Among the victims of Cambodia’s depraved Khmer Rouge
regime were countless intellectuals considered enemies of its agrarian
revolution. In the decades since the mid-1970s disappearance of professor Phung
Ton, his wife and daughter have sought answers to agonising questions
concerning his probable torture and murder. The recent trial of Pol Pot’s chief
executioner, at which a notorious interrogator was called to testify, gave them
hope of release from their torment.
Would they, in the end, be free?
HIM HUY WAS 17 when
Khmer Rouge soldiers went to his village in Kandal, southern Cambodia, to
draft able-bodied young men into their insurgency. The year was 1972 and the
ultra-communist movement, with its call for empowerment of the peasant masses,
was rapidly gaining strength.
Although his family viewed with
contempt the US-backed government of Lon Nol – along with the elite in the
capital, Phnom Penh,
it seemed exclusively to serve – Him Huy had little interest in revolution. He
had stopped attending school two years before, and hoped only to continue
planting and harvesting corn in his family’s fields.
Conscription, however, was compulsory,
and the Khmer Rouge cared little about the fitness of their troops. When Him
Huy told his commander he feared battle, he was not dismissed but rather
offered a post in the navy, away from most of the fighting. He chose to stay
with the ground forces, knowing he would be hopeless on the water. “I was
afraid of the crocodiles,” he said in a recent interview. “And I didn’t know
how to swim.”
In the next two years he deserted his
unit and ran back to his family twice. He stayed for one night the first time
and five the second, returning only because he suspected he would be killed if
he didn’t. Frustrated, his commander transferred him in 1974. The following
April his new unit assisted in the swift assault on Phnom Penh that clinched
the Khmer Rouge victory, approaching from the south and helping to secure enemy
railway tracks in the capital’s outskirts.
By the time he reached the city
proper, thousands of people were reacting to Lon Nol’s surrender with
enthusiasm, even some of the defeated soldiers. After five years of civil war,
those who gathered on roadsides to cheer the Khmer Rouge tanks and trucks hoped
their new leaders would bring about an era of peace and recovery. As it
happened, the fall of Phnom Penh marked the beginning of one of the most
destructive regimes ever to come to power: from April 1975 to January 1979, an estimated
1.7 million Cambodians – nearly a quarter of the population – died of overwork,
malnutrition, disease or execution.
The Documentation Centre of Cambodia
Khmer Rouge soldiers pictured at the Independence Monument
after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. The monument was built
in 1958 to mark Cambodia’s independence from France five
helm was Saloth Sar, alias Pol Pot. The son of a wealthy landholder, Pol Pot
first learned about Marxism-Leninism while studying in France in the
early 1950s. On returning to Cambodia
he worked as a teacher in Phnom Penh
before a crackdown on progressives prompted him to flee to the jungles of the
northeast, where he began winning over recruits with talk of a more egalitarian
society sustained by large-scale irrigation projects. These, he said, would
make the country entirely self-sufficient, and thus removed from the foreign
influences he viewed as threats to the ethnic Khmer majority.
Those with tertiary education or ties
to the old government had no place in Pol Pot’s vision of agrarian utopia; many
were executed in the early days of his rule. All Cambodia’s
cities, from Phnom Penh
to Siem Reap to Battambang, were soon evacuated, with the regime sending their
residents to rural communities headed by peasants.
The Documentation Centre of Cambodia
Khmer Rouge cadres receive instruction during a political study session.
Before long, more ominous signs began
to emerge. Post-conflict, crop production fell; division leaders were eager to
please the Standing Committee and sent as much food as possible to Phnom Penh. The workers –
deprived of food and, in the case of the resettled urbanites, training for
their new agricultural tasks – therefore fell far short of the regime’s lofty
initial production quotas. But instead of discerning the flaws in his plan, Pol
Pot viewed the poor start as evidence of an internal plot to thwart him and
charged his security division with rooting it out.
It was in this division that Him Huy
spent the whole of the regime’s rule. His transfer in 1974 had placed him under
Comrade Hor, a much-feared soldier in his mid-twenties who became deputy
chairman of Tuol Sleng (or S-21, the designation referring in part to the Khmer
Rouge security police), a secondary school turned prison that served as the hub
of Pol Pot’s execution campaign. Hor installed Him Huy as a guard at the
facility and in doing so made him witness to the interrogation, torture and
execution of up to 16,000 men, women and children.
Vann Nath, one of the few Tuol Sleng
survivors, has described Him Huy as a “very cruel” member of the team that
transported prisoners to the “killing fields” after their interrogations were
complete. Him Huy, who views himself as more victim than perpetrator, claims to
have had little involvement in the killings and to have treated prisoners with
Nevertheless, he has repeatedly
expressed remorse for his role in one of the 20th century’s most efficient
extermination machines. To the historian David Chandler he once remarked, “I
don’t feel that [working at Tuol Sleng] is what my parents intended me to do.”
When I met him in July at his home south of Phnom Penh, he said: “I don’t know why I
helped the revolution. The revolution did not help us.”
