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David Chandler: “Obedience plays into the horror of it all”

Written By vibykhmer on Monday, August 10, 2009 | 10:52 PM

bags - ECCC ©John Vink/ Magnum

Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 06/08/2009: Bags belonging to Sieam Reap residents who left their village at midnight to arrive on time for Duch’s trial, which has known records of attendance
©John Vink/ Magnum

Thursday August 6th saw the highly anticipated hearing of U.S. professor David Chandler, one of the leading experts on Cambodia’s recent history and author, among others, of “Brother Number One” (1992) and “Voices from S-21” (1999). In addition to highlighting the characteristics of S-21, the “anteroom to death” where prisoners were all bound to be executed, the 76-year-old expert shed a bold light on the human dimension of the accused, by choosing to stress the vulnerability of the man who may be led to commit “crimes of obedience” rather than giving any credit to the idea of absolute evil. He thus agreed with the thesis defended by Duch, who says he was an “actor and hostage of this criminal regime.” However, there was a huge regret mixed with an incomprehension: why did the judges decide to hear this important witness over one day only, when the analysis of the heart of the case neared its end, while other witnesses with less significance were summoned over one or two days of trial?


The “Last Plan”
After a short presentation on the research publications made by David Chandler, mostly those focusing on Democratic Kampuchea, judge Cartwright reviewed various points raised in his book on S-21. She asked him on what he based his conclusion that the accused was the author of the “Last Plan,” a document written in 1978 and seeking to demonstrate that the confessions collected for two years pointed out to a large conspiracy involving the United States, USSR, Taiwan and Vietnam, he specified in his book. The professor, who has never met the accused, said he recalled seeing that the text in Duch’s handwriting.

S-21, a “total institution”

David Chandler applied to S-21 the concept of “total institution” – elaborated by U.S. sociologist Erving Goffman, he recalled – which designates an isolated place which “follows its own rules” to continue working. He listed other characteristics defining this security centre: secrecy at the very heart of the administration, its hierarchical nature and the imposition of harsh discipline by the accused.

“You described [the accused] in this manner: as the man in charge of S-21, Duch worked hard to control every aspect of its operations, his experiences and instincts from teaching were helpful: he was used to keeping records, finding answers to problems, earning respect and disciplining groups of people. […]. Duch often frightened workers at the prison. […] Further on [in your book], you say that as a mathematician, he enjoyed rationally-pleasing models…” The New Zealand judge carried out her interrogation, her nose in David Chandler’s book, simply asking him, with often closed questions, to confirm what he had written.

The role of archives at S-21

Questioned on the archives at S-21, “more extensive and detailed” than in other parts of the Santebal apparatus, the American detailed the objectives of such a procedure: it seemed to him that one purpose was “to demonstrate to the party leadership that S-21 was a thoroughly responsible, efficient, modern and productive body inside the government, inside a country where conditions were in many places […] completely chaotic from day to day. Another purpose was to demonstrate the professionalism of the defendant and his colleagues. Another was to inform the top leadership in as much details as possible whether and in what way its suspicions were justified for certain prisoners and to uncover strings of traitors […] that would give information to the leadership it could then use for its own purposes. And finally, this is speculation […], one purpose of assembling this mighty archives was that it might serve as a source for a triumphant and triumphal history of the Communist Party of Kampuchea [CPK] […]. They were trying their very best to do a good job […] and they trying very conscientiously to serve what they perceived as the needs of the party leadership which changed course from year to year, month to month and even from day to day.”

Confessions which authenticity could not be contested

Judge Lavergne continued: “The accused informed us on several occasions that he did not trust the authenticity of the confessions extracted at S-21, he did not consider them as reflecting the truth. Are you able to tell us if, either on the part of the accused or maybe also Democratic Kampuchea leaders, there was either blindness, some kind of cynicism or some kind of, I don’t know, paranoia? Were there things like that in the operation of S-21 and on the part of its leaders?” In David Chandler’s view, the explanation of the accused was “accurate.” He explained that if he had said that to the Democratic Kampuchea leaders, “his position [at S-21] and his life might have been in danger. So therefore, the confessions and the whole machinery of producing confessions were allowed to run on steadily, in some sense regardless of the accuracy or usefulness of a good deal of the information. […] But these confessions were allowed to go forward largely, I think, to serve and satisfy the need on the part of senior members of the regime [who claimed that] these sorts of things were taking place.” He later insisted that the interrogation work was S-21’s principal raison d’etre.

