies, put there, after a rash of suicides, to keep the prisoners from jumping. But it’s the empty eeriness of the rooms that fills the imagination; the tranquility that calls up the shrieking opposite. (8. Don’t make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.)

Located on the first floor of the middle building are some of the most famous death masks in the world, those black-and-white photographs taken of living prisoners upon admission to Tuol Sleng. And yet the captured already know they’re dead. (10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.) The fear and resignation, the dark epiphany that the flashbulb brings—some have already been beaten, some have babies clinging to them, some stand unflinching, in their last moment of public dignity before Duch’s men have their way—is made more poignant by the fact that they are trapped inside an unsolvable koan. Their confusion is writ large beneath their defeat. What they’re about to confirm, during the hours and days of interrogation that will soon follow, is that there are no right answers. That they have become victims, as one visitor put it, of an “irrational radicalism” or, more plainly, of an absolutely absurd universe, one in which the sanctity of the body is torn down again and again to a diamond-hard point, void of ideals and emotion, where ultimately dying becomes less painful than living.”


AMONG THOSE WHO died under Duch were members of the Khmer Rouge’s own Standing Committee (caught in the spin cycle of Pol Pot’s ever increasing paranoia, more and more high-ranking officials were thought to be turncoats) and at least eleven Westerners: four Americans, three French, two Australians, a Brit, and a New Zealander. How any of them ended up at S-21 in the first place must be seen as a horrifically random act of cosmic bad luck. In the case of two American men who were sailing from Singapore to Hawaii, they mistakenly ended up in Cambodian waters and were apprehended by Khmer Rouge patrols.

Besides these special cases, the killing at S-21 was indiscriminate and nearly complete, including the equal-opportunity elimination of laborers, teachers, factory workers, artists, monks, diplomats, cyclo drivers, and on and on. When one thinks of the loss of life, one wonders again at those who made it out alive.

One way was this: The Party, in imitation of Mao’s cult of personality, decided it needed portraits of Pol Pot, and two of the prisoners happened to be painters. Thus they were offered the chance to paint for their lives. (On the list of those to die, next to the painter named Vann Nath, Duch had scribbled the words: Leave for using.) Meanwhile, the prison camp needed a good mechanic, and in the case of Chum Mey, the man who would lose his wife, he knew how to fix things, and his turn to die coincided with a broken sewing machine used for repairing the guards’ uniforms.

And so the spinning wheel’s needle landed on the sliver-wedge that bore their names—and that’s how they lived.



TO MAKE LOVE out of wedlock meant certain death, and a boy who had just reached puberty, who was confused and desperate, was caught in the act with a water buffalo. The next day everyone from his collective—from the youngest to the oldest—was gathered. The boy was paraded before the crowd, strung up, then taunted, tortured, and killed. As odd as the case sounds, survivors of the Khmer Rouge recall public executions—full of redress and mockery, disembowelment and cannibalism—as being a part of the daily schedule. “Better to destroy ten innocent people,” was another saying, “than to let one enemy go free.”


A VISIT TO S-21 leaves an inconsolable feeling. It rides with you in the taxi back to the unreality of the hotel, through the streets of Phnom Penh, buzzing with markets and families, with the ramshackle grandeur of golden stupas and crumbling colonial architecture. And yet somewhere still behind it, one rearrives at the skeleton: the images just after the Khmer Rouge took the capital, a city drained of all human life, the colonial buildings empty and echoing, the pagodas ransacked and used to hold grain, piles of television sets and radios, burnt cars and all other machines of modern life strewn in the streets, twisting columns of smoke rising from the wreckage. Behind the normalcy of today, even the veneer of progress, lurks that desolation (…it is still happening).

In my case, the aftermath of a visit to S-21 left me with (a) a suffusion of paranoia and (b) a feeling of utter futility. It was the futility that stuck with me, though, the gut-wrenching realization that somehow the Khmer Rouge had gotten away with their experiment and that they had razed a country of its lawyers and leaders, intellectuals and activists (all those who might have had the expertise and wherewithal to hold them accountable for their crimes). By “smashing” (their word) the populace, by pathologically replacing the individual with the collective (and making sure that the collective knew how to do only one thing: grow rice), they’d instilled a paralysis and fear that had so far, thirty years later, saved them from retribution. They’d effectively lobotomized their own country.

It was astonishing, really. In the annals of the century’s great crimes against humanity, the Nazi leadership had been tried—and many of them executed—in fairly short order, as had the Japanese war criminals. Guilty parties convicted of genocide in Rwanda, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia were imprisoned and in some cases executed. Those responsible for apartheid in South Africa were subjected to a truth commission, which at least demanded confession and supplication.

Meanwhile, after being forced from power, the Khmer Rouge leadership set up on the border of Thailand, in the jungle stronghold of Pailin. From there, Pol Pot and his minions carried on their killing (including taking the lives of Western backpackers visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex) and tried to muster a second revolution. (It was said that between ordering the murder of his top lieutenants, Pol Pot, who was never pursued as a criminal, enjoyed Cognac, Pringles, and reading Paris Match, a French celebrity rag.) During this time, the Khmer Rouge continued to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the U.N. and receive foreign delegations in the jungle. The regime was so deeply entrenched that even the United States couldn’t cut final ties until 1991, a decade after learning the worst about it. Meanwhile, a number of high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders were invited back to Phnom Penh and given villas by the government.

The mystery to me, and many others, was also a pique: What was the exact purpose of all this accommodation? And more: When was someone going to pay?


NOT LONG AFTER returning from Cambodia that first time, I had coffee with an editor in Manhattan. As happens at such meetings, an air of false importance hovered over the proceedings as we discussed “big stories” that seemed to have been overlooked by the media, even though we were the media. When I brought up the untried Khmer Rouge leaders, pointing out the 1.7 million dead from nearly thirty years ago, his eyes glazed. Yes—but no: More than that, he wanted to talk about Hollywood. “What people tend to miss,” he said, “is that George Clooney’s much more than an actor.”


THEY DID NOT believe in gods, kings, or culture. In fact, it’s fair to say that in spite of their communist doctrine, they believed in very little at all except a very dark, dominating kind of nihilism. They abolished schools, sport, toys, free time. They banned words like beauty, colorful, and comfort from the radio. They forced all children 7 or older from their parents, placing them in packs called “mobile units” to help with the rice harvest. (It was a “vagrant life,” said one survivor, “like that of a plant floating in the ocean.”) They abolished happiness, as it was their supreme belief that in order to purge individuality, the people must be made to suffer, and having suffered, would be void of dreams and expectations. That is, without minds of their own, they’d be perfect revolutionaries.


THE KHMER ROUGE were so busy killing people, they didn’t mince words. Here are a few of their sayings:

“He who protests is an enemy; he who opposes is a corpse.”

Angkar has [the many] eyes of the pineapple.”

“Hunger is the most effective disease.”


IT’S STILL HAPPENING, PA. You’re an old man now, and it is still happening. The thugs have turned out the nearly 2 million residents of Phnom Penh, and as you walk along that road with your whole family, and as others lie dying, as others are shot and beaten and literally steamrolled (one body you see has been mashed to the thickness of a pancake, oozing clear syrup and viscera), your youngest contracts a high fever, then diarrhea.

You bury her one night in a heavy rain and keep going.

Sometime during that death march, the soldiers demand that all the mechanics identify themselves. You are guileless and want to please in order to save your family. They assure you that your family will be safe, and when they pull you from the line, you look back once at them. Then you are sent to the city, where you begin that first month repairing the boats they use to transport Khmer Rouge soldiers up-country along the Mekong. Your next assignment is two years in the capital, scurrying through ghostly streets, going from abandoned house to abandoned house, retrieving and then fixing, by your count, 40,000 sewing machines—40,000 broken belts and bobbins—all of which go to the factories where the women work, making the same black pajamas that you will be wearing on the day your wife disappears.



IF SOMEONE required killing, it was common practice to kill their children. If a parent died of starvation or disease, the children might also be killed. At the Killing Fields, babies were held by their feet and smashed against a designated tree, the Baby-Smashing Tree.

Duch would later admit, while explaining why he ordered the death of so many children, that those that came to S-21 with their parents were seen as dangerous agents, potential enemies of the state who would ultimately seek revenge for the death of a parent. “You must pull the weed at the root” went the saying. Or: Kill now before you, too, are killed.


EVERYONE HAD A THEORY, real or half-baked, about why it had been nearly impossible to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice. For some, American guilt rode high on the list. That is, the Americans were loathe to reexamine the sordid details of their eight-year secret bombing of the country—which killed somewhere between 150,000 and 500,000 civilians—and were unwilling to accept their role in the destabilization of society that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. For others, the prime minister, Hun Sen, didn’t want his own Khmer Rouge résumé dredged up. (“We should dig a hole and bury the past,” he was quoted as saying in 1998, rejecting the idea of trials.) And then the international community didn’t seem to have much desire for it, either; being resource-poor and of no geopolitical advantage, Cambodia had nothing to offer. Meanwhile, the money that was earmarked for eventual trials, money that poured in through various NGOs and foreign governments, created a lucrative cottage industry for certain corrupt local officials who were motivated to drag out the process as long as possible.