* * *
Thirty-one years after the Khmer Rouge were
run out of Phnom Penh
by Vietnamese-backed forces, their rise and dominion remain largely
unexplained. This is at least partly because, until last year, no Khmer Rouge
leader had ever been made to stand trial.
After nine years of negotiations, the
government of Prime Minister Hun Sen joined forces with the United Nations in
2006 to establish formally the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of
Cambodia, a hybrid tribunal charged with trying senior leaders and “those most
responsible” for Khmer Rouge crimes. In February 2009 the tribunal began its
first case, that of Tuol Sleng commandant Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.
Unlike the four other suspects being
held by the court – Khmer Rouge Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, Foreign Minister
Ieng Sary, President Khieu Samphan and Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith –
Duch (pronounced “Doik”), who converted to Christianity shortly after severing
ties with remaining cadres in the mid-1990s, had voiced contrition for the
killings and had vowed to describe the regime years candidly for judges.
At the beginning of his trial Duch
issued a statement that read in part: “I would like to apologise to all
surviving victims and their families who were mercilessly killed at S-21. I say
that I am sorry now, and I beg all of you to consider this wish: I wish that
you would forgive me for the taking of lives, especially women and children,
which I know is too serious to be excused. It is my hope, however, that you
would at least leave the door open for forgiveness.”
Hopes were high, then, that the value
of Duch’s case would extend beyond the symbolic. In particular, observers were
looking to see whether he would answer fundamental outstanding questions about
the regime – what its ultimate aim was, for instance, and how it managed to
transform farmers with no political leanings, Him Huy included, into ardent
communists willing to kill.
As the defence team began presenting
its case, however, the likelihood of a forthright explanation seemed to recede.
Even as he accepted “moral responsibility” for the execution of more than
12,000 prisoners, Duch denied any first-hand knowledge of the abuses that
befell them. He told the court he spent very little time at Tuol Sleng, saying
he was almost always in a nearby office reviewing confessions furnished by his
He also said all decisions on arrests
and killings were made by the party’s Standing Committee, of which he was not a
member. He carried out these decisions, he said, with an eye towards ensuring
his own survival.
Like Him Huy, who is not in danger of
being charged because of his low status within the regime, Duch repeatedly
stressed that his role in specific crimes had been minor. Asked by judges if he
taught his staff how to torture and kill, he responded: “Let me just say I – in
the Khmer saying – I do not need to teach crocodiles how to swim. The
crocodiles already know how to swim.”
Asked about the defence strategy in
the run-up to closing statements last November, Rutgers University’s
Alex Hinton, anthropologist and author of Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in
the Shadow of Genocide, said: “The defence has set Duch up as an almost
tragic hero, who, blinded by hubris and a lack of foresight, found himself
swept up in great tragedy. He joined the revolution to help liberate the
country, only to find himself unwillingly caught in a machine of death that he
could not stop. Like a tragic hero, he comes to understand what has happened too late and tries to repent in the
Doubts have been cast on the sincerity
of Duch’s apologies, which some suspected were merely part of a bid for a
mitigated sentence. During his closing statement, Kong Pisey, a lawyer for
civil parties to the case, went so far as to accuse Duch of shedding “crocodile
tears”. Such suspicions were only strengthened when, on the final day of
closing statements, the man who had earlier told judges he would be willing to
subject himself to a public stoning informed them that, all acceptance of
“moral responsibility” aside, he wished to be acquitted and released.
Nic Dunlop, the photojournalist who in
1999 found Duch living under an assumed name in western Cambodia,
suggested in an interview late last year that the case would probably be
remembered as a disappointment even if Duch turned out to be genuinely
repentant. Because Duch has insisted on playing down his role in the security
system, little new information has been revealed, meaning the regime remains as
confounding as ever.
“From the people I’ve talked to, what
they’ve been looking for is an accounting. They want something approaching the
truth for what occurred,” Dunlop said. “I don’t think any measure of contrition
from Duch is enough.”
* * *
Perhaps no one
watching Duch’s trial was more disappointed than Phung Sunthary, the
54-year-old daughter of a Cambodian academic sent to Tuol Sleng in late 1976.
Her father, an esteemed law professor named Phung Ton, was the only member of
her immediate family who did not survive the regime, and to this day the
circumstances surrounding his death remain inscrutable.
The Lon Nol government sent Phung Ton,
54, to Geneva in March 1975 to represent Cambodia at an
international conference on maritime law. On April 17, the day Phnom
Penh fell, he was sent from Geneva
to Paris, where
he rented a studio apartment in the 13th arrondissement.
Writing to a friend that year, he
described the mood among the many Cambodians marooned abroad, a group that
included civil servants, students and diplomats. “I have met many Cambodians
who are in the same situation as mine and are awaiting the earliest possible
opportunity to return home,” Phung Ton wrote. “All of these people are
anxiously waiting for news from Cambodia.
All they and I want is to return home immediately.”
The letter alludes to his belief that
the country was in turmoil, and that he would be met with hardship if he were
to go back. “You reassured me about the rumours concerning the forced
evacuation of Phnom Penh.