Conspiracy, confession, execution

The expert explained to the co-Prosecutors that S-21 was established because, particularly from mid-1976, the regime leaders were convinced that “nests of traitors existed inside the communist party.” Therefore, there was a need for a full-scale interrogation facility needed to be established to work on these suspicions in order to produce clear information for these leaders, to verify whether conspiracy activities existed or were being planned. Returning to the specificity of the centre directed by Duch, the professor noted that “by their confessions, [the prisoners] were in a process of re-educating themselves, rebuilding themselves into better citizens for having admitted what they had done, but they were re-educating themselves… in order to be killed. And that to me doesn’t make any sense.”

Did the accused have a choice?

International co-Prosecutor William Smith asked him if, in his opinion, the accused had a choice in the implementation of the CPK policy at S-21, and if he could have minimised the sufferings and killings at S-21. “I can’t believe that these actions can go unnoticed just because there is a context that can explain them. On the other hand, there is the idea that people had a free choice to disobey what they saw as the ruling context of Democratic Kampuchea […]. But once that context started to move forward, maybe they didn’t have that choice. The choices were made very early. […] I am reluctant to say this because I have never been in any kind of situation where I would have been in danger by refusing to do something. But I can’t help but think that the people who inflicted this terrible damage on everybody knew what they were doing, and almost worse, did not seem to suffer themselves from what was happening. It didn’t seem to lead them to lose sleep, […] to lessen their enthusiasm for coming back to work the next day.”

David Chandler ©John Vink/ Magnum
Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 06/08/2009: David P. Chandler, researcher specialised in the Khmer Rouge, during his testimony before the ECCC
©John Vink/ Magnum



David Chandler admitted that Duch was quite happy that some confessions could have been extracted without resorting to torture. And if that could have been generalised, the accused claimed “he would have been a happier administration of the prison.” “But I can’t see from the documentary evidence how that very deep remorse came from his knowledge of the day-to-day activities of the prison or what we could call excesses that shine through a lot of the confessions or testimonials of survivors.”

An enthusiastic and proud administrator of S-21

David Chandler explained that Duch did respond to the leaders’ expectations and executed their orders – otherwise, he would have been in danger – but he also sought to please them. “He was an enthusiastic and proud administrator of S-21 who worked out techniques and organisational methodology from scratch. There were no precedents for this kind of place. […] [Duch] was innovating, improving all the time. And I think he was doing not only what his superiors thought was a reasonably good job or he would have known and been dismissed, but also what he himself thought was […] an excellent job. I think he wanted to excel in this job and in other things earlier in his career: he wanted to excel as a student, he wanted to excel as an apprentice revolutionary, and throughout his professional life. I think he was interested in not just serving those above him but to serve them with enthusiasm and skill, so that he could be proud of himself.” However, the expert concluded, the accused was not the sole initiator or monitor of what was happening at S-21, although, in his opinion, “not much escaped his attention” and he was given considerable leeway in how to proceed.

The dark side of man

The witness specified a little later he wanted to suggest in his book that “under certain conditions, almost anyone could be led to perform activities of this kind. […] once their behaviour was routinised and once these people were not punished but permitted to go further and further […], [the staff of S-21] […] operated generally with more enthusiasm rather than less. Why this is true, I’m not sure. But it is a dark side to all of us.”

A regime in which everyone was caught up…

David Chandler suggested that the regime carried a “self-insurance” that it would fall. “This kind of absolute confidence that they [the Democratic Kampuchea leaders] were on the right track was very dangerous. No one was given time to ask questions, to hesitate. There was no chance to contradict. So, the regime became like a waterfall in which everyone was caught up.”

No generalised sexual crimes at S-21
When Silke Studzinsky, for civil party group 2, raised the issue of sexual crimes committed at S-21, which were mentioned in some confessions, the witness seized the chance to observe that if there were such abuses, there was no evidence proving they were not generalised. Moreover, those were “punished,” “with re-education at Prey Sar, or even death if the person concerned confessed his acts.”

The smashing of detainees was part of Duch’s mandate

For the defence, Kar Savuth asked him if, during his research, he discovered whether the accused ever ordered the execution of prisoners without having received the order from his superiors first. David Chandler answered that no such superior echelon orders survived, if they did exist. “If they had survived, it would have made the work of this tribunal much easier!” Duch’s mandate at S-21, he pursued, was to see to it that everyone who entered the prison left it for execution. So, he did not have to “seek higher authority to supervise a system in which […] everybody got killed” and to give the green light to “smash” since it was part of his mandate.

