Weekly Read: The Master of Confessions

As I said once before, my wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Cambodia last year as a belated honeymoon. It’s a country of stunning geographical beauty, fascinating history, and warm, friendly people. But it’s also a place that still dealing with the deep scars of its recent past. Specifically, the impact of the overspill of the Vietnam War and the eventual rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and the horrors that it brought.

Although the regime fell to a Vietnamese invasion in 1979 (some groups hung on until the 1990s), the country is still dealing with trying to bring to justice those responsible for an era that killed up to 2 million people. The first of those brought to trial was Kaing Guek Eav, known more widely as Duch. Duch spent most of the Khmer Rouge years in charge of the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, in which thousands of people were tortured and killed. In fact, there were only 7 survivors of S-21. S-21 is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is a horrifying place.

The Master of Confessions, by French journalist Thierry Cruvellier, is about Duch and his crimes, but it’s not a straight biography. Nor is it a typical history of the Khmer Rouge. Instead, it’s the relations and observations of Duch’s 8-month trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. While it certainly goes into the history, it’s all done at arm’s length, allowing Cruvellier to effectively comment on not just what’s happened, but the trial itself and the very idea of seeking justice for such massive crimes (Cruvellier has also written about the Rwandan genocide trials – sadly, that book doesn’t appear to be available in English).

I already noted one example, when Cruvellier brings up the dynamic of confessions and their role in the justice system, something which is familiar to defense lawyers from Phnom Penh to West Virginia. Another is where he details how the mood of the trial changes the longer it goes on:

Five months into the trial, the quality of the silence in the courtroom has changed. No longer is it that breathless and dumbstruck silence that knows it is watching history being written, nor is it the solemn quiet of a legal drama. The silence that fills the courtroom now is that of fatigue, of weariness, of exhaustion with both the trial and Duch’s words. His performance has lost its shine. Now he sounds like he’s rambling endlessly.

Duch was rambling because, alone amongst the few charged by the ECCC, he pleaded guilty and spent most of his time trying to lessen his culpability, rather than deny it completely. That being said, as Cruvellier points out, Duch was rarely willing to extend his testimony beyond those areas that were already widely documented. It’s a cunning, if empty, strategy – admit what they can prove you did, stall on everything else. It would also be frustrating as fuck.

That frustration came to a head during closing arguments when one of the Cambodian lawyers representing Duch kneecapped his French superior and suddenly claimed that Duch shouldn’t be convicted at all. The argument is cowardly, but kind of compelling – not only was Duch not in the top echelon of the Khmer Rouge, but some of those who were are still free and, indeed, still part of the Cambodian government today. It was a bold, weird gambit that, as expected, fell completely flat.

Cruvellier’s approach also allows him some interesting digressions from Duch himself and the trial. In one instance he treks to the northern part of Cambodia, the rugged mountainous area near the Thai border where the remnants of the Khmer Rouge (including Pol Pot) held on until the 1990s. He explores the growing industry of genocide tourism, as various people try to monetize everything from gravesites of Khmer Rouge leaders to spots where their homes once stood. It was an uncomfortable bit to read, given that my wife and I travelled halfway around the world partly to see S-21 and the killings fields at Choeung Ek. I like to think that we’re both students of history, engaging in some empathy for the victims of the regime. But maybe we were just gawkers, scraping the surface of something we can never really hope to understand.

At the heart of Cruvellier’s observations is the same question most people ask about someone like Duch – how does someone do such horrible things on such a scale? It’s not really a question courts are designed to answer – they’re more interested in the what of someone’s actions, rather than the why (issues of intent aside). At the end there aren’t any good answers. Duch, for all his evil deeds, is not a mustache twiddling villain. He’s a man who glommed on to several ideologies in his life, each with equal vigor, whether it was the Khmer Rouge’s particularly brutal form of Communism or, in his later life, Christianity. At least he recognizes that flaws in his past ideologies. Duch doesn’t make the argument that Communism was failed, rather than conceded that it failed the Cambodian people spectacularly.

My only real beef with the book is the Cruvellier gives short shrift to the actual outcome of the trial. Duch was convicted (naturally) and initially sentenced to 30 years, a term that was increased to life in prison on appeal. Cruvellier dashes that off in a few lines at the end of the book. I wish he’d been able to get into the considerations at play in that appeal, particularly since increasing a sentence on appeal is almost unheard of in American law.

One of the reviews on Amazon faults Cruvellier’s approach because it:

is tainted by the author’s utter contempt for the institutions that conduct international criminal trials . . ..

It’s certainly true that Cruvellier has a jaundiced view of tribunals like the ECCC, but I’m not so sure it rises to the level of “utter contempt.” If anything, he seems to be disappointed at how tribunals that theoretically should aim for answering bigger questions of why ultimately wind up bound down by legal procedural minutiae. For what it’s worth, the couple of conversations we had with Cambodians about the ECCC showed a real ambivalence toward it. They seemed to think that justice was something that was never really going to happen and that the main purpose of the ECCC was to show the international community that something was happening and keep foreign investment flowing. Cynicism, more than contempt, but well earned, it seems to me.

Maybe I have less of an issue with Cruvellier’s point of view because, deep down, I’m a cynic, too, especially when it comes to international law. I found his reporting to be sober, nuanced, and tinged with the sadness that when humanity is at its most brutal it often can’t rise to the occasion when it comes time to do justice. It’s not as depressing a read as it sounds, but it’s not one that will leave you walking away with a song in your heart. Maybe that’s a good thing.

There’s a good interview with Cruvellier here, if you’re interested in more about him and the book (and how to actually pronounce Duch correctly).



One thought on “Weekly Read: The Master of Confessions

  1. Pingback: Decade – Favorite Books | JD Byrne

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