Once again, thank you for that,” he wrote. “But I am still concerned by the
news I hear on the radio, television, in the newspapers and in some magazines.”
Despite his reservations, Phung Ton,
missing his wife Im Sunthy and the rest of his family, returned home in
December 1975, arriving in Phnom Penh via Beijing on December 25.
His Khmer Rouge prisoner biography – biographies accompanied confessions –
states that he was immediately placed in K-5 and later K-6, both camps in Phnom Penh that housed
intellectuals returning from abroad. The biography notes that he “had conflicts
with others and the Central Committee”. No details are provided.
Photograph courtesy of Phung Sunthary
Phung Ton and Im Sunthy, who married in 1955.
Photograph courtesy of Phung Sunthary
Phung Ton and Im Sunthy on the River Seine
in Paris, sometime after they were married.
He entered Tuol Sleng in December
1976. None of the documents later recovered from the prison reveals who decided
to transfer him there. The last document that mentions him, dated June 6, 1977,
refers to his various illnesses, including heart and respiratory problems, but
says nothing about interrogation sessions or whether he was marked for
Since returning from peripatetic
labour in the provinces to Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge were ousted in
1979, Phung Sunthary has struggled to piece together an account of her father’s
last days from scattered documents, photographs and personal recollections.
These efforts have yielded little, making the tribunal one of the last possible
sources of information she needs to make the chronicle complete.
Photograph courtesy of Phung Sunthary
Phung Ton (left) with friends in France a few months before
he returned to Cambodia. The man on the right would
also be sent to Tuol Sleng; the other remained in France.
The Duch case was particularly
promising. Because of Phung Ton’s fame, Tuol Sleng staff would probably have
monitored him closely from the moment he entered the prison. Additionally, Duch
had a personal connection to Phung Ton, having obtained a degree from the
Pedagogy Institute of Phnom Penh when the professor was serving as its
Phung Sunthary and her mother, Im
Sunthy, were accepted as civil parties to the Duch case, and were granted legal
representation and the right to testify. They have fulfilled the role with
dedication, regularly attending six months of evidentiary hearings and taking
They were present when Him Huy told
the tribunal how Cambodians who had returned from abroad, Phung Ton probably
among them, were processed. His unit was responsible for receiving them at a
house not far from Tuol Sleng.
The prisoners at first had little
reason to believe they had erred, and they are likely to have thought they were
merely being transferred to a worksite, Him Huy said. “When they were sent to
my location,” he told judges, “they were not yet arrested. They would like to
go to another work location, so they came along. Because we had already made the arrangements, they were
asked to enter the room, to sit at a table. And then we would make the arrest.”
The prisoners were then led, sometimes
in groups totalling 50 or 60, into the Tuol Sleng compound. “A rope would be
used to hook through their arms, and they would be walked into the prison,” Him
Huy said. “And actually they were blindfolded, so they could not see anything.”
New arrivals were registered in a
central administration building, where their basic information was recorded.
They were ordered to sit down on a wooden chair so they could be photographed.
A metal arm extended from the wall to hold their heads in place to prevent
their avoiding the camera.
With these steps completed, the
prisoners were sorted into two main groups. Less important prisoners were
shackled to long metal bars and forced to lie side by side all day save for a
brief period each morning, when staff ordered them to “exercise”. As Vann Nath
has recalled, the “exercises” consisted mainly of jumping up and down while
holding defecation buckets, even as they remained shackled. “The noise of the
shackles and buckets clanged throughout the room,” Vann Nath told one
interviewer. “I tried to jump a few times with the others. How could we do
that, with one ankle fastened to the shackles and the other foot jumping?”
The prisoners were given spoonfuls of
gruel twice a day; many suffered from diarrhoea. Skin infections spread quickly
as detainees’ immune systems weakened. Describing how prisoners were cleaned,
Him Huy told judges: “Normally they could have been washed by a spray of water
from a hose … they would not be released to have a wash because the guards
would be afraid that they would abscond.”
More important prisoners were kept in
tiny individual brick cells. Up to three times a day they would be blindfolded
and escorted across the complex to interrogation sessions, where prison staff
would question, intimidate and abuse them for five-hour stretches.
The interrogators employed an array of
means – suffocation, simulated drowning, electric shocks to the genitals – in
coercing the prisoners to admit to traitorous links. Cambodians who in some
cases had never left their villages were made to describe in detail
affiliations with the CIA, the KGB and the Vietnamese, and to produce evidence
implicating their colleagues, neighbours, friends and family. Chum Mey, a
mechanic who had his fingers broken and his toenails ripped off with pliers
during 12 days of interrogation, told the tribunal how he had confessed to
being in both the CIA and the KGB in a bid to make the torture stop. “Even
until now I am still longing for the reason why I was accused of being CIA and
KGB, because I have never known anything about them,” he said.
himself admitted to knowing at the time that these confessions were largely
incredible. “Only 40 per cent were true and only 20 per cent of persons accused
were the right suspects,” he told the court. But the commandant, described by
those who knew him as forever intent on pleasing his superiors – he chose the
alias Duch because it was the name of a well-behaved student in a book he read
when he was young – said he was determined to identify more enemies for Pol Pot
and thus prove his commitment to the revolution.
