Monday, November 28, 2005

FACING DEATH IN CAMBODIA

by Peter Maguire
Columbia University Press $29.50, 272 pages

The mass killings in Cambodia still hold a world record for state terror. No government has murdered a greater proportion of its citizens: one in five Cambodians - more than 1.5 million people - died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Yet three decades later none of the perpetrators has been held to account. Some, such as Pol Pot, Brother No 1, are dead, but other high-ranking former cadres hold key positions in the current government.

A joint Cambodian-international war crimes tribunal announced two years ago is compromised, according to human rights organisations, by the majority role given to members from the notoriously corrupt national judiciary. It has not yet started work.

This is not for want of information. The Cambodian genocide has been extensively documented. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence is the collection of photographs found in Tuol Sleng, the secondary school turned torture centre in a suburb of Phnom Penh, the capital. Tuol Sleng was the centre of a secret network of prisons where the Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia - under the name of Democratic Kampuchea - between 1975 and 1979,
detained and tortured to death tens of thousands of their countrymen. The victims were accused of a litany of concocted crimes that usually involved espionage for the Vietnamese, the CIA or the KGB (sometimes all three).

When the invading Vietnamese army entered Phnom Penh in 1979, Tuol Sleng was
abandoned, leaving instruments of torture, rotting corpses, bloodstained rooms, records of forced confessions - and thousands of photographs of prisoners who had passed through its gates en route to death. This grim record of suffering is the starting point for two illuminating books about
Cambodia, one by a photographer, the other by a human rights researcher.

Tuol Sleng was made into a museum and is now a routine stop on the tourist trail. Cells and torture rooms are open to the public. The photographs of former inmates are displayed on the walls: mothers clutching children, a boy with a padlock round his neck, a young man stripped to the waist, a number pinned directly into his chest. Of the 14,000 prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng, fewer than a dozen survived. In a bizarre display of necrokitsch initiated by the Vietnamese, skulls of the dead are displayed in the form of an enormous map of Cambodia.

It's impossible to visit Tuol Sleng without being haunted by these pictures. In an age of genocide, where the horrors of Democratic Kampuchea have been succeeded by Rwanda and Darfur, when the greatest danger faced by the people of many countries is their own government, these images reverberate beyond borders. The failure of justice in Cambodia, despite a huge international presence in the form of UNTAC, the UN mission that administered the country for 18 months in the early 1990s, prefigures failures on the part of the international community to prevent or punish other cases of pathological state violence.

For Nic Dunlop the pictures have a further significance.

He is a photographer with a 15-year career as a chronicler of the Cambodian civil war and its aftermath. For him the photographs have become a symbol both of the haunting power of images and of the failure of documentation - including his own work - to overcome the moral expediency in international relations that has impeded justice. The Lost Executioner is the story of Dunlop's search for Comrade Duch, or Brother Duch, the commandant of Tuol
Sleng, and his discovery, based on a chance encounter and an old photograph, that Duch was living in
Cambodia under a new name, a Christian convert working for a US aid agency. The story is interwoven with the history of modern Cambodia and Dunlop's own experiences. His book is an example of a rare genre: a reflective work by an outstanding photographer who is also a talented writer.

When he first visited Tuol Sleng it gave him a sense of purpose, Dunlop explains. He returned to the UK, lobbied MPs, exhibited his photographs and joined protest campaigns. Today, he writes, that sense of urgency has given way to helplessness at the enormity of what happened and the fate of contemporary Cambodia, now afflicted with all the ills of modernity: endemic corruption, political violence, child prostitution and the worst HIV-Aids epidemic in Asia. Yet the unmasking of Duch - by a feat of visual recollection that probably only a photographer could achieve - is to some extent a contradiction of Dunlop's own sense of powerlessness. It is as a result of his actions that Duch now awaits trial, one of the few Khmer Rouge cadres to be in detention.

For Peter Maguire, also, Tuol Sleng is a symbol of an enduring failure. Maguire is a human rights researcher whose experience in Cambodia leads him to question some of the basic suppositions of the human rights movement. The idea of a universal canon of justice, he suggests, may be a fiction overlaid on a reality too dark to contemplate. Facing Death in Cambodia is a scholarly, yet personal narrative of his own research and the intellectual and ethical dilemmas faced by human rights activists. It offers restlessly self-critical accounts of his interactions with Cambodians, including Nhem En, who took many of the Tuol Sleng photographs and who later hawked his pictures and sold interviews to western journalists until his recent death from Aids. The awkward but intimate relations between local informants and foreign researchers are portrayed with fluency and salutary unease.

In recent years the Tuol Sleng photographs have been published widely outside Cambodia, displayed in galleries and printed in glossy picture books. These passport photos for the afterlife, as Maguire calls them, have acquired the cachet of art. Nhem En took great pride in the technical perfection of his photographs, a refuge from his responsibility for taking them. Their publication, Dunlop warns, risks complicity in the aestheticisation of violence. These are pictures that urgently require the contextualisation that Dunlop and Maguire provide. With their careful attention to the words of Cambodians and engagement with the Cambodian world view, their books are significant contributions to the understanding of the country, past and present. There may be no justice in the present, but books like these will
surely inform the verdict of history.

John Ryle is chair of the Rift Valley Institute and has reported from Cambodia for The New Yorker.

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