What Does It Take To Be A Mass-Murderer?

A case study from the Cambodian genocide

Photo by Steve DeBeus on Reshot

On 26 July 2010, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, the head of the notorious Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Cambodia was formally charged with crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in jail, for his part in the genocide that occurred in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

Almost forty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime which was responsible for the atrocities; he became the first of the perpetrators to be prosecuted for his involvement.

Following his trial, five years were taken off his sentence. This would see him set free if he reaches the age of 87 in 2029.

Duch is a lesser-known figure to the wider world, but he is an interesting case study about the people that are complicit in genocide. He trained to be a mathematics teacher, before joining the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

We often like to think of the figures involved in genocide as beyond the pale. Grotesque monsters who are the very personification of evil. The reality is much more stark and humbling.

They are often everyday folk like you and me who have become entangled in ideologies and beliefs in the superiority of their views over others. Genocide is mass killing on an industrial scale, for this to be accomplished there needs to be a large number of willing participants.

The crimes that Duch committed during the Cambodian genocide show it doesn't take much for humans to descend into monsters

Duch’s story is a remarkable one, the maths teacher turned brutal prison commandant responsible for the deaths of an estimated 12,000 people.

His evasion of Cambodian and international authorities for twenty years, before being brought to justice for his part in one of the most harrowing episodes of the twentieth century is a tale of justice finally being served.

Comrade Duch

Ironically, the former maths teacher was in charge of the most notorious prison, S-21, before the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it had been a school.

Within the confined walls of S-21, Duch wielded all the power and was in charge of the prisoner’s lives. He had the final say over whether they would be executed or whether they would remain in their cramped cells.

Though Duch was not a high-ranking official within the Khmer Rouge, he was single-handedly responsible for the loss of thousands of lives. The licence that he was permitted within the S-21 prison was terrifying.

Numerous torture techniques were perfected by Duch’s men, including the horrific ordeal of waterboarding, where the prisoner was immobilised with their heads facing downwards. Water was then poured over their head causing the prisoner to feel as if they were drowning.

The levels of Duch’s scrupulousness were absurd; he set aside days for killing specific types of people. One day he would kill the wives of enemies, the next children and another for factory workers.

Not only was Duch’s brutality astounding, but so was his documentation of the atrocities that took place within the prison. Every prisoner who entered S-21 was photographed, and this was also the case before they died. When the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Duch was ordered to destroy his documentation of the prisoners; he forgot and was subsequently demoted.

The photographs of the victims now adorn the walls of the prison, which is a memorial to the atrocities that occurred there.

Such was the brutal nature of S-21 that there are only thought to be seven known survivors of the prison, from the estimated 15,000 that perished there. This minuscule number highlights the brutality and viciousness that Duch and his men orchestrated within the walls of the S-21 prison.

During the early years of the prison, corpses were buried, however, due to the profligacy of the prison in exterminating its prisoners, they had to be transported to the Choeung Ek extermination centre by the end of 1979.

When the Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1979, Duch and his men fled S-21 and the capital Phnom Penh and retreated to the border with Thailand. Duch managed to avoid the authorities for twenty years taking on different aliases and even returning to teaching.

He was eventually tracked down in 1999 and he handed himself over to the authorities after his discovery.

Following the death of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in captivity in 1998, Duch became the first perpetrator to be tried for his part in the Cambodian genocide. He was charged with “personally overseeing the systematic torture of more than 15,000 prisoners.”

Throughout his trial, Duch constantly pled for forgiveness, stating that he felt “heartfelt sorrow” for the crimes he had committed and was willing to co-operate fully with the tribunal. He was also taken to the scene of his crimes where he broke down in tears.

Duch’s trial was significant as he was the first person connected to the genocide to be tried and subsequently charged for his part in the genocide. The fact it took nearly thirty years for him to be tried was not ideal, but it’s a sign that you can’t run from your past.

There was nothing in Duch’s character that set him apart as a monster capable of such atrocities. He was described as a quiet and bright boy during his childhood, although one that didn’t smile much.

This is a disturbing thought to consider. If a man with no obvious sign of maliciousness can become complicit in genocide, what does this mean for the rest of us?

Genocide is the mass murder of groups of people, but for this to happen, thousands of people need to take part. It is not the act of a crazed mass-murdering leader, but the undertaking of a government and people in agreement.

You may think that the reason people become complicit in genocides is the fear of retribution. However, a story from the Holocaust suggests otherwise.

In 1942, the Reserve Police Battalion 101 was sent to Poland to take part in the rounding up of Jews. The reserve was not made up of hardcore, bloodthirsty Nazis, but regular middle-aged men, many of whom had families.

Reserve Police Battalion 101

Three weeks after their arrival, they were sent to to the village of Józefów, home to 1,800 Jews. The commander Major Wilhelm Trapp ordered his men to round up all the Jews in the village, as there were reports they had been cooperating with local partisan groups.

He ordered the men to be separated from the women and children so that they could be sent to a work camp. However, he also ordered that the women, children and elderly should be taken aside and shot.

He stated to his men that he did not like what he had been told to do, but if it made it easier, they should think of the many German women and children who had been killed due to bombs dropped by the allies.

At the end of his speech, Trapp said that anyone who did not want to take part in the killings could step aside. Out of the 500 men who were there, only fifteen chose to opt-out of the killings. The rest of the men went on to massacre innocent Jewish women and children.

The story of Trapp’s men and Duch himself shows us that genocide needs the complicit agreement of ordinary people to occur. Once we have dehumanised a certain group of people, it is much easier to convince ourselves there is nothing wrong with exterminating them.

In this age of polarised politics and dangerous rhetoric, it is worth remembering that genocide is not a relic consigned to the past. It is a possibility that we must always temper, one we must do our best to eliminate.

To do this, we must tone down the inflammatory rhetoric we see in politics today and look to work together instead of blaming each other. Duch showed that even the most normal of people can become mass murderers, let us hope we never see it again.

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