Him Huy has maintained that he did not
know how interrogations unfolded. He recalled noticing, though, that some
prisoners who were questioned returned with welts on their backs caused by
lashes, and that “some died of wounds in the prison cells”.
Those who did not succumb to their
injuries, he said, had only to bide their time until they were killed. Of the
16,000 prisoners sent to Tuol Sleng, only an estimated 10 made it out alive. “I
never saw anyone arrested and sent to S-21 be released,” Him Huy said, “because
everyone who was arrested and sent there would end up being dead.”
Mass executions were carried out once
every two weeks or so; those whose interrogations were complete were killed as
soon as possible. The staff walked around at dusk with a list of prisoners,
removed the condemned from their cells or former classrooms and walked them to
a truck parked near the entrance, telling them only that they were going to “a
new home”. Typically, a few dozen were targeted in each round, though the total
for one day in May 1978 reached more than 300.
The prisoners were again blindfolded.
Those who could not walk, because of malnutrition or the injuries they had
suffered, were carried across the grounds to the gate.
The truck took them to the Chhoeung Ek
killing fields, roughly 15 kilometres away. On arrival prisoners were corralled
into a hut on the site, where guards turned on a generator to muffle the wails
from those outside who were moments from death.
Often, a mass grave had already been
dug and prisoners were told by guards to kneel down in a row at its rim. “Then
they would use an oxcart axle to strike the back of the necks, and later on
they would use a knife to slash the throat,” Him Huy told the tribunal, adding
that rounds of executions could take hours to complete.
Chea Leang, the Cambodian
co-prosecutor in the Duch case, reviewed each step of this process to great
effect in her closing statement last November. “At what point,” she asked, “did
the victims know they were about to be executed? Was it when they were sitting
on the truck en route to the killing fields? Was it as they were taken down
from the vehicle and let out into the darkness, or when they were kept waiting
in the small hut, the noise of the generator attempting to drown out the
screams of those ahead of them? Surely, they must have known as they were led
out one by one and forced to kneel beside the execution pits that their lives
were at an end.”
* * *
Duch’s direct and indirect victims sometimes
talk of how the horror of such accounts, even when rendered in lurid detail,
has been dulled by repetition. They don’t need a tribunal to tell them how the
killings were carried out, either because they witnessed them or because the
accounts have become part of family lore.
Not surprisingly, the killings also
figure prominently in the broader national psyche. The current Hun Sen regime,
infamous for corruption and its frequent attacks on democratic institutions,
nevertheless has an unbreakable hold on power in part because of the role it
played in overthrowing the Khmer Rouge. Every May 20, officials organise a
national Day of Anger at Chhoeung Ek, during which participants dramatise the
bludgeoning and stabbing of victims.
As Duch’s trial wore on, and a dozen
or so S-21 prisoners and staff appeared before the judges’ panel, the
testimonies proved far less upsetting to Im Sunthy and Phung Sunthary than the
fact that they had no idea if what was being described was what happened to
Phung Ton. “Even if his skeleton remains, I do not know where it is or how he
died,” Phung Sunthary said. “How am I supposed to accept that, as a daughter?”
On the day they were scheduled to
appear before the Trial Chamber the women divided the two tasks before them: to
honour the memory of the man they lost to Tuol Sleng, and to press for details
concerning how that loss transpired. Im Sunthy spoke first, telling the court
of the 20 years she spent as Phung Ton’s wife.
“My husband’s hobby was reading books
and researching documents,” she said. “He did not ever waste any time. His time
and scheduling of the day was always strict and precise.”
Their bond, as she described it, was
in some ways like that between a student and teacher, though he also doted on
her, she said. “He educated me very well to understand the right from the wrong
and to make myself progress. During the time that I was with him, I also felt
the warmth that I received from him, and I knew that I was one of the lucky
women who had a very kind and understanding husband.”
Photograph courtesy of Phung Sunthary
The seven children of Phung Ton and Im Sunthy.
Phung Sunthary, the eldest, is in the centre.
She told the court how she and her
daughter learned of Phung Ton’s death in late 1979. While walking home one
evening from their jobs at the Phnom
Penh port, they stopped to buy some palm sugar. The
vendor wrapped the sugar in a sheet of paper that caught their attention
because it displayed print, the first they had seen since before the rule of
the Khmer Rouge, who had banned independent publishing. They eventually
discerned that the sheet included names and photographs of people who had died
at Tuol Sleng, which they didn’t know existed. Phung Sunthary was the first to
spot Phung Ton.
The news of her husband’s death, Im
Sunthy told the tribunal, had prompted “a kind of tremendous grief” that has
not dissipated in three decades. She added, though, that she obtained some
comfort from his obvious influence on their seven children. “Now, I can see
that my children are brave, and every day they are outspoken people because
they were trained well by their father. Although many believe that they seem to
be aggressive by behaving like that, I know my husband would have liked them to
be brave and aggressive.”
