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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 137-153

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The Perpetrator, the Victim, and the Witness

Cambodia's killers live on in quiet infamy the newspaper headline read. The short article, by a respected American journalist, described how the man known as Grandfather Khan continued to live unpunished among the villagers he had terrorized during the years of Democratic Kampuchea.

Khan, the article explained, had killed hundreds of people in the prison camp he commanded and in the area surrounding it. Survivors reported that some of his victims were strung up by their feet and eviscerated, internal organs left to dangle before their faces as they died. He also allegedly consumed the liver and bile of his victims in the belief that doing so would allow him to absorb their vitality.

It's difficult to write these sentences, which can never fully capture the atrocities they are supposed to describe. I have been trying to understand such horrors since early 1993, when I was a graduate student in anthropology and decided to research the Cambodian genocide. I still want to know why genocide occurs. What motivates a perpetrator to kill? How does a person like Khan bring himself to not just murder another human being but to do so in the cruelest of ways?

To seek the answers, I lived in Cambodia from 1994 to 1995 . In the summer of 2000, I returned to the country to conduct follow-up research for a book, and it was then that I decided to try to find Khan and ask him, Why did you do it?

The Witness

At the end of my trip, I managed to track down the Cambodian reporter who had helped research the article I read on Khan. I will call her Ming. As we spoke on the phone, she told me in a mixture of English and Khmer that she had never actually interviewed Khan.

"We just talked to people who lived near the prison during that time," she explained. "But I know where he lives. We can drive right to his house and talk with him. He lives in the south, about two hours away. I can get a car. If you want, we can leave tomorrow at dawn." [End Page 137] [Begin Page 139]

In Cambodia, everything begins at an early hour. By the time the sun edges over the horizon, most people have risen and are performing tasks that would be difficult to finish in the midday heat. By eleven o'clock, the hottest part of the day, most Cambodian farmers have already tended to their fields and returned home to eat their lunch and rest.

Ming arrived early the next morning. She wore Western clothes: a blue, button-down shirt that fell loosely over khaki pants. Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, accentuating her high forehead and round face. In her early thirties, she was short and stout and had intense eyes. When I climbed into the passenger seat of her Toyota, I noticed a pair of small bells hanging from the rearview mirror. They chimed each time we hit a bump in the road.

Ming reached into the backseat. "See, I brought my camera," she said, a smile breaking over her face. "Just in case."

Just in case, I thought. In case what?

It was monsoon season, but we set off under a clear sky broken only by a few clouds. Ming drove slowly, threading her way through the jumble of trucks, cars, mopeds, bikes, pedicabs, and pedestrians that filled the city streets. Each time she braked hard, the bells chimed lightly.

Despite the pollution, billboards, and piles of garbage sometimes accumulating on the sidewalks, Phnom Penh is still a beautiful city: a blend of French colonial architecture, palm trees, tiered villas with balconies, bus- tling markets scented with spices, and majestic Buddhist temples. It's hard to believe that the entire city was evacuated during Pol Pot's regime and that twenty thousand Khmer Rouge cadres, soldiers, and workers replaced a population that had swollen to about three million during the civil...


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