Cambodia Book Reviews: The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan


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Although it doesn’t set out to be one, this book is probably the most thorough biography ever made of a top level Khmer Rouge cadre. Nic Dunlop first visited Cambodia as a student in 1989, a time when visitors per year numbered in tens rather than the more recent millions.

He visited S21 prison, but little did he know then that within ten years he would track down one of the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge leaders, Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his nom de guerre Duch. As head of S21 prison, he had presided over the torture and execution of countless people, and we learn here, many of his previous friends and colleagues were amongst them. Duch had been a teacher in Phnom Penh in the 1960s, and because of his zeal in promoting his political ideas, he came to the attention of the authorities and was imprisoned in Prey Sar in 1967.

It seems likely that much of what he later put into practice as a jailer may have been learned there. After being freed in an amnesty given by Lon Nol in 1970, he fled to the maquis and was soon head of a series of forest prisons near Amleang, Kampong Speu province. It was in one of these prisons that Francoise Bizot was interred, and where we learn, that the interrogation, torture and execution techniques Duch later became infamous for were developed and finely honed. The survivor’s accounts of these prisons prove without a doubt that the Khmer Rouge had already begun their draconian policies long before their victory of April 1975. Not a rock seems to have gone unturned in Dunlop’s search for this elusive character and his tale. We hear from family members, friends and lycee contemporaries of his who also joined the movement, and the clincher, the first interviews with Duch himself. These are astounding in that we have here probably the one and only ever meaningful confession by one of Democratic Kampuchea’s inner circle.

Duch was one of the last Khmer Rouge to leave Phnom Penh in 1979, and in his haste to escape approaching Vietnamese and Salvation Front troops, neglected to destroy evidence left at S21, evidence which can now be seen as crucial in any case against him or any of the leadership. He contends that Nuon Chea (Brother No. 2), admonished and demoted him for this mistake at some later stage. While many books on similar subjects have little but footnotes on the post Khmer Rouge period, this one deals extensively with that time, and reveals much about shady goings-on at the Thai border and around the refugee camps.

The accounts of his movements around the camps and Battambang province make for fascinating reading. He spent a considerable amount of time working at the Khmer Rouge-controlled Borai camp in Thailand. Here he worked as a teacher, although the accident he had during this time where he shot off his own finger make one wonder of what sort. Seemingly because of his knowledge of English he became the main liaison with the UN and NGOs who supplied the camp. In 1986, at the height of the conflict he was sent to China, most likely to train Chinese intelligence personnel and advisers for their work in Cambodia. The Chinese discovered his true identity and he lost his position. Shortly after the Paris agreement in 1991 Duch moved to the isolated village of Phkoam with his family and worked again as a teacher. He was popular in the area and settled into a normal life, but this was shattered when bandits visited his home in 1995 killing his mother and stabbing him with a bayonet.

During the political unrest of 1998 Duch again found himself on the other side of the Thai border, and subsequently found employment with the American Refugee Committee, an organization which, it has to be said, had no idea of their employee’s previous history. Somewhere along the way he also managed to convert to Baptism, and was baptized in the Sangke which runs through Battambang. This book is more than just the story of one person, and along the way we come across many fascinating people, not least the author himself, whose reflections on his role as a photographer are intriguing. Much space is devoted to examining his and our attitudes to a changing country, and also to the West’s less than innocent role in the tragedies that befell Cambodia.

Dermot Sheehan

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