Phung Sunthary spoke next. She wasted
little time in telling the court she had three questions to put to Duch, and
said that his professions of remorse would be for naught if he failed to answer
them in full.
First question: “Who made the decision
to kill my father on the 6th of July, 1977, or a little bit after that?”
The judges, as they did throughout the
trial when victims addressed the accused, permitted Duch to respond directly.
He stood up to do so. “Although I have the deepest respect for my former
professor,” he said, “I do not have any answer to that at this time, and that
is the truth.”
“What types of torture were inflicted
upon my father?”
Duch said he had no reason to believe
the professor had been tortured, but added that he had no way of knowing for
“Who made the decision to transfer my
father to S-21?”
“I did not have the knowledge of
that,” Duch said before observing: “Maybe Mam Nai is the only person who can
actually shed light on the exact details of his fate, if he is willing to do
Duch was referring to his former chief
interrogator, who was called to testify in July 2009. The differences between
witness and accused that day were stark in nearly every respect. Duch, about
five feet four inches tall, sat behind his team of lawyers in a white shirt
tucked into pressed black slacks. Mam Nai, who at more than six feet is something
of a Cambodian giant, wore a dark green coat, blue fingerless gloves and a red
and blue krama, a chequered farmers’ scarf that was a staple of the Khmer Rouge
The Documentation Centre of Cambodia
Mam Nai (back left) and Duch (back, third left) at Tuol Sleng with staff and
unidentified women and children; 1976.
outfits one could read the extent to which their ties to the revolution – the
main organising principle of their lives and the fortunes of their country –
had long since diverged. Whereas Duch defected voluntarily years before many
regime leaders, Mam Nai lives in an area of western Cambodia that remained a
Khmer Rouge stronghold until 1998, and his neighbours and relatives still call
him by his wartime alias, Comrade Chan.
Little is known about his early life.
Born in southeast Cambodia,
he met Duch while studying for his bachelor’s degree in Khmer literature in Phnom Penh. Their bond
was cemented in the late 1960s, when they were held in the same prison for a
short period by the Norodom Sihanouk regime on suspicion of being communist
The pair later worked at a secondary
school in Kampong Thom, where Duch taught mathematics and Mam Nai biology. They
had much in common even before signing up with Pol Pot. Chandler has written that both “emerge from
the record as strict, fastidious, totally dedicated teachers – characteristics
that they carried with them, to altered purposes, when they worked together at
In the early 1970s, fleeing a
clampdown on progressives, they went into the jungle to join the Communist
Party of Kampuchea – Duch in 1970 and Mam Nai in 1973. With Duch as his
“introducer” Mam Nai became a member in June 1974.
Those who later worked alongside Mam
Nai at Tuol Sleng uniformly describe him as a fiercely dedicated revolutionary.
Nhem En, who took photographs of prisoners entering the facility, discovered
this when he was given the task of developing negatives from a trip Pol Pot
made to China in October 1977. (China
was one of the few countries with which Pol Pot maintained diplomatic ties; it
proved a reliable source of political inspiration and economic assistance.)
When Mam Nai noticed that a photograph had a blotch above one of Pol Pot’s
eyes, he accused Nhem En of intentionally doctoring them as an insult to
Brother Number One and had him sent to Prey Sar agricultural prison, a nearby
“re-education” camp. Nhem En was not released until Mam Nai discovered, several
months later, that the blotch had originated on the negative.
Him Huy remembers Mam Nai’s distinct
appearance: the strikingly light complexion, the large ears and the wide mouth
that terrified staff and prisoners alike. He said the guards trod lightly when
Duch and Mam Nai were around, careful not to make any mistakes that might hint
at counter-revolutionary tendencies. “They both remembered everything that they
saw,” Him Huy said.
Though Mam Nai concedes that he was
not, by birth, one of the peasants in whose name the Khmer Rouge revolution was
waged, he told the tribunal he was able to transform his class identity after
studying the history of communism in the Soviet Union and China. “I was a
former professor,” he said. “I was in the bourgeoisie class, and then I rebuilt
myself to adapt myself into the proletarian class, into the workers’ class. I
achieved that. And that is the reason why the revolution allowed me to become a
It was this prior link to the
bourgeoisie that made him of particular interest to Im Sunthy and Phung
Sunthary. Even before Duch’s remark, they were familiar with the interrogator’s
background and thought he might know the answers to their questions.
Mam Nai is believed to have crossed
paths several times with Phung Ton in the years leading to the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer
Rouge, when they were both ensconced among the country’s intellectual elite.
Like Duch, Mam Nai studied at the Pedagogy Institute – where he graduated at
the top of his class of 200 – during Phung Ton’s tenure as director. The
professor’s signature is on his diploma.
Even more promising was another link
between the two men presented as evidence in the Duch case: Mam Nai’s signature
is on the professor’s biography and confession, documents that in many cases
were produced only after multiple rounds of interrogation.