And yet as time sludged forward, an agreement was finally forged in 2003 between the Cambodian government and the U.N. to inaugurate the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea, or the ECCC. A formal indictment followed in 2007, charging Duch with crimes against humanity as well as war crimes. In addition, the top Khmer Rouge leaders who remained alive were arrested and imprisoned, including Brother Number Two (Nuon Chea) and Brother Number Three (Ieng Sary). But up until Duch took the stand in March of this year to begin the first trial, there were still those who doubted such a day would ever come—and others, mostly those born after 1979, who didn’t understand why there should be a trial for these mythical old men at all. Why did it matter? Or: Was it better left forgotten?

In writing the introduction to the trials in a handbook distributed to the Cambodian people, Hun Sen put it most simply. “The crimes of the Khmer Rouge period were not just committed against the people of Cambodia,” he wrote, “but against all humanity.”


DECEMBER 9, 1970: Feeling frustrated by the changing tide of the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon calls his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to discuss closing down North Vietnamese supply routes through Cambodia. “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them,” says the president. “There is no limitation on mileage, and there is no limitation on budget.” Throughout the conversation, Nixon seems agitated, peeved. “The whole goddamn Air Force over there farting around,” he says. “It is a disgraceful performance.… Get them off their asses and get them to work now.”

Minutes later Kissinger is speaking to Alexander Haig: “I just talked to our little friend,” says Kissinger. “[H]e wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order; it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?”

On the transcript, the response is described as follows: “Couldn’t hear but sounded like Haig laughing.”


OVER AND OVER and over, in past, present, and future, it’s happening, has happened, will happen again. Like this:

In 146 b.c., the Romans attacked Carthage, jealous of its wealth and refinement. After giving up their weapons to avoid war, the Carthaginians were asked to abandon their beloved city and, when they refused, were set upon, beaten, and burned alive. Over the course of a week, Roman soldiers employed all manner of killing—using swords for stabbing and spears for impaling. They lofted bodies from rooftops to the cobbles below and buried children and old people alive or stampeded them beneath their horses. According to one account, bodies were “torn asunder into all kinds of horrible shapes, crushed and mangled.” When the Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal, finally surrendered, his wife appeared before him at a burning temple with their children and, reproaching him for his cowardice, she “slew her children, flung them into the fire, and plunged in after them.”

Witnessing it all, the Roman commander Scipio clasped the hand of one of his lieutenants. “A glorious moment, Polybius,” he said, “but I have a dread foreboding that someday the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country.”

Or in other words, our own genocide forever comes next.


BEFORE RETURNING TO Cambodia during the phase of Duch’s pretrial hearings, I was reading a lot. Books about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Books about torture and genocide. I sat in a room, in the middle of winter, ice shagging the windows, staring at pictures of the Brothers Khmer (oddly bloated while everyone else starved)—and some of their 1.7 million victims (fed on teaspoons of gruel; you could see their ribs). I read and took notes. By the time I recorded the details of one horrific happening, it was subsumed by the details of the next. It was hard to accept the incomprehensibility of the feat, the sheer creativity of Angkar’s sadism. But there it was, in the pictures taken at S-21, in the still-alive faces flashing with death.

During this time, I thought that perhaps if you applied logic (for instance, a syllogism) to something illogical (for instance, a genocide), you might reach, well, the beginning of understanding. One afternoon, poring over my notes, a couple of disparate lines unmended themselves, floated up, and spun down again. It was a beginning:

Language is the only means to reconciliation.
Pain destroys language.
For those in pain, there is no means to reconciliation.


MY FIRST MORNING in Phnom Penh, I met at the hotel with a defense attorney for Comrade Duch named François Roux. The ECCC was set up in such a way that for every Cambodian attorney, there was also a corresponding international attorney. Roux shared his defense duties with a Cambodian lawyer named Kar Savuth, who himself had lost two brothers and nearly his own life to the Khmer Rouge.

Roux had spent thirty years doing this work, traveling the world to defend the accused from Rwanda to French Polynesia. He’d defended José Bové, the man who tore down a McDonald’s in France protesting genetically modified crops. Here in the United States he’d helped save the so-called twentieth hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, from the death penalty. “I like being on the side of the accused,” he said. “I find it edifying.”

At the hotel, he waved off the sumptuous five-star buffet, a cornucopia of pancakes and dumplings, pho and shrimp lo mein, and instead drank a single cup of orange-pekoe tea. He was a diminutive, impish man with quick, intelligent brown eyes, clad in a slightly ill-fitting black blazer and ironed white shirt. He’d spent so much time in Cambodia lately, he’d taken a little house to live in, and he found his life completely entwined with Duch, whom he met with every day. Yes, they had formed a bond, he said, a client-attorney bond, but a human bond nonetheless. “I wouldn’t say we are friends,” said Roux, “but we have an understanding, a very good understanding.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly. Was Roux here to act as an apologist for Duch, to report that he’d looked into the man’s soul and seen something that the rest of humanity had somehow missed? Somewhere along the way, Duch had converted to Christianity, but thirty years and 15,000 dead bodies later was it okay to say, “Oh yeah, that stuff back there, that was a big mistake”?

I’m sure it wasn’t the first time Roux had been mistaken for one of his clients, and he tried his best to explain, but for a moment I held tightly to my own syllogism:

Duch was evil.

Roux had a bond with Duch.

Roux had a bond with evil.

The Frenchman’s mouth kept moving—“due process…accepted responsibility…true justice…”—but I lost track of what he was saying. Only later, when I went back to the transcript, did I hear his voice again, almost plaintive in its individuation.

“I’m only here to try to make something fair out of something unfair,” he said.


AT S-21, when Duch had once been omnipotent, when it seemingly hadn’t occurred to him to question his own actions or seek expiation from his god for the sins he was committing, he preferred whips and electric shocks to waterboarding in order to keep his prisoners alive.

To an interrogator under his command, he gave these words of advice: “Beat [the prisoner] until he tells everything. Beat him to get at the deep things.”


AT OUR MEETING, Roux had spoken eloquently about how it could be that we might allow someone like Duch back into “our human community.” He went on to point out how the trial would allow his client to make his amends with the Cambodian people, how the criminal was always bigger than his crimes, that Duch had undergone a conversion. He was now a Christian, but more than that he was changed somehow.

Changed how? By sudden guilt? After the Vietnamese had poured into Phnom Penh in January of 1979, effectively ending the rule of the Khmer Rouge, Comrade Duch had stayed at S-21 until the final second in order to oversee the killing of the last of the prisoners (the ones photographed by the Vietnamese, bodies bound on the rusted metal bedframes, throats slashed, bled out on the umber-and-white floor); then he’d disappeared into the jungle, eventually making his way to China to teach Khmer. He returned to the jungle to work for Pol Pot as a bureaucrat and then taught school again in a small village, where he was regarded as a good teacher with a mean temper. Later, after his conversion, he became a lay minister and worked in the countryside with the Christian relief agency World Vision, which is where he was found in 1999, under an assumed name, by a young journalist whose own initial visit to Tuol Sleng had led him on a personal manhunt for Comrade Duch. Would he have ever come forward if he hadn’t been discovered?

I admit I had a hard time buying the tale of his full conversion, especially from the French defense attorney whose advantage it was to sell that particular narrative, however passionate and personable Roux was, however much I trusted Roux’s intentions and his absolute faith in the process of justice. “Every case needs someone to defend,” he had said. He implied that even someone like Duch could be saved.

But if, as Roux insisted, the criminal was always bigger than his crime, I wanted to know this: Wasn’t the victim much bigger than both?


ROUX, WHO WAS rushing to catch a plane to Rwanda, insisted that I speak to Kar Savuth, the other defense attorney. And so we set a meeting for a few nights later at the hotel bar. In 1994, Savuth had taken his oath as one of the first lawyers in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, completing a dream that had been delayed twenty years: He’d been a law student when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Instead of seeking revenge, a victim of the Khmer Rouge was defending them.

When he appeared, I would have guessed him to have been anywhere from 45 to 65 years old (he was 77), wearing a gray shirt and gray slacks, flashing a gold watch and diamond ring, and carrying three cell phones, which he laid out before him on the table. We took a seat in the far corner with my translator, a woman named Veasna, and beneath the rotating paddle fans that hung from the ceiling, drinking seltzer, Kar Savuth wanted to make something very clear. He saw himself as a medical doctor, with Duch as his patient. He understood his obligation to his client. But he was not willing to forget.

He was not willing to forget how they’d killed his brothers.

He was not willing to forget how they’d killed his cousin’s entire family. He could not forget his own feelings of survivor’s guilt. He could not forget watching a woman killed in front of him, her liver removed, cooked, and eaten by the soldiers…then her hip meat…then her breast.

Kar Savuth sat on the cushion edge of the rattan chair as he spoke, straight at attention, his face a mask. He said all of it without a trace of emotion. His strength seemed almost severe. When he himself had been interrogated, he told them he was a cyclo driver, and then they asked him the distance between two hospitals in the city. A month later, three months later, a year, and three years later, they asked him the same question over and over again. What is the distance between the two hospitals? If he’d changed his answer, they would have killed him.

