Facing Death in Cambodia
By Ian Neubauer
April 23-24, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
"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.