From the moment he began testifying
Mam Nai proved a troublesome witness. He refused to answer several questions
owing to self-incrimination concerns, even though prosecutors have made clear
they do not view him as a senior leader and have no plans to pursue a case
He also took pains to stress all the
work he did for Duch that did not involve processing prisoners – cultivating
rice fields, planting potatoes and transporting cattle, among other things.
“And later on,” he allowed, “I was assigned to interrogate unimportant
Asked to elaborate on the
interrogation process, he alluded to the control he sought to exert over those
made to answer his questions. “When a prisoner was taken to me, after the
prisoner was shackled … I started to interrogate the person,” he said. “But
first I had to play politics with them – to speak, to tell them, to make them
understand – so that they would agree to make confessions. And then I started
to ask about the biography, and I would ask them to talk about their personal
histories and activities.”
But he rejected suggestions that he
and his fellow interrogators resorted to physical violence. When prisoners did
not confess their involvement with the CIA, the KGB or the Vietnamese, he said,
there were only two options: to “explain to them further”, or to send them back
to their cells so they could “reflect on their negative and positive
In reality, the process of obtaining a
confession was far more abusive, a point driven home by Mam Nai’s own
interrogation notebooks, which were recovered after the Vietnamese stormed Phnom Penh in January
1979. In them, he lays out the appropriate ways in which to inflict psychological
and physical assaults on his subjects.
Some prisoners were forced, for
example, to salute images of two dogs, one of which represented “Vietnamese
consumers of our territory” and the other “American imperialism”.
“We have them pay homage so as to hold
them firmly, because when they are arrested, 90 per cent of them still consider
themselves revolutionaries,” reads one passage of the notebooks. “After they
have paid homage to the dogs, they will realise that they are traitors.”
Another passage not only acknowledges
torture, but justifies its use.
“Take their reports, observe their
expressions. Apply political pressure and then beat them until [the truth]
emerges,” Mam Nai wrote. “Thinking only of torture is like walking on one leg –
there must be political pressure [so that we can] walk on two legs.”
judges were familiar with the notebooks and were not swayed when Mam Nai
claimed to be telling them everything he knew. At one point during his
testimony a judge asked Mam Nai whether he had “any problems” with his memory.
Mam Nai said he had recently had a bad fall that left him unconscious “for
about an hour”. “After the recovery, I seem to forget a lot,” he said.
© Julie Leafe
Photographs of victims on display at the Tuol Sleng
Genocide Museum, located in the former Tuol Sleng
prison, Phnom Penh.
He had not, however, forgotten the
arguments used to justify the regime’s treatment of prisoners. At M-13, a
prison in Kampong Speu province where he and Duch worked before transferring to
Tuol Sleng, detainees were shackled and made to stand in pits, their heads
poking just above ground. Survivors and staff have said it was not uncommon for
prisoners to drown when it rained. Asked about the practice, Mam Nai told
judges: “The country was bombarded, so villages would be bombarded by bombs by
the Americans. So in order not to put these detainees in danger, we had to put
them in the pits.”
He went on to say that he believed
most prisoners at M-13 and Tuol Sleng were “bad people” deserving of execution.
“Through my observations, there were less good people than the bad people,” he
said. “I’m very regretful for those good people who died and those people who
are less good and also died. But I’ve never been regretful for those bad people
When she was given the floor, Silke
Studzinsky, the German lawyer representing Phung Sunthary and Im Sunthy, asked
Mam Nai what he knew about Phung Ton’s death. Mam Nai said he knew nothing
about the professor’s time in Tuol Sleng.
Studzinsky then pointed out that Mam
Nai had signed Phung Ton’s confession. This spurred Mam Nai to concede that he
had in fact written it. “It is my handwriting,” he said. But he added that he
could not remember whether he had actually conducted the interrogation.
Studzinsky, one of many lawyers
appearing before the tribunal, had only 15 minutes to question Mam Nai. She
informed him that Phung Ton’s wife and daughter were present in the public
gallery. By that point, the two women could be heard sobbing in their seats.
“It would be really helpful if you would contribute to find the truth for the
relatives of Mr Phung Ton, and if you could elaborate,” Studzinsky said. Mam Nai
said he would like to provide information about any interrogation, but that he
Then one of the judges stepped in,
asking Mam Nai to explain why he would have written out and signed a confession
stemming from an interrogation he had not conducted.
In response, Mam Nai reversed his
earlier statement – and appeared to come close to addressing the torture
question. “Regarding the interrogation of Phung Ton, I did the interrogation,”
he said. “There was no – he was not forced to confess.” That was the closest he
came to giving any new information during the initial round of questioning.
As with all witnesses, Duch was
afforded a chance to comment on the testimony. Though these responses were
generally respectful, he was more hostile with Mam Nai, accusing his former
subordinate of withholding information out of fear.
