Duch during the Cambodian Tribunal
On July 26, 2010, the verdict was pronounced. Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was found guilty of the torture and killing of more than 12,000 Cambodians during his directorship of the Tuol Sleng prison from 1975 – 1979. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a patched-together tribunal made up of Cambodian and international judges sentenced Duch to 35 years in prison minus the 19 he has already served while awaiting trial.

Duch is the only one of the still-alive leaders in the Khmer Rouge who has admitted any guilt in what happened thirty years ago, yet even though he expresses remorse, he says that he had no choice but to obey. He was only one cog in a giant wheel.

Who cares?

Responsible world leaders care. It is important for nations to be held accountable for the crimes of their leaders. It is really the only way that a nation can come to grips with its past and move on to a future somewhat free of the encumbrances of its past. Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, together with the United Nations, was instrumental in bringing about the tribunals, the first of which is now over.

Yet, the Cambodian people themselves are less invested in the trial of Duch or any of the other Khmer Rouge leaders. A couple of weeks ago, I attended an excellent presentation by two of the American lawyers who were involved in long-running tribunal that convicted Duch. When the time came for questions from the audience which consisted almost exclusively of Cambodians who had fled the Khmer Rouge, it was like the presenters and the people to whom they were presenting were not on the same page at all! The two lawyers gave a top-down big-picture approach while the Cambodians, well-educated and articulate (including several Buddhist monks), saw the trial as irrelevant because it did not address the crimes of the people against each other. The disconnect between what the trial was about and how the Cambodians felt about the verdict was profound.

For the past seven years, I have been working with a Cambodian man to write his memoir of living under the Khmer Rouge in Battambang Province. Chhalith Ou was twelve years old when Battambang City was evacuated and sixteen when he and his family reunited to make one of the most harrowing escapes ever recorded. His story gives a graphic representation of why the Cambodian people do not care about Duch and the upcoming trials in “Case Two.” These trials seem far removed from what happened to the people themselves. They ask: Where is the justice for what happened to my family?

I understand the need for these trials, as flawed as they are, because every nation must be held accountable for what their leaders have done. Yet, after working with Chhalith, I understand the point of view of the people also. The disconnect between the two is agonizing for those people in Cambodia and those who have fled to other countries who cannot purge from themselves the memories of what happened to them personally and to their families and friends.

2 thoughts on “Duch guilty. Who cares?

  1. Halleson, do you really mean *nations* should be held accountable for the crimes of their leaders? isn’t it the *leaders* who should be held accountable? After all, Duch is responsible for what he did, not the whole country of Cambodia. have I misunderstood you?


    1. My humble apologies for the long delay in replying to your comment. I’ve been ill, but am on the mend now, and hope to pay attention to the conversations that appear here.

      Duch is only one part of the tragedy of Cambodia. The guilt present in that small nation goes through every level of its society and beyond to neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. All of this is outlined in my book “Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss.” the memoir of a young teenager who, thanks to the teachings of his parents, was able to survive four years of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, three of which were in the infamous traveling workgroups in Battambang Province where he was on his own and separated from his family. Almost half of this time was spent in deep jungle where, to avoid starvation, his group had to determine what was edible and what was not, as their small portions of rice often did not arrive.

      This past summer I attended a presentation at the Cambodian Association of Illinois by a couple of American lawyers who had been involved in the Criminal Tribunal in Cambodia that found Duch guilty. The lawyers were eloquent in describing the process by which the Tribunal had come about and the difficulties in conducting such an international Tribunal, but when the time for Q&A came, the tone changed. The audience which was almost exclusively Cambodian including a number of Buddhist monks wanted to know one thing: How will justice come to the villages and towns of Cambodia where murderers continue to live as if they had done no wrong? Since the lawyers could not relate to this question, it remained unanswered, but the emotion present in the questioners was apparent. Their parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, teachers, and relatives were gone, starved, assassinated, worked to death, and in the cases of one-on-one murder, the killers were still living among them.

      If the international community including the United Nations is able to hold it, a second Tribunal will be held to try three of the actual Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive. Some, including Pol Pot, have died. Duch, by the way, was not a Khmer Rouge leader. He ran the Toul Sleng prison in Phnom Penh where thousands of ordinary Cambodian citizens were killed. Whether or not to even continue with these Tribunals is controversial. Many of the people in Cambodia would rather forget and move on. As time passes, the younger people do not remember the horror because they did not personally experience it, and their parents do not want to speak about it. Many Cambodians who lived through it or who escaped from it, want justice at the village level and see nothing to be gained by these expensive Tribunals that seek justice only at the leadership level.

      These International Tribunals are very important, because it is nations themselves that sometimes hold the guilt throughout their society in the behavior of masses of people who did not, or could not, do the right thing according to their own conscience and sense of morality. Unless the truth of what happened in its totality is uncovered and faced, it will be buried beneath the surface of the society itself and be reflected in the thinking and behavior of those who lived the horror and remember it in such a way that the philosophy of secrecy and cover-up is passed along to their children and grandchildren and becomes one facet in new and adulterated forms of the culture that becomes embedded in its future, where perhaps another horror may arise at some point because this nation had not learned its lessons from the previous one.


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