The Master of Confessions
The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer
What is justice for a man who supervised the interrogation and killing of thousands? Especially a man who now claims to be a Christian and to be, at least in some ways and cases, repentant for his crimes?
Thierry Cruvellier has written a fascinating book about the trial of ‘Duch’ the director of the S-21 prison and interrogation center in Cambodia during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Cruvellier watched virtually the entire trial and interviewed many of the participants and observers. The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer of Rouge Torturer (Ecco, 2014) is both history and philosophy, a deeply moving attempt to understand Duch and his actions. Cruvellier offers the reader an finely crafted narrative of S-21, of the life of Duch and of the place Duch occupied in a genocidal structure. But he also wrestles with deeply philosophical questions about our ability to really understand other people’s actions, about the nature of justice in the aftermath of mass violence, and about the role of courts and trials. It’s a book that gets under your skin in the best kind of way.
A journalist, Cruvellier earlier wrote a similar account of witnessing the trial of perpetrators from the Rwandan genocide. As we discuss in the interview, the experience of listening to accounts of atrocities day after day has taken a toll on him, as it would on anyone. But the book that resulted is profoundly moving and unsettling. I hope our discussion offers a taste of the ideas and understanding his book offers.