When one looks carefully at the cover of genocide researcher Peter Ma-guire’s new book, it becomes slowly apparent that something is amiss. The boy in the portrait—clearly recognizable as one of the victims photographed at Tuol Sleng prison—has no shirt on. Thus the eye has no choice but to accept that the identification badge has been fastened to his pectoral muscle with a pin.
Maguire began working on “Facing Death in Cambodia” in 1994 when, after years of having his nose buried in books at Columbia University in the US, he decided to come to Cambodia and get a firsthand account of a post-genocide society.
But like the eye’s first swoop over the cover of his book, Ma-guire soon learned that the theories he’d studied had little to do with things as they really are, or how he would like them to be.
Throughout the course of his decadelong research, Maguire spoke to some of the most important villains and heroes from the Khmer Rouge period.
Noteworthy was his brief conversation with Im Chan, a former Tuol Sleng prisoner who’s life was spared because he was able to sculpt effigies of Pol Pot.
Im Chan impressed upon Ma-guire the belief of many Bud-dhists that a Khmer Rouge tribunal would be a mistake—that the only way to survive was to transcend the desire for revenge.
In the case of Tuol Sleng prison’s infamous commandant Comrade Duch, Im Chan inverted the classic war crimes defense by saying that Duch is not guilty because he “only issued orders” to kill and torture yet was never seen committing those crimes himself.
One of the characters Maguire got to know more intimately was Nhem En—the prodigal Khmer Rouge photographer who took most of the disturbing portraits on display at the now renamed Tuol Sleng genocide museum.
“En had both technical ability and a certain meticulousness that contributed greatly to his success,” the author wrote, detailing the photographer’s roller coaster life, from Khmer Rouge child commando to unrepentant media opportunist, to a confused middle-age man dying of HIV/AIDS.
Maguire also spoke with retired Vietnamese colonel Mai Lam, designer of the skull and bone map of Cambodia that was removed from Tuol Sleng museum in 2002.
According to the museum staff, the raw material was brought from the Choeung Ek “killing fields” with hair and skin still attached. The “museum workers were first given rice wine, then told to clean the skulls” in preparation for the map making, Maguire was told.
Unlike his Cambodian counterparts, Mai Lam, who also built the US war crimes museum in Ho Chi Minh city, gave mostly cryptic responses to Maguire’s questions.
“It is difficult for me to answer that question,” he said when asked if Chinese experts trained Khmer Rouge interrogators. “Time will answer questions,” he said.
The charade went on until Ma-guire left, frustrated, but not before being warned by the old communist curator to “not make bad propaganda.”
Maguire’s fact-finding mission culminated in January 2003, and was marked by both a great blessing and yet another chapter in the violence that has cursed Cam-bodia for more than 35 years.
The blessing came in the form of Bou Meng, a painter and Tuol Sleng survivor who escaped with seven other “useful” prisoners while being shepherded out of the prison during the Vietnamese liberation in 1979.
Bou Meng turned up at the offices of the Documentation Center of Cambodia after the organization’s periodical reported that he had been killed after the escape in 1979. “I am alive,” he said to overjoyed Documentation Center staff who met him at their offices.
The violence came in the form of the anti-Thai riots.
Reacting to an alleged statement by a Thai actress that Angkor Wat had been stolen from Thailand, a mob was allowed to burn and loot Thai property, including the Thai Embassy.
“I could only compare this violent and explosive reaction to the alleged comments of a soap opera star to their quiet tolerance of genocidists in their midst,” Maguire wrote. “It seemed that Cambodia’s unique culture of impunity and denial had profoundly affected the generation born after 1979.”
Concise, impassioned and at all times aware of the “hallowness” of his words when compared to survivor’s own experiences, Maguire leaves readers mute with his deeply paradoxical introspective into the aftermath of the three year, eight month and 20 day experiment in stone-age communism that left a scar on Cambodia that has not yet even begun to heal.