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Sunday, November 12, 2006


Maybe we're not so bad

I have mentioned in this blog, a few times recently, a book I was reading, Philip Short's 'Pol Pot, the history of a nightmare'. I found this book to be quite depressing and it left me with some quite negative feelings. I decided to read something more uplifting next. However in the bookshop I found myself drawn to 'The Gate' by Francois Bizot, another book on the Khmer Rouge.

But this book is quite different. In my view, Short has a bias against both the Khmer people and Theravada Buddhism. Sure his reporting is thorough and overall I would say it is balanced but to me the bias still shows. On the other hand Bizot appears to have a positive bias towards the Khmer people and an in depth knowledge of Theravada Buddhism (which Short lacks).

Short's book covers the whole history of the Khmer Rouge and as such is very thorough. But he is relying on other people's accounts. Bizot's is a first-person narrative. He was there! And tells what he experienced. Apparently he is the only Westerner to have been arrested by the Khmer Rouge and released. The others were all executed, probably after being tortured.

Bizot, a Frenchman, was in Cambodia researching Buddhist monuments and traditions. He was originally based at Angkor Wat. In 1971, the Khmer Rouge were still fighting their revolution. Bizot's research into Buddhist practices had brought him, along with two Khmer assistants, into the south-west (not all that far from where I am now living) when they were arrested by Khmer Rouge soldiers and taken to a jungle prison.

The officer in charge of the prison was a young man named Douch, who later became infamous as the principal torturer of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Short's book lists characters with a brief biography. Many, who were loyal supporters of Pol Pot, met their end in Tuol Sleng. Because of Pol Pot's paranoia they were sent there to be interrogated and were never released. In Tuol Sleng it was the job of Douch and his assistants to gain confessions. Any method was acceptable. Once the crimes were confessed execution followed.

What sort of person was Douch who could inflict these nightmarish tortures? Pol Pot only gave the orders. Douch was the one who carried them out.

Bizot got to know the young Douch quite well during his imprisonment. He paints a picture of him as being a man with principles and perhaps even a little compassion. It was Douch's belief in Bizot's innocence that led to Bizot being freed. The Khmer Rouge had little respect for human life as shown by the saying 'Keeping you is not profitable to us. Discarding you is no loss.' Bizot's release was no small thing.

Bizot stayed in Cambodia after his release and was in Phnom Penh at the time the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975. (My understanding and enjoyment of the book is increased by my knowledge of the city that is the setting for this part of it.) His description of life in the capital is not a pretty picture. However, he is still able to see the good in people. Nhem, one of the commanding officers of the area, is also depicted as having some humanity.

I have a reluctance to take on Short's biases. I believe that whatever is true of the Khmers is also true of the whole of humanity, given similar circumstances. And that's the scary part. If we are all that bad or at least potentially that bad, it doesn't speak well of humanity in general. However, Bizot is able to see the good in some of the worst characters in the worst situation. I'm not saying it's a nice read. There are many characters who we are left wondering—just what did happen to them? As Bizot doesn't know, he doesn't say. But considering the situation, there is little chance they survived. Even so, 'The Gate' restored my faith in humanity that was so shaken after reading Short's book.


Where are they now?

Bizot lives in Paris. He is the Director of Studies at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and holds the chair in Southeast Asian Buddhism at the Sorbonne.

After the collapse of the Pol Pot regime Douch worked for international aid organizations for many years under assumed names. He is now in prison awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. He has converted to Christianity and says that he is not concerned by his imprisonment. 'They can have my body. Jesus has my soul.'

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