And of course, he remembered nearly starving to death, being so sick that his hair had fallen out. He’d playacted that he was clumsy so they might take pity—and ever after, he’d been clumsy, unable to relearn how to ride a bike, for instance. He’d even unlearned how to read. “It took a long time to become a human being again,” he said.

And yet, he said, when he first met Duch, the former Khmer Rouge commandant had cried, overwhelmed by guilt, then gathered himself, pointing out that the first commandant of S-21 had been killed and that he knew it was only a matter of time before he himself would have been killed, too. Duch asked Kar Savuth a question: If they told you they were going to kill your family, what would you have done?

And Kar Savuth said, “I would have done exactly what you did.”


THERE HAVE BEEN many myths about the trials: one is that the Cambodians don’t want them, that the two-thirds of the population born after 1979 think of the Khmer Rouge as a scary bedtime story they’d rather not hear, while the other third would rather not recall the actual horrors they actually survived, suffering still as they are from PTSD and ungovernable fear. Another is that they won’t be able to handle the trials, that the idea of Western justice is foreign enough to the populace at large that a sentence other than life in prison (the death penalty is forbidden) will open the masses to spasms of violence. And yet these misreadings—or half readings (of course, a third of the population does live in fear, but their Buddhist faith prohibits revenge killing)—by outsiders are just a continuation of centuries of farang misapprehension.

Despite the constant whiff of Western condescension that has hung over the country since the French made it theirs in 1863, the years leading up to the trials, and now the first trial, the Duch trial, have forced an important if uneasy reckoning. And in large part that reckoning was begun for his people by Youk Chhang.

Chhang was 16 when the Khmer Rouge controlled the country and his sister was murdered before him. Accused of stealing rice, she had her stomach slit open to prove her treachery (there was no rice there) and died a slow, painful death. After that—after becoming a refugee and making his way to America, to Texas—all Chhang wanted was revenge, Buddhism be damned.

An English teacher who befriended him, and who couldn’t help but notice his anger, gave him a book about Cambodia by a man named Ben Kiernan with an inscription in her hand that read:

My friend Youk,
Happy birthday. May you understand your country’s history and may it help your dreams come true.…

As it turned out, Kiernan was a professor at Yale, Chhang sent him a letter, the two became friends, and when Kiernan received a half-million-dollar grant from the U.S. government to research the Khmer Rouge, he bought Chhang a plane ticket back to Cambodia—leaving Friday, January 13, 1995, a date Chhang will never forget—to begin compiling what became the largest archive of evidence chronicling the Pol Pot regime, and what became the foundation for the prosecution of its leaders. Without the two of them, it’s fair to say there might not have been any trials at all.

“He changed my life,” says Chhang of Kiernan today, sitting among the piles of books and folders, dossiers and files in his cluttered office on the third floor of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Chhang, 48, wears a white pressed shirt and chinos. Before he had a staff and assistants, he worked virtually alone, going from village to village with a field recorder, interviewing victims but also interviewing the Khmer Rouge cadres (the farmers and shopkeepers, the teachers and laborers who executed, quite literally, the commands of their superiors). In the process, and as he collected letters, documents, ephemera of all sorts, he was able to map Angkar and its chains of command, the web of killing and unapologetic doctrine. In some villages, murderers and survivors lived across the street from each other, and he’d interview both—sometimes in each other’s presence. But of the more than 10,000 Khmer Rouge cadres he and his fellow researchers have interviewed to date, only one has ever admitted to killing anyone, and in that case, only “five or six people.”

“We haven’t begun to reintegrate ourselves with each other,” says Chhang. “And that won’t happen until the victims accept ownership of the atrocities—and the perpetrators claim responsibility.”


IN A RARE INTERVIEW at the end of Pol Pot’s life, he rejected the idea that he had ordered a genocide, that he had anything to do with the deaths of nearly 2 million people, claiming that it was the work of unhinged elements—radicals, the Khmer Krom, the Vietnamese, etc.—and that his conscience was clear. “When things get quiet, I go to bed at 6 p.m.,” he said. “I sleep under the mosquito net by myself. My wife and my daughter live apart from me. Sometimes I do nothing, putting up with mosquitoes and insect bites. I get bored, but I’m used to it.”

One mother, feeling herself being sucked away by Angkar, dying slowly in a work camp, turned to her daughter and said, “You will have to learn to live without me now.”

On the surface, Chum Mey had a typical story—if one measured such stories by torture endured, family members lost, atrocities witnessed, if one could ever accept the ingenious methods the Khmer Rouge had of robbing people of their dignity. Now he was an old man who no longer had the eyes or dexterity to repair sewing machines, and he walked slowly, carrying all of those invisible things bundled on his shoulders.

And yet he was almost natty, wearing a white watch cap, gray wool pants, a collared button-down short-sleeve shirt, and from the country that produced garments for some of the world’s best-known labels, a faux Versace belt. His face was open and almond-shaped, his eyes brown. He betrayed no hint of having been blindfolded for two straight weeks or stripped and hung like an animal from the crossbar as they’d whipped him with electric cords. I forced out the image of that metal bed and the pliers they’d used to remove his toenails or the electrodes they’d put to his ears until they’d shocked him unconscious. He’d begged a 20-year-old kid for another two weeks to let him live (the boy called him by the vulgar form of you, hein). He had no idea what CIA or KGB stood for, but they wanted him to confess to being an agent for one or the other. He prayed to the spirits of his mother and father to protect him. On the day the other mechanics, his friends, were taken to the Killing Fields, there’d been a broken sewing machine. And here he was, one of only seven to have survived S-21. Seven out of 15,000. How many times had he wondered why he’d been permitted to live?

As it was, he’d been too afraid to meet in a public place. He claimed his life had been in danger for years, all because he’d been willing to tell his story, and there were those, the relatives of those headed to trial, who wanted him silenced. Who could question his paranoia? Who could blame him for relaying the intimate details of his trauma as if he were watching himself from very far away? So there we sat in Veasna’s living room, in her new white house in a subdivision at the edge of the city as the land movers and bulldozers groaned outside, adding another walled ring to Phnom Penh as they excavated the skeletal past. Then, suddenly, the machines went silent. Lunch.

Chum Mey looked at his watch, worn on the wrist of the hand that the Khmer Rouge had broken when he raised it to block the bamboo stick whistling for his face. He looked blurrily at the frosted-glass window as if trying to see out, unsure perhaps if it was his eyes or the window itself that disallowed transparency.

“Eleven o’clock,” he said. “This was always the time of day when the screaming was worst of all.”



DEATH BECAME a pestilence: arbitrary, ravaging, and contagious. And it became a strange performance, too, the killers trying to outdo each other: At S-21, living prisoners were cut open with knives and scorpions were let loose inside their bodies.


THE MAN PAINTING the same image over and over, feverishly, incessantly—green stroke, black stroke, the flesh-colored—his name was Vann Nath. He, too, had lost a wife and two children. He, too, had been shackled at S-21, until they released him (leave for using) and brought him downstairs to a room where there were two other painters and a sculptor. He was given paints and a canvas and three days to regain his strength. He was handed a photograph and asked to make a “realistic, clear, correct, and noble reproduction” of it. He did not know, at first, that it was Pol Pot. For weeks, he woke at dawn and worked until midnight. When Duch arrived to evaluate his first painting, Vann Nath knew quite well that his life hung in the balance. The commandant looked at it for a time, then asked the opinion of another, who said it didn’t exactly match the photograph.

“It’s all right,” responded Duch.

And that’s how he lived.


WE’D MET WITH Vann Nath at his art gallery, which was attached to a restaurant his family ran on a busy street. Clad in a dirty gray dress shirt and green pants, he was 63 years old now, with a head of snowy hair, baleful eyes, bushy eyebrows, and a caramel complexion. During his time at S-21, he’d produced eight portraits and one sculpture of Pol Pot. After surviving the Khmer Rouge, he’d kept painting, feverishly, incessantly, but this time he depicted the scenes of torture at S-21. He painted Pol Pot’s dystopia: the sweltering cell block with fifty bodies in shackles; a prisoner having his fingernails removed in a torrent of blood; the whippings and near drownings; the starvation and degradation; throats slit and babies taken.

He had remarried, as many of the survivors had. After the decimation, after the sudden disappearance of the Khmer Rouge (one S-21 survivor, Chim Math, said her first act after freedom had been to eat three bowls of rice and then to break down weeping), they’d clung to each other; they’d tried as hard as they could to put it all behind them. But Vann Nath still had nightmares about Duch.

“For me, it’s the wound that can’t be healed. I knew the meaning and deepest horror of the Khmer Rouge. I lost my wife and children. When I think about it, I lose all my energy, all my bearings. It’s only my grandchildren that can take away the deepest wound now.”


“HE WHO PROTESTS is an enemy; he who opposes is a corpse.” One starless night, late, I went out to the hotel pool after the lights had been shut off. While the courtyard was silent, I could hear the faint late-night noise of the city, like the distant breaking of glass. I lowered myself in the warm water and floated for what seemed like an hour, trying to process all the raw data of genocide as I did, and yet I felt nothing. No sense of agency or emergency. No point of connection. No language in the end to describe the fugue state that the country seemed to inhabit. Hyacinth and smoke mingled in the air. Cambodia kept passing me by in windows, but there was no way through. I felt utterly defeated: Who was I kidding, being here, as if to find a unified theory, practicing my own unknowing brand of exceptionalism—as if only I could figure it out? I floated like this for some time, letting it all stream out until I emptied my mind, until drifting off in the deep end, until Duch’s question came back: If you’d been threatened with the death of your family, what would you have done?