The regrets of the accused did not lead him to desert, at the fall of the regime

François Roux, Duch’s international co-lawyer, took over. “Since this morning, no one has raised the fact the accused is pleading guilty and admits his responsibility. Do you consider that the accused’s recognition of his responsibility is of service to history?” “That’s an easy question. I think yes, indeed. I was extremely moved and impressed by that admission of responsibility, which seems to me pretty unique in surviving actors of that administration.” The witness did however not go any further. A few questions later, he stressed that “the awareness that the regime was criminal came in 1978 [to Duch], when he said he began to get disillusioned […]. He was also frightened because the final outbursts of the regime seemed extremely arbitrary. […] The statements of Pol Pot made absolutely no sense. […] In the closing six months [of the regime], there is a documented series of regrets on the part of the defendant, but these did not extend to – and I am not being accusatory – his deserting the movement in 1979 and 1980. He continued being a revolutionary.”

About the leaders’ paranoia

What about the paranoia that had taken hold of the Khmer Rouge leaders? “The paranoia started at the centre and spread down through the ranks.” “In this whole atmosphere of 1978, there was an attempt to diminish the extent of the cruelties which the regime was noted for and to try and balance the boat as it was headed for disaster. But the paranoia of the leadership continued to have no bounds because if indeed, the most dangerous enemies were those that were invisible, that can never stop because you can’t see them.”

The “Last Plan” was not Duch’s work

Suddenly, the lawyer informed him: “I regret that neither the co-Prosecutors or the civil party lawyers warned you about the difficulties regarding one item of evidence in the case file.” In his book, David Chandler attributed the document entitled the “Last Plan” to Duch, but François Roux reported that the co-Prosecutors recognised this text had not been written by the accused, but by Pon [important interrogator at S-21], and Duch confirmed his and Pon’s handwritings looked similar. The French lawyer insisted that the prosecution should have communicated this information to the witness.

Crimes of obedience

Then, welcoming his courage in addressing the “crimes of obedience” at the end of his book on S-21, François Roux invited him to explain Milgram’s experiment, which aimed to determine an individual’s level of obedience to an authority considered to be legitimate, which he evoked in his book. Volunteers recruited through advertisement were asked to send electric charges of increasing voltage to candidates – actually actors – as they answered questions increasingly wrong. “70% of the volunteers obeyed the commands to increase the voltage past the danger level,” David Chandler reminded, despite the screams heard on the other side of the wall by those pretending to receive electric shocks. In this mise en scene staged unbeknownst to the volunteers, the orders were given by a professor wearing a white coat who represented authority. The conclusions of this experiment carried out in the United States in the early 1960s and since repeated in other countries have never been questioned. David Chandler drew a parallel with “the culture of S-21 and Democratic Kampuchea, where the people who gave the orders were accustomed to giving them and the people who received the orders were accustomed to obeying. There was no culture in Cambodia of questioning commands by someone who is in authority […]. So, I used this experiment to show how, in a situation like S-21, obedience plays into the horror of it all,” the expert said, before carefully adding: “I don’t think it explains everything, but I think it is useful to see to what extent people like us have built into ourselves the fact that if the man in charge says it is ok, then it must be ok. Then it feeds into the culture of S-21.” François Roux nuanced in his turn: “To understand does not mean to justify.”

Perpetrating evil, within anyone’s reach

Finally, François Roux finished his interrogation with what he considered “the fundamental question,” that is the last sentence in David Chandler’s book: “To find the source of the evil that was enacted at S-21 on a daily basis, we need to look no further than ourselves.” The witness did not let himself get trapped. While he maintained the sentence, he also specified that it was “not placed in the conclusion for the purposes of a judicial process.” But, he continued, it related to one’s capacity to do good or evil, which did not excuse in any way the person who perpetrates evil. “I did not like hearing other people say ‘look at those people, they are evil.’ What I wanted to tell them was who knows what they would do if they found themselves in such a situation?”

Ho Chi Minh’s head, for lack of Nixon

The accused was very deferential with the professor and expressed to him the respect he had for his work. Duch accepted the witness’ observation that the picture of a Ho Chi Minh headed dog – which prisoners were made to bow to – was not an idea of the CPK, but resulted from his own initiative. “I think that is an accurate observation. I know it was not right to do that. But back then, I did not manage to find a picture of Richard Nixon…”, Duch explained, prompting amused smiles in the room. On July 27th, he had contested in court a declaration that the renowned professor had attributed to him in his book and claimed he was ready to answer questions in due time, during the expert’s hearing. That did not happen.

From Bizot to Chandler

David Chandler’s testimony echoed that of François Bizot who was held hostage by Duch and had explained to the Chamber, on April 8th, that he had discovered the man behind the monster in Duch – something the French ethnologist had found most terrifying precisely. But there was one difference. While the former arrived to that conclusion through analysis and intellectual construction, the latter experienced it in his flesh.

Villagers - ECCC ©John Vink/ Magnum
Kambol (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). 06/08/2009: Several buses packed with Siem Reap residents left their village at midnight to be able to attend the trial at the ECCC in the morning
©John Vink/ Magnum

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