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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Translating a trial into a narrative

Translating a trial into a narrative

The KRT's first trial opens next week, but what will having  Duch in the dock mean?

Photo by:

Tracey Shelton

The former Tuol Sleng (S-21) torture centre in Phnom Penh, headed by Duch from August 1975 until the regime's fall in January 1979.


Photo by:

Duch (left) and a colleague photographed at Tuol Sleng in this undated photo. 

AGIFTED maths teacher before he turned revolutionary, Duch, the man who oversaw the Khmer Rouge's security apparatus, ran the regime's killing machine with cold, numerical precision.

"Duch oversaw a precise department of death," journalist Elizabeth Becker says in her book When the War Was Over. "Duch even set aside specific days for killing various types of prisoners: one day the wives of ‘enemies'; another day the children; a different day, factory workers," she writes.

Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, oversaw the torture and extermination of 16,000 men, women and children at the Khmer Rouge's Tuol Sleng prison during the regime's 1975-79 rule. He was arrested in 1999 after photojournalist Nic Dunlop uncovered him earlier that year working for a Christian relief agency in western Cambodia.

Born in 1942 in Kampong Thom province, Duch's revolutionary roots were laid early. In the mid-1960s he studied for his teaching certificate under Son Sen, a fiery activist who would later emerge as the Khmer Rouge's defence minister and Duch's immediate superior.

He was remembered not as a committed teacher but as a committed communist, and he fled to the Khmer Rouge following the March 1970 toppling of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, when Cambodia's political environment became more volatile.

Inside the "liberated" zones, Duch is said to have been appointed head of special security. He allegedly oversaw a series of prisons before consolidating his power in Tuol Sleng after in 1975.

What began as only a few dozen prisoners each day turned into a torrent of condemned coming through Tuol Sleng as the regime repeatedly purged itself of its "enemies".

Ever meticulous, Duch built up a huge archive of photos, confessions and other documents with which the final horrible months of thousands of inmates' lives can be traced.

His alleged last act before slipping away from advancing Vietnamese troops was to oversee the murder of Tuol Sleng's few remaining prisoners, whose mutilated bodies were found still chained to their beds.

Shortly after his wife was murdered in 1995, Duch began attending Christian prayer meetings and was later baptised by Christopher LaPel, a Khmer-American minister.

In a 1999 interview with Time magazine, LaPel remembered Duch as an enthusiastic convert, but said there were signs of his dark past.

"Before he received Christ, he said he did a lot of bad things in his life. He said: ‘Pastor Christopher, I don't know if my brothers and sisters can forgive the sins I've committed against the people'," LaPel was quoted as saying at the time.

Hong Kimhong, Duch's younger sister, living in Battambang's Somlaut district, told the Post on the eve of his hearing that she had mixed feelings about the trial. "As Duch's sister, I was not happy when [he] was accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. As I know him, my brother Duch is a good person," she said.  

"But I will let the court decide."



THREE decades after he presided over a bloody reign of terror at the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng prison, Kaing Guek Eav, the math teacher-turned-prison chief, will take his place in the dock and answer questions about his alleged role in the systematic torture and extermination of up to 16,000 men, women and children.

As the first senior Khmer Rouge figure to be brought to justice for his role in the atrocities committed during the ultra-communist group's 1975-79 rule, the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary name of Duch, will no doubt prompt an unprecedented flurry of international media attention. The issue now, observers say, is how the court will ensure the trial has meaning that resonates with those it has been set up to serve.

"I worry that ordinary Cambodians don't feel that they have ownership over the process of bringing people like Duch to account," said Nic Dunlop, the photojournalist who discovered Duch in 1999 working for NGOs in the border regions.

"It would be a real shame if we have Duch telling the court important things that people need to know and few people are actually aware of it," Dunlop told the Post via email.

According to Philip Short, historian and author of Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare, comprehensive Khmer-language coverage of the trial, coupled with grassroots-level discussion of the proceedings is essential.  

"But the government has little interest in that kind of nationwide self-questioning and it will in any case be difficult to generate in a society like Cambodia's," he told the Post via email.

THE start of the ECCC's first trial is an important, if overdue, step towards the goal of accountability.

"If, as is more likely, the hearings remain a distant event, confined to the courtroom in Phnom Penh, their significance will be very limited," he adds.
A population-based survey conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this month indicated that indeed this may be the case.

According to the report, 85 percent of Cambodians interviewed had "little or no knowledge" of the court as of last September, a statistic that was disputed by the court's public affairs officers, who claimed it was "not consistent with [their] own feedback in the field". In addition to a lack of knowledge, the survey pointed to public doubts about the court's objectivity: One-third of respondents familiar with the tribunal said they did not believe the court was neutral, with 23 percent saying it was corrupt.

While the trial itself may be a significant step on the path to justice, historian Ros Chantrabot of the Royal Academy of Cambodia says that whether legal procedures can be translated into meaningful narratives remains to be seen.  