What would I have done?



THERE WERE SO MANY ways they killed—it goes on and on—and none were ever tender. No method was somehow better than any other, more humane or considerate. This was murder, of course, but of the most heinous sort. Their acts came from the darkest part of the soul. In this instance, there was a soldier with a knife who cut the clothes off a pregnant woman. A deep incision was made in the flesh of the belly, there were screams and whispers and, finally, the stillness of death. That is, what came next, what was taken and hung by the neck, was as innocent as the act was unspeakable. They hung it with the others, in rows along the rafters, to ward off evil spirits. These were the Smoke Children.


CHUM MEY SAT in silence for a moment, looked up from his watch at 11:01 a.m., and began speaking again, at first in a dull monotone. He spoke directly to Veasna and only occasionally met my eye. When I asked him questions, he sat looking straight ahead at the window. Then he spoke.

As the Vietnamese approached Phnom Penh, you could hear bombs going off, locked in a room with twenty others, and then you were herded with the last group from S-21, up the same road that people had disastrously traveled when evacuating Phnom Penh nearly four years earlier. At about 7 a.m., your group met up with another group of prisoners being herded by the Khmer Rouge, and in that group, in one of those strange moments of fate, were your wife and son, whom you hadn’t seen in at least a year.

You watched her carefully as she walked ahead with your small son, both dressed as you were: in black pajamas. When the guards were at a distance, you spoke to her once about the scenery.

You did not touch.

By nightfall, it was clear you were being led to your deaths; members of the group were taken away, then gunfire erupted. When they took your wife and child, she screamed your name. She screamed it over and over and over again: They want to kill us! Chum Mey, run!

Her voice stopped when two reports filled the air. And then you ran.


THERE CAN ONLY be so much unmending of the body before one turns away.

In Long Beach, California, ten years after the war, at least 150 female Cambodian refugees were diagnosed with psychosomatic blindness, an otherwise incredibly rare occurrence. Doctors were perplexed: Their eyes were fine, yet they couldn’t see. According to the therapists who studied the group, their blindness was “linked to a dissociated cluster of primitive meanings, horrific images, and behavioral responses or muscular representations loosely organized around the incomprehensibility of the events and the desire or ‘need not to see.’”

As one survivor put it, “My family was killed in 1975, and I cried for four years. When I stopped crying, I was blind.”


ULTIMATELY, DUCH, TOO, disappeared: to the jungle, to China, back to the jungle again. And then, unlike those he ordered to be tortured and murdered, he reappeared. He became a Christian. He was haunted and repentant. In 1999 he was arrested and later given counsel; François Roux and Kar Savuth were chosen to defend him.

By the rules of the ECCC, the pretrial discovery phase called for the accused to return to the scene of his alleged crime and stand before his accusers. And so on a February day in 2008, amid the rusted bedframes and blood-stained floor, Duch had stood before Vann Nath and Chum Mey and a number of other guards and survivors. He seemed so small, said Vann Nath afterward. But the painter was still filled with so much fear, he couldn’t look him in the eye.

And yet however one chooses to look upon it, something remarkable happened that day. Duch tried to speak to them as human beings. “I ask for your forgiveness,” he said. “I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might,” he said before breaking down on the shoulder of one of his guards. And after everything that had transpired, after all the atrocity, one of those gathered said, “I’ve been waiting thirty years for those words.” But the other survivors said nothing.


WHEN THE ECCC officially commenced this past March and Duch took the stand to begin a trial that will likely last until the new year, he looked tired. His face was swollen, and his eyes were red. He sat at a raised podium while Kar Savuth and Roux sat slightly below in black robes and white-frilled kerchiefs. To hear Kar Savuth tell it, Duch has spent an awful lot of time crying over the past year.

So far, in the first phase of the trial, the defense’s strategy has seemed somewhat straightforward. Duch denies little, shares what he can, tries to set the record straight. He has discussed his reasons for employing torture (“I never believed the confessions I received told the truth,” he said. “At most they were 40 percent true”) and the killing of babies (“I didn’t remember it until I saw the pictures, but I am criminally responsible for killing babies, children, and teenagers”). He has discussed his beloved leader (“Pol Pot was a murderer. He was the greatest criminal father of Cambodia”) and the fact that, steeped in Khmer Rouge propaganda, he honestly never knew that torture was illegal, had never heard of the Geneva Conventions until he’d been charged.

And he continues to apologize. Discussing the fact that he tortured two prisoners himself but asked his minions “to smash” many others, killing them by cutting their throats, he has said, “The burden is still on me—it’s my responsibility. I would like to apologize to the souls of those who died.”

Meanwhile, Roux and Kar Savuth continue to insist that Duch is being scapegoated, that he should be released from prison, that it’s really Nuon Chea—Brother Number Two, the one from whom Duch ultimately took orders—who bears full responsibility for issuing the orders that killed hundreds of thousands of innocents. (His trial is slated to begin in 2010.) They claim their client faced execution if he didn’t follow instructions. They seem to ask the same question Duch asked Kar Savuth when they first met: What would you have done?

And yet if this is the beginning of Comrade Duch’s redemption, as Roux so insists, one wonders if he, the steely commandant of S-21, will finally have the stomach for it. Or if the ruination he sees in the mirror will finally crush him, too.



For those in pain, there is no means to reconciliation.

For those in pain, there is no means to reconciliation.

For those in pain, there is no means to reconciliation.


FINALLY, IN VEASNA’S living room, Chum Mey needed money to get home. He said he’d moved six times since the start of the pretrial hearings and now lived quite far away. He put on his white watch cap. His once broken hand was crooked. His eyesight was going. Veasna offered him a ride, but when he refused, she gave him a few small bills.

Earlier I’d had a meeting with a top-level diplomat who’d said that the best Cambodians might hope for now was that this generation, both the perpetrators and the ones that had been so traumatized by the Khmer Rouge, might die off and with them gone, the country might start over again, afresh.

And here was one of the last of that generation, fading before me. The man who’d lost his wife and two children,Pa to his family, the one who’d gone house to house in the ghost town of Phnom Penh collecting sewing machines to fix, the one who’d lost virtually everything and now moved again from house to house in utter fear and paranoia to keep ahead of his supposed enemies—how could one ever reach this man?

Veasna had something upstairs that she needed to retrieve before we left, too. So I went to the door and waited for Chum Mey to catch up. The room was blinding white, and since I couldn’t speak Khmer, I kept smiling as he approached. And he kept smiling as he shuffled toward me until I realized he had no intention of stopping, until he had gently walked into me, and wrapped his arms around, and rested his head on my chest.


MICHAEL PATERNITI is a GQ correspondent.

Cambodia’s Unseen Horrors

Catherine Dussart Productions 

Like other secretive and totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge left behind hardly any visual record of its murderous rule. Of course, the KR leadership, which held total power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, had plenty of propaganda made to show the glories of their remaking of Cambodian society. Notoriously, they also left behind black and white head shots of every one of the fourteen thousand people who were admitted to Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, officially known as S-21, who were then tortured and executed. But the only two western reporters who were allowed into the country during the KR years were largely unable to record what was happening. Last year one of them, Elizabeth Becker, had an exhibition of her photographs in Phnom Penh, which drew a large and intensely interested audience. Yet while there are portraits of guerrilla soldiers, working peasants, and plenty of the leaders of the Angkar, the Organization, especially Pol Pot himself, there are no images of the starving children, torture, executions, and scenes of grief and misery that were pervasive under a regime that killed one-fifth of the Cambodian population.

The images that do not exist form the “missing picture” of Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s newest documentary, which won a top prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and is being screened at the New York Film Festival this fall. (It will be more widely released in the United States in the spring.) The Missing Picture is not a systematic history of the KR era, but it follows the chronology of events, beginning with a brief recollection of Phnom Penh when it was still a languid and abundant Southeast Asian city, perfumed with the scent of jasmine. Then, with the collapse of the American-supported government, young Khmer Rouge soldiers emerged from their jungle redoubts—they had been recruited mostly from Cambodia’s villages—and took over the country’s capital. Panh remembers the silence and stares of these well-indoctrinated boys who were almost children themselves, the first sign of the regime’s mortal hostility to the city and its inhabitants, and then the four years during which the Angkar killed off hundreds of thousands of people—members of the ancien régime of course, but also virtually anybody with an education, anybody who wore glasses, anybody capable of independent thought. After only a short year or so, Cambodia had already become “collectivist, uncorrupt, equal, and prosperous,” as Pol Pot announced, though real life was “straw huts, drought, exhaustion, hunger, speakers blaring slogans,” and, of course, 1.7 million deaths in a population of less than ten million.

Catherine Dussart Productions

Panh was thirteen years old when the Khmer Rouge took power and brought his middle class life in Phnom Penh to an end, literally from one day to the next. He lost his entire family in the ensuing Holocaust but managed, miraculously, to survive himself and, when the Khmer Rouge fell, to move to France. Over the past couple of decades, he has made a series of landmark films on the experience of Cambodians during those years. These include two quietly powerful and unforgettable earlier works on S-21 itself, one of them a long, intimate series of interviews with the man known as Comrade Duch who was the prison’s commandant and supervised the grim work that took place there.

In a way Panh has all along been presenting Cambodia’s missing picture, struggling to remember, reminding his audiences, which, until now, have been mostly in France (his films are made in French), of the savage absurdity of the Khmer Rouge’s radical experiment in utopian social engineering. But The Missing Picture marks a departure from his earlier work. Until now, Panh has allowed the testimony of the witnesses that appear in his film, their memories, their explanations, justifications, excuses, and admissions of criminal conduct, to carry his story. There is no narration, no explanation, no effort to put the rise of the Khmer Rouge into a broader historical setting—the Vietnam War, the American bombing, the sharp contrasts of wealth and poverty that gave the Khmer Rouge much of its early following.

His new documentary is without interviews, without the intrusive camera and magnified close-ups of victims and perpetrators alike that he has used in the past. Unlike his earlier work, this new film provides explanatory narration, written by Panh, that offers both memories of his own experiences under the regime and terse, aphoristic observations on the nature and the meaning of it all.




But how to depict the grisly reality of a period during which the only permitted images were those of a controlled propaganda machine? As in his other work, Panh uses some of the available historical footage to good effect: grainy scenes of the rural work camps full of identically-dressed masses of people dumping panniers of earth over an embankment, images of the leaders of the Angkar smiling and applauding on official visits. These are the pictures of the Khmer rouge that are not missing, Panh says in his narration. They have survived along with some almost comically propagandistic footage of the enemies of the regime (presumably Vietnamese or soldiers of the previous Lon Nol government) being mowed down by KR guerrillas armed only with bows and arrows.

Yet none of this tells us what was really going on. To make up for the pictures we don’t have, Panh uses small clay figurines, hundreds of them, painted, clothed, with individual expressions on their faces, and placed in meticulously detailed dioramas that he seems to have reconstructed from the memories of his youth. Among the first of these is a figure of Panh’s father, an official in the Ministry of Education in a white suit and dark tie who, in what Panh eventually came to see as a heroic act of resistance, starved himself to death rather than allowing himself to be treated as a farm animal by Cambodia’s rulers. There are scenes of Khmer Rouge hospitals where patients lay on beds of wooden planks. And, then there’s the scene in a village, again recreated with clay figurines, in which a nine year-old child who denounces his mother for eating a mango, an act of selfish individualism. Afterwards she is led into the forest and never returns.

Catherine Dussart Productions

These clay statuettes, never before used by Panh in any of his earlier work, cannot, of course, fully depict the horror of the Khmer Rouge story. They are necessarily silent, immobile, and therefore devoid of the intensity of those moments in other Panh films where his camera bores in on the face of a witness and lingers there as he remembers what happened, or what he did. But as Panh’s narration in the new film proceeds, the statuettes take on a reality of their own, a voodoo-like power, their individual features an aid to avoiding what might otherwise be a kind of depersonalizing abstraction.

Certain themes emerge, notably the degree to which the killings were related to ideology, which in Democratic Kampuchea meant, as Panh puts it, that reality had to conform with Pol Pot’s wishes. Since capitalist machines were “corrupt,” peasants would use their bodies as machines, and though it might kill them, their deaths would be pure. But perhaps the greatest immediate value of Panh’s heroic efforts to preserve the memory of the Cambodian Holocaust is the implicit reminder that films like The Missing Picture provide of what is, in effect, a culture of oblivion and impunity in Cambodia today. The crimes were unspeakable, horrific, and well-known, and yet so far only one person, Duch, has been convicted of them—by the Special Cambodian-United Nations Tribunal that has been meeting in Phnom Penh now for almost four years. Many of the top KR leaders, including Pol Pot, are dead; only two other senior leaders remain on trial, and the government of the autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen, which includes a number of people who were themselves close to the Khmer Rouge, has resisted expanding the trial to include other Khmer Rouge officials who were directly involved in orchestrating the killings.

At one moment in The Missing Picture, a photograph that is not missing appears on the screen. It shows Panh’s nieces and nephews in a happy moment before the KR takeover, not long before they died of starvation as a result of the KR’s savage misrule. Panh’s documentary is an accusation against those who killed them, and who remain unpunished, at large, immune from prosecution.


Rith Panh’s The Missing Picture (L’image manquante) is being shown at theNew York Film Festival on October 8 and will be released in the US in March.

Think Again: Lessons From Cambodia’s Rebirth Through the Arts


The revival of Cambodia’s rich and unique cultural heritage has fueled the country’s impressive recovery from the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of 1975-79. This message rang unmistakably true as the Season of Cambodia (SOC) has dazzled New York audiences in museums, universities, galleries, and performing arts centers over the past month. Both the U.S. and the Cambodian governments stand to learn from this game-changing lesson for post-conflict development strategy, but neither government seems to have noticed.

The 125 Cambodian artists supported and hosted by over 30 New York institutions have revealed the near miraculous preservation of the venerated arts of shadow puppetry and Cambodian classical ballet, as well as the dynamic new visions in dance, visual arts, and film of the artists from Cambodia’s youthful majority (70 percent under age 30).

To understand the significance of creative expression and cultural heritage in rebuilding Cambodia, you have first to understand the utter devastation wreaked by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror.

Nearly a third of the population, between 1.7 and 2.5 million out of a total population of 8 million, was killed between 1975-79. The dictator Pol Pot, himself with a degree from the Sorbonne, targeted anyone with an education. Ninety per cent of artists and intellectuals were murdered.

The U.S. opened the door to Pol Pot and his genocidal regime. America supported General Lon Nol over the more popular King Sihanouk, but it was the massive US bombing campaign, with more ordinance than the total dropped by the Allies in World War II, that led Cambodians to see the Khmer Rouge as their salvation. (The analogy to the drone campaign radicalizing Pakistan has been made.)

Greeted as liberators when they entered Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge immediately launched their brutal campaign. They divided families and outlawed familial love, moved everyone into the countryside, eliminated all cultural traditions and creative expression, and made the entire population work grueling 18-hour days on a subsistence diet.

Arn Chorn-Pond — musician, Cambodian genocide survivor, former child soldier, and founder ofCambodian Living Arts, the organization behind the Season of Cambodia — recognized the essential role of reviving culture in rebuilding the country. In returning masters of music, dance, and puppetry to their rightful place in society, Chorn-Pond and the other co-founders of Cambodian Living Arts helped restore identity, pride, and resilience to the Cambodian people.

The Khmer Rouge targeted artists, Chorn-Pond explains, because “they expressed who they were as human beings.” While brutal regimes like the Khmer Rouge or the Taliban recognize the threat that cultural identity and expression pose to their totalitarian control — think of the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas or of the libraries in Timbuktu — the United States rarely prioritizes culture in post-conflict situations. (Afghanistan, where the U.S. successfully has supported culture and media, is an exception). No USAID funds for Cambodia have gone to culture.

The Season of Cambodia shows that recovery from trauma and conflict requires more than food and security. The soul of a country must also be nourished. The shell-shocked Cambodian survivors had to move beyond the genocide, and develop the strength to rebuild their country.

The story behind Lida Chan’s documentary Red Wedding, screened in the SOC’s Film Festival illustrates how the process of filmmaking as well as the end product can heal past pain, empower Cambodians to chart their future, and bridge the generation gap between survivors of the Khmer Rouge and today’s youth.

Chan’s film chronicles 48-year-old Sochan Pen’s determined search for the man who forced her, at age 16, to “marry” him. Pen escaped, but not until after her Khmer Rouge “husband” had raped and beaten her.

The process of sharing her story with the young filmmaker empowered Sochan Pen to testify against her “husband” at the Cambodia Tribunal, and to travel the country, telling her story, empowering other forced “brides” to speak up with her example.

Trained by Cambodia’s most renowned filmmaker Rithy Panh in his Bophana Center, Lida Chan and her experience affirm Panh’s belief that “Cambodians are learning to tell their own story, something that never has happened before.”

For his critical work preserving Cambodia’s cinematic past, and teaching future generations, Rithy Panh receives little support from the Cambodian or U.S. government.

To date, the Cambodian government has not made support for the arts a priority. Imagine what a fund built from a small tax added to Angkor Wat ticket prices could do to unleash the creative and economic potential of Cambodia’s youthful population.

The breakaway success of Artisans Angkor shows that investments in culture also can reap financial rewards. Led by Phloeun Prim, the charismatic architect of the Season of Cambodia, Artisans Angkor in a decade evolved from a modest NGO to a business with tens of millions of dollars in revenue, and over one thousand employees.

The Season of Cambodia offers the vision of a creative, dynamic, country, with a distinctive past and a promising future, a country that, to quote Festival architect Phloeun Prim, “has made arts and culture its international signature, not just the killing fields”. That dramatic transformation should persuade both the American and Cambodian governments of the importance of supporting the cultural sector in rebuilding this and other post-conflict societies.

First published May 9, 2013 on USC’s CPD Blog

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What the U.S. Bombing of Cambodia Tells Us About Obama’s Drone Campaign


 FEB 14 2013, 7:30 AM ET

A look back at another instance in which the U.S. undertook a secretive and widespread bombing campaign.


