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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Khmer Rough' s Slaughter house of Cambodia

IF you have been to Cambodia in recent years, the chances are that you will have been to Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. There is a savage irony in the fact that this former secondary school that was used as a prison and torture centre by the Khmer Rouge regime is now on the tourist trail.

In the mid to late 1970s, men, women and children arrived at Tuol Sleng, or SS 21 as it was codenamed, in the middle of the night and left only to be executed in what came to be called the killing fields. Now, men, women and children arrive in coaches and depart for lunch in their nice hotels, many of them shocked and chastened by what they have seen.

Visiting Toul Sleng is a brutal experience. It has been left more or less as the liberating Vietnamese forces found it in 1979. School buildings that look pretty much like any others of the era were crudely converted into a high security prison. Iron bedsteads that were used to transmit electric shocks still sit in the downstairs rooms and there are dark stains on the floors.

Upstairs is a long iron bar to which prisoners were shackled lying down and elsewhere, on the wall, is a signboard that tells prisoners how they must behave. Point 6 advises, “Whilst getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”

Of the 20,000 people who passed through Toul Sleng’s gates, just seven survived.

Yet, for all the horror of the physical environment of Toul Sleng, it is the photographs of some of these 20,000 that haunt the visitor most. The Khmer Rouge were fastidious about keeping records and every prisoner was photographed when they entered the prison.

These black and white portraits are chilling. The faces are often expressionless, the eyes blank. These are the faces of the condemned, of men, women and children who surely knew that they were about to suffer indescribably and then die at the end of it. And for what? For a confession that they had been CIA collaborators, or sympathised with the Vietnamese or ? whatever their torturers wanted to hear, for not until there was a signed confession could execution release them from their torment. The fact that the confessions were wildly improbable and wholly made up was not important; what was important was the signed document.

It was these pictures that haunted photographer Nic Dunlop and, in turn, he started to photograph them. But it was the discovery of a photograph of Comrade Duch that began his obsessive search for the director of SS 21.

Armed with this photograph, Dunlop set off to find the man who had presided over the madness that was Tuol Sleng and The Lost Executioner is his account of the history of Toul Sleng, of his interviews with people who worked there, with one of the seven who survived and finally of his success in meeting Comrade Duch. It is a gripping, horrifying and important story.

At the beginning of the book is a photograph of Duch as a boy. He has thick black hair, neatly parted, and is looking directly into the camera. He is neatly turned out for what is clearly a studio shot and he looks slightly solemn as befits such a serious occasion, with just the merest hint of a smile.

The next picture, chronologically, sees Duch in standard Khmer Rouge attire, seated behind a microphone addressing an invisible audience. It is this photograph that Dunlop carried around Cambodia in his back pocket until, eventually, he was able to identify Duch in 1999 and get him to confess to his deeds as director of SS 21.

The Lost Executioner is a grim read but it is a story that needs to be told and needs to be listened to. It is fraught with questions and moral dilemmas. How did this almost cherubic boy become the man who could scrawl with impunity, “Kill every last one of them” on prisoners’ files and become “one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century”?

How valid is it to claim, as many Khmer Rouge have done, that they did what they did because they were “just obeying orders” and would have themselves been killed had they not done so?

After being identified, Duch is imprisoned, but in the preceding years he had converted to Christianity and was known as a talented and compassionate aid worker.

Would it have been better for him to have atoned for his sins by helping others rather than languishing pointlessly in a jail?

And on a bigger issue, why have there been no trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders? Why was the West so blind to what was happening in Cambodia that it actually recognised the Khmer Rouge as a legitimate regime?

The Lost Executioner is a fine book that puts flesh onto the horrifying statistics that tell the story of the Khmer Rouge genocide, five years in which approximately two million people – nearly a quarter of the population – died. At one point in the book, Dunlop refers to Stalin’s chilling quote that one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. Thoughtful, reflective and compelling, The Lost Executioner brings home forcefully that this particular set of statistics is almost unbearably tragic.
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Cambodian human rights activist launches his own political party

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: A prominent human rights activist once jailed for criticizing Cambodia's prime minister moved directly into the political arena Sunday by launching his own party.

Kem Sokha, 54, unveiled his Human Rights Party at a well-attended congress, making it the latest political force trying to challenge the iron grip on power of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party at the next general election scheduled for July 2008.

The Sam Rainsy Party is the only opposition force in Parliament against Hun Sen, while the royalist Funcinpec party, which once was a significant rival, is a partner in Hun Sen's government and has been significantly weakened by its own internal disputes.

One of the goals of the Human Rights Party is "to raise the living standard of the people and change Cambodia into a society that offers equal choices and opportunities for every citizen in seeking their future," Kem Sokha said in an opening speech at his party congress, which organizers claimed was attended by some 10,000 supporters.

"We are confident that our party will achieve the greatest result from the upcoming election," he said after the congress formally elected him the party's president.

Kem Sokha has a long-standing reputation for advocating social justice and fighting against corruption and human rights abuses.

He used to be a lawmaker of the now-defunct Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, one of the challengers to Hun Sen's party in the 1990s. After his party was dissolved, Kem Sokha joined the royalist Funcinpec party and became one of its senators before resigning the post to create the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in late 2002.

Some other well-known political figures joining Kem Sokha's party include Pen Sovann, former prime minister of a communist Cambodian government in the early 1980s; Keo Remy, former lawmaker of the Sam Rainsy Party; and Son Soubert, the son of former Cambodian statesman Son Sann, who founded the defunct Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party in the early 1990s.

Pen Sovann, Keo Remy and Keat Sokun, a former member of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, were also elected vice presidents of Kem Sokha's party.

Early last year, Kem Sokha was jailed for several weeks along with two other human rights workers, a union leader and a journalist on criminal charges of defaming the prime minister.

Hun Sen ordered their release following strong international condemnation.
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