Translating truth into justice

"This hearing is very important for Cambodia and the world. But we don't know yet whether the hearing can bring the truth," he said.

Regardless of whether it can, the opening of the Extraordinary Chamber's first public trial ratchets up the pressure on the court to deliver.

But many argue that expectations are too high, and that the court - however successful its first public trial - was never going to be able to meet them.

"If reconciliation were the aim, there are other ways of going about that, as South Africa has shown," said Short.

"This tribunal has nothing to do with reconciliation. How can the condemnation of a few elderly men, no matter how appalling their acts, reconcile people in the villages with those who, during KR times, murdered their relatives, and who still live a few houses away from them?" Short asked.  

Moreover, the court's legitimacy remains dented, and observers hope the start of a trial will be used by the court to boost its credibility.  

"The start of the ECCC's first trial is an important, if long overdue, step toward the goal of accountability for serious crimes in Cambodia," James Goldston, executive director of New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, said in an email.

"[But] the court must take aggressive action to respond to repeated allegations of corruption and provide adequate protection to those who come forward to report corruption," he said.

However, international co-prosecutor Robert Petit argues that, as the most public manifestation of the tribunal so far, the trial would refocus attention back to its original goal.

"These trials are by nature very complex but I'm confident in the Court's abilities to see them through to the highest standard," he said by email.

Despite numerous caveats, the first public trial of a Khmer Rouge leader could further knowledge and understanding of the workings of the still-mysterious regime.

"We know what S21 did; we know much less about why it did it," Philip Short says of the torture centre headed by Duch.

"What one would like the trial to reveal is the political mechanism behind S21: the role of Nuon Chea and other members of the Security Committee, Pol Pot and Son Sen; and the extent to which the political leadership controlled what was done there," he adds.

Historian David Chandler says the trial is significant because of the weight of documentary evidence linking Duch to the executions at S-21.

"A full account, if we got one, would deepen our understanding of the DK era," he said.

Even Duch, a converted Christian, has acknowledgesd the need to reveal the truth.

"The killings must be understood. The truth should be known," he told Dunlop as his arrest was imminent.  

According to Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, the public trial itself is a key part of getting the truth about the Khmer Rouge to the public.

"It will indeed contribute to our history and how we confront the past," he said.  Whether victims are content with the verdict is immaterial, as "they will be able to make their own decision".

April 17, 1975

The Khmer Rouge enter Phnom Penh, launching a reign of terror that leaves an estimated 1.7 million people dead.


January 7, 1979

The Khmer Rouge regime falls to the Vietnamese, who install a new regime in Phnom Penh. Civil war begins, pitting the Vietnamese-backed People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK) against an alliance of Khmer Rouge, nationalist and royalist factions.

October 23, 1991

A peace treaty is signed to end the conflict. Cambodia is placed under UN supervision until elections are held. UN peacekeepers begin operations almost five months later.

March 1998

The Khmer Rouge’s last stronghold, Anlong Veng, falls to government forces, but top leaders including Pol Pot escape.

April 15, 1998

Pol Pot dies in mysterious circumstances at his jungle base on the Thai border.

March 6, 1999

Ta Mok, the last of the top Khmer Rouge rebels, is arrested and accused of genocide.

May 10, 1999

Duch is arrested by Cambodian police for his role as head of the Khmer Rouge S-21 interrogation centre.


June 6, 2003

After tough negotiations, the United Nations and Cambodia agree to an international tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders.

October 4, 2004

The National Assembly approves a law paving the way for the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

December 2004

The court’s budget is finalised at US$56.3 million.

March 28, 2005

In New York, 13 nations contribute a total of $38.4 million – $5 million short of the UN’s target. Japan’s $21.6 million contribution is more than all other donor contributions combined.

March 30, 2005

Cambodia requests assistance in meeting its stipulated share of the budget – $13.3 million.

May 4, 2006

Cambodia’s highest judicial body approves 17 Cambodian and 13 international judges and prosecutors for the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

July 3, 2006

Judges for the Khmer Rouge tribunal are sworn in.

July 21, 2006

Ta Mok, known as “The Butcher”, dies before appearing in front of the tribunal.

February 2007

The Open Society Justice Initiative, an independent court monitor, accuses senior ECCC officials of taking kickbacks. All claims are vehemently denied by the ECCC.

September 19, 2007

Top Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea (below), known as “Brother No 2”, is arrested at his home close to the Thai border.


November 12, 2007

Ieng Sary, former KR foreign affairs minister, is arrested along with his wife, Ieng Thirith, the regime’s former social affairs minister.

November 19, 2007

Former KR head of state Khieu Samphan is arrested.

February 2008

Co-investigating judges hold on-site investigations at Choeung Ek “killing fields” and Tuol Sleng prison.

June 24, 2008

Khieu Samphan’s request for release from pretrial detention refused; ECCC seeks additional $43.8 million to see it through to the end of 2009.

January 19, 2009

 The date for the start of the first trial, that of Duch, is announced for February 17, 2009.





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