A Cambodian man prays at a Buddhist ceremony as around 300 skulls that formed a giant map of Cambodia are dismantled at a genocide museum in Phnom Penh on March 10, 2002(Chor Sokunthea/Reuters)

Halfway through the Justice Department white paper [PDF] defending the lawfulness of government-ordered assassinations of U.S. citizens, there is a curious reference to a dark chapter of American history.

The memo, making the legal case for covertly expanding military operations across international borders, directs readers to an address by State Department legal adviser John R. Stevenson, “United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law,” delivered to the New York Bar Association in 1970.

The comparison is fitting in ways the Justice Department surely did not intend.

Like the current conflict, the military action in neutral Cambodia was so secretive that information about the first four years of bombing, from 1965 to 1969, was not made public until 2000. And like the current conflict, the operation in Cambodia stood on questionable legal ground. The revelation of its existence, beginning in 1969, was entangled with enough illegal activity in this country — wiretaps, perjury, falsification of records and a general determination to deceive — to throw significant doubt on its use as a precedent in court.

The most important parallel, though, isn’t legal or moral: it’s strategic. As critics wonder what kind of backlash might ensue from drone attacks that kill civilians and terrorize communities, Cambodia provides a telling historical precedent.

Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives — more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II — on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City’s. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.

The bombing had two primary effects on survivors. First, hundreds of thousands of villagers fled towards the safety of the capital Phnom Penh, de-stabilizing Cambodia’s urban-rural balance. By the end of the war, the country’s delicate food supply system was upended, and the capital was so overcrowded that residents were eating bark off of trees.

Secondly, the attacks radicalized a population that had previously been neutral in the country’s politics. The severity of the advanced air campaign — “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them,” then-U.S. President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger — fomented immense anger in the Cambodian countryside. Charles Meyer, an aide to the deposed Prince Sihanouk, said that it was “difficult to imagine the intensity of [the peasants’] hatred towards those who are destroying their villages and property.” Journalist Richard Dudman was more precise. “The bombing and the shooting,” he wrote after a period in captivity in the Cambodian jungle, “was radicalizing the people of rural Cambodia and was turning the country into a massive, dedicated, and effective rural base.”

Nevertheless, many historians continued to deny the causal link between the violence and the political upheavals in the country. Cambodia’s embrace of radicalism instead fit neatly into the Cold War-era “domino theory” paradigm, de-emphasizing the role of local conditions in driving the country’s history.

William Shawcross, in 1979’s Sideshow: Kissenger. Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia , was the first to advance the theory that the meteoric rise of the Khmer Rouge was not in spite of the U.S. bombing campaign but because of it. Taylor Owen, the research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and Ben Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, have concluded that the full war archives, released by President Clinton in 2000, confirm this version of history.

“The impact of this bombing… is clearer than ever,” they write. “Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, acoup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.”

In tactical terms, contemporary drone attacks are far more precise than the pell-mell Cambodia-era bombs. One comparison, though, remains apt: in both cases, the American government has been less than forthcoming about the effect of these weapons on local populations. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that between 2,500 and 3,500 people have been killed by drone strikes, including — contrary to the recent statements of CIA nominee John Brennan — between 473 and 893 civilians, and 176 children. (The classification of civilians has been called into question as well. The Obama administration reportedly “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” unless posthumously proved innocent.)

Owen and Kiernan saw the parallel to current anti-terror operations before the Department of Justice did. In 2010, they published a paper in The Asia-Pacific Journal called ” Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent,” in which they argue that incidents like the predator drone strike on a Pakistani village in 2006 created direct blowback.

This point of view is echoed by Pakistani journalist Mohammed Hanif, who recently argued that the strikes are not only radicalizing the population but are “creating a whole new generation of people who will grow up thinking that this is what happened to us and now, now we want revenge.” In Pakistan and Yemen, Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times, “drones have become the recruiting tool of choice for militants.”

In this respect, the DOJ could not have found a more fitting precedent than the carpet-bombing of Cambodia. The purpose of the sustained bombardment from 1972 to 1973 was to prevent the Khmer Rouge from consolidating power. The result was the opposite.

The thousands of people killed so far by drone strikes represent a fraction of the several hundred thousand who died beneath the B-52s between 1969 and 1975. But the level of fear and anger — and the opportunity for insurgent groups to harness those emotions — cannot be so easily calculated.

In the words of retired General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, one can’t help but hear an echo of Charles Meyer, Richard Dudman, and other observers of the Cambodia campaign. “What scares me about the drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,” McChrystal said last month. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes…is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

A Khmer Rouge Goodbye


Stéphanie Giry

Stéphanie Giry

The funeral pyre of Ieng Sary, Malai, Cambodia, March 21, 2013

It could have been the setting of any Cambodian notable’s funeral. There was a large wooden house. There was a tall, terraced pyre in the dirt yard. The case for the coffin was topped with a silhouette of Angkor Wat. Rows of chairs had been arranged under pink canopies with hanging fans. Orange fish soup was bubbling in vats out back. It was the familiar scene of a grown son and three daughters, dressed all in white, preparing to welcome hundreds of villagers and monks and dignitaries to send off their deceased father with the appropriate pomp.

But this was Malai, a tidy little town in Cambodia’s northwest that for many years has been an enclave for Khmer Rouge holdouts. And the elder being commemorated was Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s foreign minister and a member of his standing committee, who died last month at eighty-seven while on trial for assorted mass crimes before a UN-backed tribunal.

Ieng Sary had retreated here when, after the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power in 1979, members of the former regime started an insurgency from several redoubts along Cambodia’s border with Thailand. By the mid-1990s, these remnant forces were losing steam and support, and Prime Minister Hun Sen—who is still very much in power today—struck a deal with some of their more pragmatic leaders: abandon the guerrilla war and get your fighters to defect, and I will let you be. Ieng Sary and his people—including Ieng Thirith, his wife and the Khmer Rouge’s minister for social affairs—were able to live free, and comfortably enough, in this gem- and timber-rich area. At least until 2007, when they and a few others were arrested as leaders and emblematic figures in the regime that killed some 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

Ieng Sary surrounded by Khmer Rouge loyalists, September 9, 1996

And so it was in Malai that on March 21, an auspicious seven days after his death, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister received his last rites. And on this day, his head and eyebrows shaved for the occasion, it was Ieng Vuth, Ieng Sary’s only son and the deputy governor of the neighboring province of Pailin, who would play host to a reunion of Khmer Rouge die-hards. Plain, pathetic, or powerful, these were the bodyguards and the messengers, the cooks and the photographers, the translators and the generals who had served Pol Pot.

For much of the morning, before many of those guests had arrived, the crowd was mostly villagers and the atmosphere casual and welcoming. Rice-noodle soup and cold bottled water were offered readily. In the room where Ieng Sary’s coffin lay, next to wreaths bearing cryptic blessings (“To be born, get old, be sick, and die”), a few old ladies and a little dog were slouched on the floor, listening to a radio. Outside, some ninety monks chanted for a long while and then followed a band of white cloth around the pyre, gathering alms: water, small amounts of cash, and many packets of instant noodles. It was just the kind of Buddhist ritual that the Khmer Rouge had ruthlessly banned.

Some of the people best trained in explaining away such contradictions, the members of Ieng Sary’s legal team, sat by the front door, near the family. It was a privilege that forced all nine of them to stay still for some very hot hours and left them at the mercy of prowling reporters. One journalist asked Ieng Vuth who was paying for the ceremony and was met with stony silence. The woman then turned to Michael Karnavas, Ieng Sary’s American lawyer, whose fees have been covered by the United Nations because his client was officially found indigent: what about the recent allegations that Ieng Sary had a Hong Kong bank account with $20 million in it?

“I’ve heard the rumors; I haven’t seen proof,” Karnavas answered.

“So, you’re saying he had no money?” she continued.

Perceiving a trap in her recasting, he said, “Don’t fuck with me.”

Karnavas was more short-tempered than usual. During the long drive up from Phnom Penh the day before, he had let out, unprompted and in a tone of sullen disbelief, “Five years and five months.” That was the time he had worked on the case, and it was longer than Pol Pot’s rule. In that period, he had contested almost every conceivable legal point and procedure—filing more than five hundred briefs, motions, memos, and letters—while at the same time trying to make Ieng Sary disappear from view, keeping him quiet during hearings or out of the courtroom altogether. Now he had been one-upped by his own client’s death.

So had the court. After seven years and more than $170 million, much of it paid for by foreign donors, the Khmer Rouge tribunal (formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) has convicted just one man, Kaing Guek Eav (known as Duch), of war crimes and crimes against humanity for overseeing the torture and execution of almost 13,000 prisoners at the S-21 security center in Phnom Penh. Of the four Khmer Rouge leaders indicted in the court’s second case, only the regime’s chief ideologue Nuon Chea and its head of state Khieu Samphan remain in the dock. The charges against Ieng Thirith—Ieng Sary’s once fearsomely clever wife—were suspended last September after court-appointed doctors determined she was mentally unfit.

Stéphanie Giry

Ieng Thirith

Ieng Thirith had rarely been seen since her release, and as soon as she arrived at her husband’s cremation in Malai, it was clear that the doctors and the judges had been wise to let her go. An SUV drove up discreetly to the front door in the early afternoon, delivering the shriveled eighty-one-year-old widow into the arms of a young man; he whisked her indoors, cradled, with her head thrown back over his elbow. Later, when she was carried back outside seated on a chair, queen-like, for a mysterious public viewing, she seemed capable only of clenching her ankles awkwardly together and giving the horizon a glazed look.

Mid-afternoon and it was time to bring out Ieng Sary’s coffin. The steady trickle of arriving guests had swelled into a motley assembly of people with long pasts and, in some cases, missing limbs. A group of 150 or so gathered behind Ieng Vuth; almost all, including those who had testified at the dead man’s trial, wore the customary white tops and black bottoms. A rope tied around his forehead, Ieng Vuth pretend-dragged his father’s coffin around the cremation mount. He circled it three times, every so often raising a bow to shoot an arrow into the brush.

After the coffin was placed on top of the pyre, Ieng Thirith was painstakingly escorted over to it. Pointing to the portrait among the flowers, one daughter said to her: “Do you see the photo? That’s Papa.”

“Is Papa OK?” Ieng Thirith asked.

“Papa is going to his previous hometown!”

“Papa is dying?”

“Yes, he is dead.”

“Papa, please rest in peace.”

The daughter wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist to pull her away. Ever irascible, Ieng Thirith brushed off her hands. That won the old lady a couple more minutes of teetering there, but she was soon led to an awaiting SUV and driven away.

Sitting on a plastic chair near the entrance to the property was Suong Sikoeun, a longtime neighbor in Malai who had once been in charge of propaganda in Ieng Sary’s foreign ministry. He must have taken to his job: after lecturing to one journalist that terrorism does much more damage than all-out war, he said that the legacy of the Khmer Rouge should be evaluated not by a court, but by a committee of learned academics.

Next to him was Nhem En, busy distributing business cards that said, in English, “Khmer Rouge Member 1975–1995.” Considering that the regime collapsed in 1979, this suggested something about the tenacity of the man’s loyalties. “Tuol Sleng Prison Photographer 1976–1979” was a more dubious admission still, not least for being partly fabricated. This was the prison, also known as S-21, that Duch, who is now serving a life sentence, once ran. Nhem En was just a photographer’s apprentice back then, but he has for years tried to exaggerate his part in taking the mug shots of newly admitted detainees who were later tortured and killed.

Suddenly the crowd at the entrance seized up. Ieng Vuth and his sisters lined up at the property’s edge. Sirens. Another SUV. A shuffle. A middle-aged man in a dark suit and dyed black hair appeared, a pretty, pasty-white-faced woman in tow. It was Y Chhean, the governor of Pailin—and Ieng Vuth’s boss—accompanied by his wife.

Once a bodyguard of Pol Pot’s and a Khmer Rouge commander, Y Chhean was among those who in the mid-1990s had turned themselves over to the Hun Sen government. Like Ieng Sary, he had transformed a bit of northwestern Cambodia into a personal domain. Unlike him, he wasn’t arrested in 2007: he hadn’t been senior enough during the Pol Pot years to interest the Khmer Rouge court. But now he was somebody. He was an appointed official of the all-powerful governing party of Prime Minister Hun Sen. And today, just a few months before general elections, he would be doing the honors at the cremation of a suspected mass murderer.

Y Chhean was handed a rod with a lit tip. He held it up to a long wire connected to four posts around the pyre. Fuses whistled. White lights swirled up and down the poles. Firecrackers crackled all around. On the pyre itself, little candy-colored bulbs started throbbing. The Bose speakers nestled in surrounding trees blared a bestial roar: supposedly like the scream of an elephant, it was meant to scare off spirits. Fireworks were set off. The cremation had started.

Stéphanie Giry

Over the next few hours, as Ieng Sary, now a snake of grey smoke, slowly climbed up the darkened sky, the guests and their hosts went their separate ways. Ieng Vuth, who had just taken a vow of mourning, ostensibly retreated to a state of contemplation. Ieng Thirith withdrew to la-la land. Y Chhean returned to campaigning for the winning party in a foregone election. And Karnavas, the lawyer without a case, went back to thinking about the legal motions that will forever be left undecided: “Such wonderful appeals! Such wonderful issues!”

Ieng Sary Dies


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Ieng Sary in court at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh on March 20, 2012. Photo Supplied by ECCC

KHMER Rouge tribunal defendant Ieng Sary, who served as deputy prime minister of foreign affairs for a regime that oversaw the deaths of nearly 2 million people, died Thursday morning at the age of 87.

Sary had been suffering for some time from a host of ailments – most recently gastro-intestinal problems that rendered him immobile and unresponsive, and largely prevented the ex-number three in the regime from eating or drinking.

Sary’s lawyer, Michael Karnavas, said he passed away at approximately 8:55am. In a brief statement released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the court said the official cause of death was still being determined by the prosecutors.

The death comes as the UN-backed court has been reeling from a decision by its Supreme Court Chamber to strike an order that had severed the case against Sary and his three co-accused into multiple sub-trials – a measure that was initially taken to ensure that at least some verdicts could be handed down before the defendants died or were rendered unfit to stand trial due to their advanced age.

Sary was born on October 24, 1925, in what is present-day southern Vietnam, to a Chinese immigrant mother and a father who belonged to the Khmer Krom minority – one of the groups singled out for persecution under the Democratic Kampuchea regime.

According to court documents, Sary enrolled in secondary school at Sisowath High School in the 1940s, where he met Khieu Thirith, both his future wife and his future co-defendant for her role as the Khmer Rouge’s chief propagandist. While there, Sary also met Saloth Sar – a man who would become better known as Pol Pot, Brother No. 1 and architect of the Khmer Rouge’s ultra-Maoist revolution.

In 1950, Sary won a scholarship to study at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, and moved to France, where he began to dabble in communism, ultimately becoming a founding member the Marxist Circle of Khmer Students.

Like several other intellectual leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Sary became a teacher upon returning to Cambodia in 1957, holding a professorship in history and geography at the Kampucheabot Private High School until 1963, when he made his way to the Vietnamese border to join Pol Pot after being singled out as a “leftist” by then-King Norodom Sihanouk.

In the same year, Sary became a full-rights member of the standing committee of the Workers Party of Kampuchea.

Presaging his future role as foreign minister, Ieng Sary travelled to Hanoi in 1970 to establish the radio station “Voice of the FUNK” – or National United Front of Kampuchea – before flying on to China, where he became “Special Envoy of the Internal Resistance in Beijing,” liaising with both deposed King Sihanouk and the Chinese Communist Party, which would become the Khmer Rouge’s greatest patron.

Sary was announced as the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister in August of 1975, just four months after the group finally wrested the last vestiges of control from the US-backed Lon Nol regime and emptied the cities on April 17. Sary himself, however, disputed the date, saying he didn’t assume the role until the following year.

During his tenure as foreign minister, Sary travelled extensively, becoming the face of Democratic Kampuchea abroad on state visits and in meetings at the UN, as well as at home, where he would escort foreign delegations who visited the fledgling “agrarian utopia”.

On one such visit, just before the regime’s fall, British professor and self-proclaimed Khmer Rouge sympathizer Malcolm Caldwell was shot and killed. Caldwell had been joined on the trip by American journalists Richard Dudman and Elizabeth Becker.

The confessions tortured out of Caldwell’s killers said that they had been hired to assassinate him to shame the regime, and perhaps to shame Sary personally. However, in her book When the War Was Over, Becker maintained that “Malcolm Caldwell’s death was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired”.

“No, I haven’t changed my mind since writing my book,” she wrote in an email last year.  “However, what was striking was how long it took for anyone to come to our rescue. There was no doubt that our visit was sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Caldwell’s killers’ confessions were extracted at the infamous S-21 detention centre, a crime site that the court is now considering adding to the case against Sary’s two remaining co-defendants – his wife, Ieng Thirith, was deemed mentally incapable of standing trial, due to dementia, and was granted a conditional release last year.

The additional crime site was proposed by the prosecution after the ruling from the Supreme Court Chamber striking down the trial chamber’s controversial decision to sever Case 002 – a decision that Karnavas, Sary’s attorney, said may be held up as having been vindicated by Sary’s death.

“Vindication sounds about right; the Trial Chamber can hardly be righteous about it,” Karnavas said, via email Wednesday. “The trial proceedings have not exactly been well managed, especially from the efficiency standpoint. This is one of those situations where, when it is all over, a seminar can be done on lessons learned – mostly from the negative side and much of it unnecessary.”

Sary’s experience at the court was bookended by silence and absence.

In 2011, as the trials were beginning, Sary took the stand to give a brief statement, only to reiterate his previously expressed intention to exercise his right to remain silent.

In his last months at the court, Sary was in and out of the hospital being treated for chronic, and gradually worsening, conditions. When not hospitalized, he was relegated to following the trial from his holding cell due to his health concerns, concerns that Karnavas maintained had rendered him incapable of following, much less participating in, his own trial.

“We have been very disappointed from the outset by the way Mr. Ieng Sary was treated,” Karnavas wrote. “During the opening statements, when Mr. Ieng Sary was suffering and in pain, the trial chamber kept him in the courtroom even though he waived his presence. Why was this? Simply for show!”

