The ordinary man who became the Khmer Rouge’s jailer

Never forget: the terrifying normality of Comrade Duch -- by the prisoner who survived.

The head of Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge prison where more than 15,000 men, women and children were tortured and killed, has just been sentenced to 35 years in jail (though he is expected to serve just 17).

Kaing Guek Eav, or Comrade Duch, is the first senior Khmer Rouge cadre to be tried and convicted by an international tribunal in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The case has brought the barbarity and callousness of the Pol Pot regime -- which caused the death of roughly a quarter of the country's population between 1975 and 1979 -- once more to the world's notice.

It would be easy to paint Duch as a monster. At one level, clearly he is. But to lay the blame for the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge at the door of a few "evil" people is too simplistic. Prime Minister Hun Sen (himself ex-Khmer Rouge) would rather the legal proceedings go no further than the current five cases -- which is an acknowledgement that the layers of complicity, whether voluntary or forced, run deep and wide. "If as many as 20 Khmer Rouge are indicted to stand trial and war returns to Cambodia, who will be responsible for that?" he asked last year.

Hun Sen may well be justified in fearing what could be unearthed, both because of the prominence of the politicians who could be fingered and for the effect delving into the past could have on a country that needs to preserve and build on shallow foundations of reconciliation. (It is only 13 years since different armed forces last fought each other in the capital).

But another way of looking at the larger picture lies not in levelling further accusations, but in trying, somehow or other, to understand how so many people could have acted so terribly.

For the good of Cambodia

One man in particular is well placed to comment. François Bizot is a French scholar who worked at the Angkor Conservation Office in the early 1970s. In October 1971 he was captured and, accused of being a CIA spy, held by the Khmer Rouge at Camp M13 in the far north of the country. The overseer of the camp was . . . none other than Comrade Duch.

Bizot wrote a remarkable memoir of his time in the camp and of the subsequent fall of Phnom Penh to the hardline Maoist regime, which he witnessed. "The Gate" was considered to contain such valuable insights that he was the first witness called to testify in Duch's trial when it began in April last year.

Bizot recalled that initially he thought those who commit unspeakable crimes must be "of a different species", but he came to realise that the truth was "much more tragic, much more frightening". Duch was "a man who resembled others", "polite", "a tireless worker", "a Communist-Marxist ready to lose his life if necessary for his country and for the revolution".

"The humanity that is his own," said Bizot, "was obviously not an obstacle to the killings he perpetrated." But "the final goal of his commitment was the good of Cambodia and fighting injustice".

The ambiguity that has haunted Bizot ever since is that he owes his life to this man. It was Duch, the jailer of Tuol Sleng, who wrote the report to his superiors in "Angkar", the party's Big Brother-like organisation, that secured the Frenchman's release. No other westerner is known to have survived imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge.

"Trying to understand is not to forgive," said Bizot. No, not in this case, it isn't. But trying to understand is necessary if we are to remember that "the banality of evil" was not confined to Hitler's Germany. (You can read a comparison of the Khmer Rouge with the Nazis in Der Spiegel here.)

To make a monster of Duch is almost to take away his responsibility. A psychiatric report on him commissioned by the court concluded that the prisoner was medically and mentally normal; he could, in theory at least, one day be reintegrated into society.

It is the fact that Duch, and countless others in Cambodia, were so ordinary which makes their crimes so chilling. That is what we should try to understand. And if we cannot, if the enormity of their wickedness is ultimately beyond comprehension -- then it is certainly what we should remember.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder