If you come into Alexander Hinton’s book Man or Monster? expecting to be provided with an answer to the titular question then you are likely to be disappointed. This is not Hinton’s purpose. If you are looking for a complex and engaging portrayal of Duch and his trial then you are in the right place.
This book weaves together the story of Duch, the S-21 prison that he ran during the Khmer Rouge regime, and his trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) which concluded in 2012. It is structured around the course of the trial, with its central chapters following from opening statements through evidence and closing statements to the judgement and finally the appeal judgement. Throughout, Hinton uses the trial to delve into Duch’s background, Khmer Rouge policies, and the establishment and functioning of S-21.
Rather than adopting the binary possibilities of man or monster, most of the book’s chapters are centred around a portrayal of Duch: Man, Revolutionary, Subordinate, Cog, Commandant, Master, Villain, Zealot, Scapegoat, and the Accused. Hinton shows the reader how different actors at the ECCC, including Duch himself, have constructed their chosen interpretation and for what purpose. We also see how Duch’s past identities have played out in his interactions with the court – as a ‘practiced teacher’ (p. 69) lecturing the court in the opening days of the trial, as someone reporting to the judges ‘in a manner that echoed his reporting to the Party Centre’ (p. 104), and in his closing statement he ‘was laying out an argument resembling something between a mathematician’s proof and a legal judgement’ (p. 214).
There are some places I was surprised the analysis didn’t delve deeper. One of the most noteworthy moments of Duch’s trial came in closing statements when after months and years of expressing his guilt and apologising he asked the court to acquit and release him. This moment also revealed the tension between the national and international that is sometimes present at the hybrid ECCC; Duch’s international lawyer was seemingly as unprepared for this request as the audience was. Although he does acknowledge this event, Hinton does not pay any particular attention to it despite it being a key interaction that shaped many observers’ interpretation of Duch, his statements, and his apologies.
In his opening and closing chapters Hinton makes much of his choice of style for this book, referring to its literary and poetic nature and classifying his work as an ethnodrama. In some places these choices are readily apparent, such as where he creates poetry from snippets of trial transcripts. However, through the main body of the text it mostly manifests as clear and eloquent writing that conveys the rich detail of the people and places involved.
Since Hinton’s aim is not to provide an answer to the question man or monster he instead uses it to draw attention to the various frames through which Duch, S-21, and the ECCC are perceived. He briefly looks at how the Cambodian government constructed the story and museum of S-21 and how the ECCC is now framed by the language of human rights and transitional justice. The threads of his previous work also show through most clearly here where he has grappled with other fundamental questions of violence (Why did they kill?) and challenged what he refers to as transitional justice imaginary and the supposed role these trials play in transforming a country from savagery to civilisation.
The most approachable way that these frames are introduced is through the idea of graffiti. The book cover shows us an image of Duch on display that has been covered in graffiti and Hinton uses this to consider the way that so many (himself included) have graffitied Duch for their own purposes.
One element of framing that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the exceptional nature attributed to S-21. Hinton only passingly mentions the network of security centres around the country and the attempt by the defence to therefore argue that Duch was not a senior leader or most responsible for crimes any more than the hundreds of others who ran security centres. Two factors most set S-21 apart: the wealth of documentation it left (thanks to Duch’s meticulous nature and the hasty abandonment of the facility), and its role as the security centre where the high profile prisoners were sent. It is this second element that must complicate our understanding of S-21 and the way we view its memorialisation. This is not for a moment to excuse the immense suffering that was inflicted there, but it is also relevant that some of those tortured and killed at S-21 had themselves tortured and killed people at S-21. How does this affect our understanding of S-21, of Duch’s role in it, and of his prosecution?
The parallels that Hinton draws between the trial process and S-21 are fascinating and expertly elucidated. The negotiation that occurred between torturer and subject at S-21 to figure out what story needed to be constructed, was reflected in Duch’s shifting narrative as different evidence appeared, ‘a mixture of truth and falsehood calibrated to meet the demands of the moment’ (p. 188). The transformation of people at S-21 from people to enemies as soon as they entered the grounds is echoed in the man or monster debate where no subtlety or nuance is allowed. In this way, with his considered portrayal of Duch and the admission of complexity, Hinton allows Duch better treatment than any victim received at S-21, without losing the voices of survivors in the process.
It is difficult to talk about enjoying a book like this given the weight of the subject matter, but Man or Monster? uses one man’s trial to pose important and challenging questions about how we understand periods of immense violence.
Rebecca Gidley is a PhD candidate at the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Her thesis examines the creation and operation of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.