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Cambodia and the banality of evil

A one-time member of the Khmer Rouge, known only as KR07. Daniel Welschenbach
A one-time member of the Khmer Rouge, known only as KR07. Daniel Welschenbach

Cambodia and the banality of evil

An upcoming photo exhibition focusing on perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge regime ventures beyond their assumed evil. Creators Timothy Williams and Daniel Welschenbach submit to us the tough question: If put in their positions, might we have acted likewise?

What motivates people to commit terrible acts, and how do we know we wouldn’t do the same? These are among the questions confronted by researcher Timothy Williams and photographer Daniel Welschenbach in new photographic exhibition Entering the Tiger Zone.

The exhibition begins on Monday, and there will be a panel discussion at The 1961 Coworking & Art Space as part of the opening event.

With support from German NGO Heinrich Böll Stiftung Cambodia, the exhibition features images of former members of the Khmer Rouge interviewed by Williams in the course of his research into the personal actions and decisions that make genocide possible.

A doctoral candidate at Marburg University in Germany, Williams has been examining this issue for five years. In Cambodia, he interviewed 60 former cadres with horrifying tales to tell but who, he says, are otherwise perfectly ordinary people, no different from anyone else. 

“The key thesis of my research is that the people who participated in the Khmer Rouge are fundamentally normal, ordinary men and women who in extraordinary situations make decisions to do horrible things.

But the reasons they make these decisions are not at all extraordinary,” said Williams by email from Germany. 

“They were ordinary members of society before the Khmer Rouge, they have been since as well.”

It is this ordinariness that Welschenbach has built on in his 11 images. Often placing the interviewees in their everyday environments, he attempts to portray them neutrally.

We may search for some sign that they are different from everybody else, more particularly from ourselves, but it is hard to determine any traces of wickedness in their casual gazes. 

For Williams, this disconcerting ambiguity is, in fact, a positive thing. 

“The people I interviewed fit the general dynamics that have been found in studies of the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide,” he said.

“We can say that they are not inherently evil, they are not monsters. And if put in a different situation, many of these people would not have participated.” 

“Evil is not a part of our nature, I don’t believe,” said Williams. 

“My research, if anything, makes me feel more that humans are fundamentally good, but that they can be weak and thus engage in evil acts. I don’t think anyone is evil in and of themselves but, instead, their acts can be horrible.”

Even so, he still found many of the stories he was told hard to stomach, as the former soldiers recounted tales of torture and eating victims’ livers. 

Williams emphasised that despite the horror of the acts, many of the motivations for perpetrating them were surprisingly mundane. Some were obeying orders given by their superiors, particularly under the threat of violence or death.

For others, the context presented an opportunity to advance their careers, enhance their status or deal with enemies they had had before the Khmer Rouge appeared. Williams found that few were ideologically motivated. 

“Very few actually hated the internal enemies,” he said. “Very few of them were particularly avid followers of the communist ideologies. And in the end, none of them are inherently bad people.” 

In the course of the exhibition, Williams will dive more deeply into other motivations expressed by his interviewees. He hopes that by shining a light on this dark part of the human soul, we will expand our understanding of the complexity of social actions. 

“It makes us understand why people get involved and shows us how human most of the motivations are. I believe this makes it much easier to imagine ourselves participating.

“This is scary, and no one likes to imagine they could do this kind of thing, but if one is open to trying to be honest in understanding motivations and dynamics of participating, I think there is much to learn about oneself.”

The exhibition opens at 6pm on Monday and at 6:30pm, and Williams himself will lead a personal tour of the photographs.

At 7pm, a panel with Williams, Nikki Singer from the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies and Sotheary Yim, a clinical psychologist and trauma therapist at Kdei Karuna, will discuss reactions to the exhibition, followed by a Q&A.

The 1961 Coworking & Art Space, 11 Osaphear Street, Upper West Riverside


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