Facing Death in Cambodia – Peter Maguire

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan


After completing an award-winning dissertation on the Nuremberg trials at Columbia University, Peter Maguire somehow felt hollow and fraudulent. His studies had been of a time long ago, and he understandably felt disconnected from his subject matter. As a product of one of the softest generations of American history, he knew nothing of the reality of conflict, other than what he had read.

His research led him to Cambodia, which had shattered the “never again” cliché, and where the perpetrators of it’s horrors had escaped justice, still wielded power, and seemed in many ways to have been rewarded. To find answers to this conundrum, the author travelled to Phnom Penh in 1994, where an old high school friend was busy restoring and preserving decaying photographs from the Tuol Sleng Museum. Returning in 1997 and on subsequent visits, he found it increasingly easy to interview people who for a long time had been silent or hidden from the rest of the world.

Although the book tells of a plethora of remarkable characters, amongst them one stands out, and that is Nhem En. This name may not be familiar to many readers, but his work probably is. Recruited at a young age into the Khmer Rouge, and somewhat of a golden child for them, Nhem was sent to China to train in photography, and on his return became the main photographer at S21 prison.

His harrowing portraits of the soon-to-be-executed are amongst the most poignant images of the twentieth century. He had turned up at the Associated Press office in Phnom Penh looking for work, having just defected from the Khmer Rouge’s last stronghold in Anlong Veng. Meeting Nhem En for interviews on several occasions, the author at one stage purchases a few quite bizarre photographs from him, some of which are re-printed in the book. For many years it was difficult to find anything but the most indistinct images of the Khmer Rouge leaders, but here we have one of Pol Pot smiling and pointing at a bunch of flowers!

Maguire’s account of his own journey is worth buying this book for alone, but his startling examination and indictment of almost all the players in Cambodia’s recent history is what clinches it. Equally cutting in discussing the murderous Khmer Rouge regime and their later Faustian pact with the West, or the inept machinations of the United Nations, and the disastrous results of UNTAC’s introduction of AIDs to the country, through to more recent events, the author pulls no punches in his criticisms. The so-called International Community failed in its dealings with Cambodia, and Maguire’s righteous rage against the virtuous shines out from these pages. Arriving at the back-end of the UNTAC fiasco, the author is particularly scathing about their failure to carry out their mandate.

Further ire is reserved for the ever- multiplying numbers of NGOs he encounters, who he sees as little more than neo-colonialists. As he states: “Previous generations of young, educated and privileged Americans joined the State Department and later the CIA to assume the white man’s burden. My generation seemed to have assumed a mutated version: the white guilt burden.”

Dermot Sheehan

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