“Please, please don’t be afraid,” he
told him. “Just tell the truth. You cannot really use a basket to cover the
dead elephant, so don’t even attempt to do that. I said I am ready to accept or
be accountable for all of the crimes that I have committed. And I would want
you to do the same.
“So when it comes to Professor Phung
Ton,” Duch continued, “we both admit that he was our teacher. I don’t want to
elaborate further on why I liked this professor, but I’m here to talk right
before the civil parties, and the daughter of my teacher. Here we are now
trying to tell the truth of what happened to him, the victim, because the world
and the Cambodian people are looking forward to hearing the truth. I think it
is the best opportunity for us to put together the piece of the puzzle of this
matter. So please be reminded that civil parties are here with us and they want
to know how our professor died, and they just want to know even where he died
and where his ashes would have been buried. So I think it is good that we
should help them to locate that place. I think communism should not be in our
spirit or blocking our views to tell the truth.”
When Duch finished, Studzinsky again
asked Mam Nai whether he could share anything about the fate of Phung Ton. Mam
Nai began to cry. “I would like to make the following comments,” he said. “I
would like to express my regret to the family of Professor Phung Ton.”
His court-provided lawyer then asked
for a break so Mam Nai could compose himself. After a few minutes, he was able
to continue. “I have been very remorseful,” he said. “I am very remorseful
because even my brothers or relatives died. I think it was a chaotic situation,
and we have nothing other than to be very regretful, and we cannot do anything
else. Through this court, I think the family of Professor Phung Ton is informed
of my impression.”
* * *
When I caught up with Phung Sunthary not
long after closing statements ended, she acknowledged that the hearings had
been draining, and lamented the fact that none of the regime figures – not
Duch, not Him Huy and certainly not Mam Nai – had told her anything new. But
she remained convinced that because Mam Nai was one of Phung Ton’s former students,
he would have monitored how the professor was treated and how he died.
She also said she had been moved by
the interrogator’s tears, which she believed were genuine. “Duch’s tears, his
crying, that’s a lie,” she said. “But Mam Nai’s are real tears.”
I told her I had decided to attempt to
interview Mam Nai away from the tribunal, and asked if she had anything she
would like me to say to him. She said I should ask him the same three questions
she had posed to Duch, then she handed me a book: I Believed in the Khmer
Rouge, by Ong Thong Hoeung, a student in Paris who, like Phung Ton, returned in 1976
hoping to assist the revolution.
Phung Sunthary had underlined a
passage describing an encounter Ong Thong Hoeung had with Phung Ton at one of
the camps for intellectuals. “We were living in poor conditions – no
sanitation, not enough food, no suitable clothes – and this caused us to come
down with all kinds of illnesses,” the passage reads. “We tried to tell each
other not to eat the unsanitary food, but after a while we had to eat first and
think about death later. One day I saw Phung Ton collecting a dirty banana leaf
and eating it – he was not careful about the food anymore because he was so
This was one of the few snippets of
information Phung Sunthary had unearthed about her father’s life following his
return. If Mam Nai were to see it, she told me, perhaps he would be willing to
describe his own encounters with the professor.
Mam Nai’s village, Chamkar Lhong, less
than a mile from the Thai border in western Cambodia,
is four hours by car from Battambang,
second city. As I drove there with my translator last December, travelling on
mud roads turned hard and dusty in the dry season, I thought about what Mam Nai
stood to gain from his reticence.
There was a chance, of course, that he
simply did not have the answers to Phung Sunthary’s questions, although his
contradictory statements in court suggested he knew more than he let on. Or
perhaps he viewed the regime years as too traumatic to revisit. That would have
explained his repeated refusal to sit for interviews, a stance setting him
apart from many former cadres.
But there was also the possibility
that, 31 years after the Pol Pot regime was toppled and branded “genocidal”, he
still had faith in the ideals that shaped it, and believed it ultimately did
more good than harm.
Mam Nai’s house stands at the end of
the only road in Chamkar Lhong. When we arrived we saw his daughter-in-law, So
Teavy, sitting outside. She greeted us warmly, and told us that Mam Nai was
working on a farm 40 miles away. We said we would be willing to drive there,
but she said no one in the village knew where it was, and that Mam Nai didn’t
carry a telephone. We told her we had a gift for her father-in-law. She did not
Then an older woman, dressed in a blue
shirt, light flannel jacket and bright green pants, walked over from a house
down the street. It was Mam Nai’s second wife, Khun Lak.
We explained the purpose of our visit
and her smile turned into a sneer. “When I saw your car I thought you were my
son,” she said. “If I had known you were not my son I would not have allowed
you into this village. All the foreigners who come here just want to get more
information from my husband. But he already spoke at the court for two days! He
said enough. No more information. So don’t even try.”
I knew Khun Lak had accompanied her
husband when he testified in Phnom
Penh, so I asked her about her impressions of the
tribunal. Standing in the yard with her arms crossed, she said that she had
When all other attempts at small talk
failed I tried again for some time with her husband, who I suspected was
somewhere on the property. I said there were questions we hoped to pose that
had gone unanswered during his two days of testimony, specifically relating to
Phung Ton. I said we had a gift from Phung Ton’s daughter, one that she hoped
would jog Mam Nai’s memory and allow him to recall more details about the death
of her father. But Khun Lak remained unmoved.
