Saturday, May 19, 2012

Elusive Justice: Comrade Duch

Somewhat fittingly, the English translation of Tuol Sleng is “Hill of the Poisonous Trees.”  During the reign of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or the Khmer Rouge as they were subsequently known, the Tuol Sleng prison was a true charnel house, ostensibly charged with enforcing ideological purity.  Kaing Guek Eav, the man dubbed “Comrade Duch,” oversaw the wholesale torture and mass executions perpetrated there with the ferocity of a zealot.  Years later, Duch became the first Khmer Rouge official to stand trial for crimes against humanity.  Adrain Maben documents the historic trial and the complicated circumstances surrounding it in Comrade Duch: The Bookkeeper of Death (promo here), which airs tomorrow as part of the current season of Global Voices on PBS World.

Duch was a butcher, plain and simple.  However, he represented himself as a much different person in 2007 than he was in the late 1970’s.  A convert to Evangelical Christianity, Duch initially surprised the world by acknowledging personal culpability for the crimes he committed and asking for the forgiveness of victims and their families.  Indeed, it seemed to confuse the issues for the tribunal, which eventually sentenced Duch to what most of the country considered a scandalously lenient sentence.

Trying a nearly seventy year old man for crimes that were committed decades ago but still remain a source of acute and widespread pain throughout the country will always be a tricky proposition.  Problematic as it might have been, Duch’s trial was only possible thanks to the gumshoe work of investigative photojournalist Nic Dunlop (who contributed so many images to HBO2’s Burma Soldier has was officially credited as a co-director).  Haunted by the archival photos of soon to be executed Tuol Sleng prisoners, Dunlop scoured the remote corners of Southeast Asia for the notorious ideologue responsible.

While the trial is presented rather straightforwardly and dispassionately, there are several heavy moments in Bookkeeper.  In one telling scene, Duch earnestly tells his interviewer his only fundamental mistake was serving Communism rather than Christianity.  It is hard to imagine a more Eric Hoffer-esque moment, yet there is no question the world would have been a better place had his allegiances been altered accordingly.  It is also a little unnerving to take into account Duch was the product of his leftist school teacher’s classroom indoctrination.

Arguably, Bookkeeper illustrates the power of the photographic image more forcefully than any recent film expressly documenting the medium.  Profoundly saddening but respectful and informative, it is one of this weekend’s television highlights when it airs tomorrow (5/20) on PBS World.