Far from compelling him to remain present, the court refused to allow Sary follow proceedings from the courtroom once his illnesses had rendered him immobile.

“His right to waive his presence was not respected, just as his right not to waive was not respected,” said Karnavas. “I do think that to some extent, Mr. Ieng Sary’s health deteriorated because of some shortsighted decisions. In the end, his so called presence and ability to follow and participate was fictional.”

“This is perhaps the low point,” he added.

Nonetheless, Sary was “always professional and dignified,” said Karnavas, who called it a “privilege” to represent Sary.

De-Mining the Water

De-mining drive rolls out to Cambodia’s waterways Tuesday, 11 September 2012  Joe Freeman


A German mine clearance specialist practices mine clearance in the Baltic Sea. Photograph: Reuters
CMAC plans to expand its operations into Cambodia’s rivers and lakes which may contain large amounts of unexploded ordnance.

The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) is planning on expanding its operations into the country’s rivers and lakes, where officials say vast caches of unexploded ordnance and munitions are left over from fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Lon Nol regime in the 1970s.

Sitting there for decades, the weapons of war have killed fishermen and obstructed construction projects. Only last month, an explosion disrupted the pouring of concrete for a bridge near Kandal province.

“This is quite important. We provide safety for our people, and safety for national and international-related security,” CMAC director general Heng Ratana said. “And this capacity is also important for supporting the reconstruction of Cambodia, like building bridges. We need to provide the safety to keep that kind of construction as well.”

Contingent on expected funding from the US State Department, CMAC will train 40 of its staffers on how to scan riverbeds and clear unexploded ordnances, a technique that involves sonar technology and diving skills. Though a handful of CMAC personnel are equipped to carry out the clearances, the number of submerged bombs means more manpower is needed.

“We believe that there are still a lot of them,” said Ratana, who hopes to start the training “as soon as possible”, though flooding could delay it until early next year.

The caches are mostly along parts of the Mekong river in Kampong Chhnang and Kandal provinces, said CMAC’s public information office, Sam Socheath. After Lon Nol seized power in the 1970 coup, Socheath said, the Khmer Rouge harassed his forces with attacks that involved the sinking of Navy vessels.

Along with leftover bombardments that landed in bodies of water, unexploded ordnances went down with the ships.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at

Praise Be To The Iron God


“The Iron God also told me that this court is unjust,” added Ban, who served as a bodyguard to Pol Pot before working as an assistant to Ieng Sary.

Ban was quickly rebuked by presiding judge Nil Nonn, who reminded him he had taken an oath to tell the truth and was not at risk of facing prosecution.

“Your dream is a superstition and cannot be used in a court of law,” he said.

According to court officials, Ban was referring to the Lord of the Iron Staff, whose statue stands in a spirit house outside the tribunal where Buddhist witnesses take an oath before testifying.

Khmer Rouge Tribunal Oath as posted by Blue Lady Blog

Before beginning the oath, the person taking the oath shall light a candle and incense sticks in worship of the sacred object upon with that oath is to be taken. Next, the Greffier shall clearly read aloud the Introductory Statement for the person taking the oath, and then read The Oath for the person taking the oath to repeat…

Introductory Statement

May all the guardian angels, forest guardians, and powerful sacred spirits of Preah Ang Dang Kae, Preah Ang Krapum Chouk, Preah Ang Svet Chhat, Preah Ang Chek, Preah Ang Cham, Nakta Khlang Moeung, Nakta Khrahamka, Lokta Dambang Dek, Lokta Dambang Kra Nhoung, Lok Yeay Tep, Preah Ang Vihea Suor, Preah Ang Preah Chiviwat Baray and Preah Ang Wat Phnom Khleng come forward to preside over this swearing ceremony, since the parties to this matter are in dispute and have alleged that witnesses personally know, have seen, have heard, and have recalled, and the law required bringing these people to serve as witnesses and to give truthful and accurate testimony.

Should anyone answer untruthfully about what they know, have seen, have heard, and remember, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians, Yeay Tep and powerful sacred spirits utterly and without mercy destroy them, and bestow upon them a miserable and violent death by means of bullets, electricity, lightning, tiger bites, and snake strikes, and in their future reincarnation separate them from their parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren, impoverish them, and subject them to miseries for 500 reincarnations.

Anyone testifying truthfully without evasion, without lying, without bias because of bloodline, without collusion arising from fear, hatred, material greed, or having taken bribes, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians, Yeah Tep and powerful sacred spirits in the world assist them in long life, good health, and abundance of material possessions and having respectful and loving families until future reincarnation, encountering only good deeds, progress, prosperity and flourish, in accordance with their aspirations.

The Oath

I will answer only the truth, in accordance with what I have personally seen, heard, know, and remember.

If I answer falsely on any issue, may all the guardian angels, forest guardians and powerful sacred spirits destroy me, may my material possessions be destroyed, and may I die a miserable and violent death. But, if I answer truthfully, may the sacred spirits assist me in having abundant material possession and living in peace and happiness along with my family and relatives forever, in all my reincarnations.

Holiday in Cambodia

From Wikipedia: “Holiday in Cambodia” was the second single by the American punk band Dead Kennedys. The record was released in May 1980 on Alternative Tentacles with “Police Truck” as the b-side. The title track was re-recorded for the band’s first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980), and the version that appeared on this single, as well as the single’s b-side, are available on the rarities album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death (1987). The cover picture of the single is taken from the 6 October 1976 Massacre in Thailand, and depicts a member of the rightist crowd beating the corpse of a student protester with a metal chair.

The song attacks both Eastern totalitarianism and Western complacency. The song’s lyrics offer a satirical view of young, self-righteous Americans (So you been to school/For a year or two/And you know you’ve seen it all/In daddy’s car/Thinkin’ you’ll go far…) and contrast such a lifestyle with a brutal depiction of the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia (Well you’ll work harder/With a gun in your back/For a bowl of rice a day/Slave for soldiers/Till you starve/Then your head is skewered on a stake).

So you been to school
For a year or two
And you know you’ve seen it all
In daddy’s car
Thinkin’ you’ll go far
Back east your type don’t crawl

Play ethnicky jazz
To parade your snazz
On your five grand stereo
Braggin’ that you know
How the niggers feel cold
And the slums got so much soul

It’s time to taste what you most fear
Right guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear

It’s a holiday in Cambodia
It’s tough, kid, but its life
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Don’t forget to pack a wife

You’re a star-belly sneech
You suck like a leach
You want everyone to act like you
Kiss ass while you bitch
So you can get rich
But your boss gets richer off you

Well you’ll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
‘Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need, my son.

Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol pot, pol pot, pol pot, pol pot, etc.

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul

Places of Pain and Shame

‘Dig a hole and bury the past in it’ *
Reconciliation and the heritage of genocide in Cambodia
Colin Long and Keir Reeves















*(Just what Hun Sen means by ‘reconciliation’, however, is problematic. His definition appears to consist of ‘integration’ of the former Khmer Rouge back into the nation and the absence of armed conflict. Having achieved this reconciliation, he believes that the proper treatment of the country’s traumatic history is to ‘dig a hole and bury the past in it’ (Linron 2004: 12). Given that Cambodia’s history of genocide is most starkly manifested in the familiar images of exhumed mass graves, Hun Sen’s words are insensitive at best, somewhat sinister at worst.)

The involvement of locals in development projects is quite appropriate in normal circumstances, as most international aid agencies now recognise. But this politically correct approach to development practice is simply inappropriate in the interpretation of the Anlong Veng sites.

Why should interpretation take into account local perspectives if locals believe that Ta Mok and Pol Pot were good men? Do former Khmer Rouge have the right to have their understanding of history seriously considered in interpreting the Cambodian past? How are the perspectives of former Khmer Rouge to be weighed against the perspectives of other Cambodians who suffered because of rhe actions not only of rhe Khmer Rouge leaders, but also of Anlong Veng locals who followed those leaders?

In the end we are forced to contemplate the questions that we raised early in this chapter: Why do we want to preserve such sites? To prevent forgetting? To aid In reconciliation. Can sites like Anlong Veng perform the latter role? In traumatized societies whar is most important justice or reconciliation? If the latter, does the preservation of sites of trauma help in achieving reconciliation? Does the preservation of these former Khmer Rouge sites help in the understanding and commemoration of Cambodia’s traumatic history?

Our conclusion, which does nor come easily to us as heritage professionals committed to our field and to the power of herirage as a force for remembrance, is that preservation of the Anlong Veng sites does little or nothing to further understandIng or commemoration of Cambodia’s tragic and painful past. To wipe them from the heritage and tourism map would not be to encourage a culture of forgettIng. Tuol Sleng and other such sites, together with the everyday reality of Cambodian trauma and, hopefully, the trials of the remaining leaders, ensure that the Khmer Rouge period will not be forgotten. Forgetting Anlong Veng’s Khmer Rouge sites, though, will contribute to a culture of true reconciliation by ensurIng that the message about the Khmer Rouge period is clear and untrammeled by moral and historical relativism , by emphasizing above all else the voices of the victims and silencing the perpetrators once and for all.