“And I want to say the following to
Phung Ton’s daughter,” she added as we retreated to the car. “Who do you think
you are? Only the court has the right to ask him. If you ask him again and
again about the Khmer Rouge he will just say the same thing. It’s okay if you come
here to ask about his health or how he’s doing – he is fine. Sometimes he gets
sick, but he’s okay. But about the Khmer Rouge? I want to say the following to
Phung Ton’s daughter: you have no right to ask about that.”
* * *
On the morning of July 26, Phung Sunthary
and Im Sunthy joined their fellow civil parties, as well as scores of
diplomats, journalists and direct and indirect victims, in the tribunal’s
public gallery for the announcement of the verdict on Duch, 18 months after his
trial began. The proceedings unfolded with little pageantry: as Trial Chamber
President Nil Nonn read out a summary of the ruling, Duch sat in the dock with
his arms folded on the table in front of him, staring straight ahead at the
A few days before, Him Huy told me he
already considered the case a success, arguing that it had forced Cambodians to
examine in depth a period many would just as soon skirt over. “When I clarified
my case at the court, it seemed that the story I was telling had happened the
night before,” he said. “I think the court is very good because it makes us
remember, and helps us to find justice for the victims.”
Before announcing the particular form
justice would take in the Duch case, Nil Nonn read out the names of all
accepted civil parties, thus making their roles official. “Bou Meng, as a
survivor of S-21 and for the loss of his wife, Ma Yoeun, alias Thy,” he said.
“Chhin Navy, for the loss of her husband, Tea Havtek.”
Photographs: Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia
Former Khmer Rouge soldier and guard Him Huy gives evidence at Duch’s trial (left).
Duch awaits the tribunal’s verdict (right).
After six names had been read, Phung
Sunthary and Im Sunthy received formal confirmation that Duch’s role in the
death of Phung Ton had been registered as legal fact: “Phung Sunthary and Im
Sunthy, for the loss of their father and husband, Phung Ton, respectively.”
This would turn out to be the only tangible benefit either woman would garner
from their participation.
Last year, the civil parties requested
by way of reparation everything from free medical care to the construction of
memorials to the establishment of a national victims’ commemoration day. Having
listed the accepted civil parties, Nil Nonn informed them that most of those
requests had been rejected, either because they were deemed too vague or
because they fell outside the jurisdiction of the tribunal. He noted, however,
that their names would be included in the final judgment, and that all
statements of apology made by Duch during the course of the trial would be
compiled and distributed.
Then came the verdict, with Nil Nonn
announcing that Duch, 67, had been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against
humanity. Under Cambodian law, he faced a maximum sentence of life
imprisonment, though the prosecution had requested that he be made to serve 40
years. The court sentenced him to 35, from which five were subtracted for the
illegality of his detention by a military court from 1999 to 2007, five years
longer than permitted. With credit for the 11 years he has already served taken
into account, Duch faces a maximum of 19 more behind bars.
Afterwards, many foreign observers who
had flown in for the verdict credited the court with handing down a “fair”
sentence that reflected a range of mitigating factors, among them Duch’s
cooperation with the tribunal and his “potential for rehabilitation”. But the
reaction among Cambodians was more critical. Predictably, Duch’s victims were
among those who said he had been treated far too leniently.
“Regardless of whether the world is
happy, I am not happy,” said Chum Mey, the mechanic tortured at Tuol Sleng. “My
tears will still fall – we have suffered once under the Khmer Rouge, and now we
are suffering again, so I am not satisfied at all.”
A few hours after the proceedings
concluded, Phung Sunthary, who in the last year has emerged as one of the most
vocal civil parties, had little to say about the sentence or the reparation
ruling. “My family and I were very disappointed and shocked when the court
announced this,” she said. “I am not happy, and it is not fair for the
© Julie Leafe
A visitor inspects photographs of prisoners taken on entry
into Tuol Sleng. Most, if not all, were bludgeoned to death
in the killing fields.
the possibility that Duch will leave prison alive, she allowed only that it “makes
me sad”, and noted that 19 years amounted to a little more than half the time
she and her mother had been living without Phung Ton.
the sorts of criticisms beamed around the world in news reports about the
verdict. They came from Cambodians with a direct connection to Tuol Sleng, as
well as those who don’t but who know enough about the Khmer Rouge revolution to
blame it for the many hardships that still buffet their country. It would have
been naïve to expect widespread acclaim for any verdict in the Duch case,
particularly when one considers that, for some victims, the only punishment
befitting the commandant of Tuol Sleng is 16,000 death sentences. But it is
difficult to take issue with the frustrations of a woman who, having followed the
proceedings in the hope of obtaining answers to the most painful questions she
has ever faced, received instead a judgment she viewed as hollow, and a promise
that her name would be included in a legal document affirming what she already