The Elimination by Rithy Panh

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The Elimination by Rithy Panh

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A survivor of the harsh years of Democratic Kampuchea is now a respected film-maker. He confronts Comrade Duch, one of the architects of the horror, and intersperses those interviews with his own childhood memories of the time. Quietly brutal.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 268 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Clerkenwell Press
ISBN: 9781846689291

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Three years ago I went to Cambodia. I went to S21, because you cannot go to Phnom Penh and not go to the former high school Tuol Sleng (Tuol Slav Prey as it had been) and see what it became. I went to Choeung Ek, because you cannot NOT know about the killing fields, and you cannot really know about them until you have stood there.

Of course I am lucky. I went as a visitor: a visitor to the country and a visitor to history.

Rithy Panh is also lucky, because he ended up in neither place, but he isn't the visitor I am. He lived through those years.

Eventually he escaped Democratic Kampuchea into Thailand, evaded the forced repatriations, found help through the Red Cross and (by another stroke of luck in having family members abroad) managed to get out of the whole sorry mess and into France.

No doubt most of those who managed similar escapes have decided to count their blessings in quite lives, and I would applaud their ability to do so. Rithy Panh is one of those who seeks his peace in speaking out, in being sure that the story isn't allowed to be corrupted, isn't allowed to be repeated. He sees how easily it could be. So, he turned his hand to documentary film-making and screenwriting.

Then, when the trials finally began of those responsible for some of the horrors, he gains access to interview Kaing Guek Eac, known by his self-chosen nickname of Comrade Duch, commander of Security Prison 21 (S21).

The Elimination is an episodic telling of what happened in Cambodia in the four years between 1975 and 1979. It is told through the memories of a child (now a man) who somehow managed to survive, and the lies, revelations, half-memories, memories and unremorseful truth of a man ~ still a man for all that, is how Panh sees it ~ who was directing much of the brutality.

The indication with on the front of a book, usually indicates a ghostwriter, but here the feel is more that Christophe Bataille, simply edited it. Panh's tale is told chronologically, interspersing his interviews with Duch, but there's not attempt to construct a continuous narrative as such. It's very conversational. It has the feel of having been taken down verbatim and merely polished, and that only slightly.

His family were driven out of Phnom Penh, moved around the countryside, split up, forced to hard labour. Labour in the fields his mother was used to, she'd grown up that way. His school-teacher father took it hard, but took harder the decrees against education. He effectively gave up and allowed himself to die. It took watching three young children starve to death, to bring his mother to the same despair. He himself kept his head down and used what few resources came his way. Twice he was saved by luck. More often he was saved by the kindness of strangers. Time had no meaning. Every day was just about surviving that day.

In amongst it all are a number of asides: reflections, out-of-synch memories, political postulation. History lessons for those of us who don't know. Again it adds to the conversational tone.

Then there are the real conversations, the ones he has with Comrade Duch. It's not clear what he's hoping to achieve from these. Truth. Insight. Understanding of the nature and purpose of evil. Some answer to the universal question of why?. I'm not sure he finds any of it.

Duch waivers between confessions and lies. He was a bureaucrat he insists. He never took part in the torture. The evidence of his own notebooks, his own codes and handwriting, doesn't sway this view very much. He was just a cog. It was all necessary. He was just a technician of the revolution. Sometimes it seems as though he still believes in the revolution. Others it seems he just did what he did to stay alive himself and sees the methods as justified. He claims to have been equally a victim of the situation.

He now claims to have converted to Christianity and requests to have his Bible to hand in some of the interviews, but there's little evidence of contrition in any of confessions.

This is a stark book. How could it be otherwise?

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out of their jobs and homes; thousands starved as an insane theory forbade them technology, forbade them to fish or to farm other than under strict controls; thousands died of disease or injury while doctors planted rice in far-away paddies and peasants scarcely managed to dress wounds in filthy hospitals. There is a way of looking at what Pol Pot did which says that, actually, the horrors of the S21 and Choeung Ek were the least of it. The torture, the shootings, the mass graves, even the tiny children being slung against tree trunks, as sick as all of that is, it almost pales against the fact that the entire population was subjected to repeated forced movement, a reign of sheer terror and near starvation. But then, the rest might not have been possible without the reputation of S21, and everyone would have heard, people were moved around so frequently, that everyone would know that few came out of that place. Seven are known to have survived. Seven out of the 17,000 that passed through the school gates.

Panh tries to understand. I don't think he succeeds.

Duch wasn't the director of a prison; he was the commandant of S-21, the centre that reported directly to Office 870 (the communist HQ) the centre nobody got out of alive, the centre where even very high-ranking leaders of the regime could be 'processed'.

Duch isn't a monster or a fascinating torturer. Duch isn't an ordinary criminal. He's a thinking man. He's one of the people responsible for the extermination One must consider his career path: if he could refine his methods in M-13, it was no longer necessary to do so in S-21…he spared no-one…This man of blood who sees himself as a bureaucrat.

Rithy Panh is an angry man. A man who has nightmares still from a nightmare past. A man with every right to be angry. He does not accept arguments about forgiveness and reconciliation. He does not accept why, having won the right to try the perpetrators at home in Cambodia rather than in an international court the judiciary accept the lapse of time as an excuse for lapse of memory.

It is a good thing this anger and he is putting that anger to good purpose. I want to understand, explain, and remember – in precisely that order.

We too should also seek to understand and to remember.

Remember what you were doing in the late 1970s? Watching Top of the Pops, lamenting the demise of glam rock as punk took over, celebrating the Silver Jubilee? 1975 to 1979 coincides exactly with my secondary school years, good years, free years, well-fed years. Years in which Tomorrow's World was unmissable on TV. Years in which I didn't know what was happening in Kampuchea – or that the country was a legitimate member of the UN, so presumably we all supported it?

Cambodians are mostly quiet in their anger. I remember one of those 7 survivors squatting in a cell in S-21 talking about how he survived. He spoke quietly and calmly, but he also said 'there is an anger that must be spoken'. Rithy Panh is one more who is speaking out.

If you have been to Cambodia, or if you are planning to go, you must read this book. If you haven't and aren't, you must still read this book – and know that we stood by while this was happening.

Also from Profile Books, publisher of both Serpent's Tale and Clerkenwell Press is A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak by Jean Hatzfeld.

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Buy The Elimination by Rithy Panh at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Elimination by Rithy Panh at


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