Institute News

Alexander Hinton Lecture Summary

Alexander Hinton (​Rutgers University, Newark)
"Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer"
November 2, 2017

Alexander Hinton Lecture on Duch Trial

Language: English

Alexander Hinton discussed his new book Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer. In his book, Professor Hinton uses creative ethnographic writing, extensive fieldwork, hundreds of interviews, and his experience attending Duch's trial to create a nuanced analysis of Duch, the tribunal, the Khmer Rouge, and the after-effects of Cambodia's genocide.


Renowned anthropologist Alexander Hinton gave a public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research about his new book Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, which attempts to offer a deeper understanding of Comrade Duch, the notorious head of the S-21 prison, a notorious facility where between 12,000 and 20,000 people were detained, tortured, and ultimately murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The lecture was cosponsored by the USC Center for Visual Anthropology.

After beginning his lecture with an abecedarian intended to offer a glimpse into the complexities of Duch, Professor Hinton laid out the main organizational structure of his talk, or, as he defined it, his “six queries”: Who was Duch? What did Duch do? When did Duch do it? Where did Duch do it? How did Duch do it? Why did Duch do it?

To answer his first query – Who was Duch? – Professor Hinton provided Duch’s personal background before delving into more details about possible turning points when Duch ceased to be an ordinary man and became a Khmer Rouge torturer. Professor Hinton noted that during his trial, Duch identified three events in his life that had an impact on him: 1) the influence of an inspirational teacher through whom he became aware of class oppression; 2) a visit of Duch’s Chinese uncle, which prompted him to embrace his Chinese ethnicity and heritage, and; 3) events that happened around the time Duch was twenty years old, including a romantic failure, his following of stoicism, and meeting his future mentor Son Sen, who would later rise up to become a DK (Democratic Kampuchea) Minister of Defense. Professor Hinton mentioned that the theft of Duch’s bicycle affected Duch’s prospects since the theft prevented him from attending the university and obtaining his doctorate. Instead, Duch became a mathematics teacher at a secondary school. During Duch’s trial, some of his former students described him as a firm, meticulous, gentle, and kind teacher who was appreciated and beloved by the students, which was in complete opposition to who Duch later became.

Professor Hinton continued his presentation with his second query: What did Duch do? In order to provide an answer to this question, Professor Hinton mostly focused on evidence presented at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, particularly on Duch’s trials. Although the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia ended in 1979, it was not until 2006 that the international hybrid tribunal was opened. The first indictments took place in 2007. Duch first went on trial in 2009 and then again in 2011. Duch was tried for his crimes at the S-21 prison and was legally accused, and ultimately found guilty, of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of Geneva Conventions.

To provide contextual background to his third query – When did Duch do it? – Professor Hinton addressed a few historical periods in Cambodia that are essential to understanding the rise and rule of the Khmer Rouge: French colonial rule; the independence period as of 1953; and the rise of the Communists in the late 1960s. Professor Hinton noted that the initial independence forces were basically communist revolutionaries, who subsequently felt betrayed by the conditions of the 1953 independence agreement. The outbreak of the Vietnam War further escalated the rise of the Communist powers, and by 1973, the Communists controlled most of the country.  Once they rose to power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge rusticated the urban population, and sent everyone to the countryside. During the period from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime killed about 2.2 million people.

Professor Hinton continued his lecture by addressing his fourth query -- the question of where Duch committed his crimes. The S-21 prison was directly linked to the DK party center, Professor Hinton explained, which made it different from other contexts. This prison was located in the Cambodian capital, and it was used for the detention, torture, and execution of people. Addressing this question led Professor Hinton into his penultimate query about how Duch did it, which Dr. Hinton elaborated by using the example of one of the very few S-21 survivors, Bou Meng, who explained the process of his detention, interrogation, and confession. Professor Hinton illuminated the ultimate reduction and re-articulation of that confession by Duch.

Professor Hinton’s final query – Why did Duch do it? – directly corresponds with the title of his book: Was Duch a man or monster? This question became a trope that circulated during the entire trial. Professor Hinton elaborated on the endeavors to rationalize and provide a reason for Duch’s actions. Professor Hinton provided a few possible explanations for Duch the teacher turning into Duch the torturer, which were also mentioned during his trial. The first explanation is related to the moment when Duch joined the Communist party, which Professor Hinton characterized as crucial because Duch himself stated that he wanted to save the country. The second explanation relates to Duch’s personality. Duch’s defense team commissioned a psychological evaluation, which showed that Duch exhibited all sorts of defense mechanisms, as well as showed effects of the traumatic organization of the Cambodian society, but the report found that, while very dysfunctional, Duch was not a sociopath. The third explanation, which Duch offered himself in his own defense, argues that Duch just followed orders, that he was caught in the teeth of the revolutionary machine, and that he needed to obey in order not to be killed.

Professor Hinton then moved on to describing more about the methodological and theoretical perspectives of the book, including notions of framing, articulation, redaction, and dehiscence. In this part of his lecture, Professor Hinton reflected on Hannah Arendt’s well known concept of the “banality of evil,” which he reworks in his book and employs it as the “banality of everyday thought”: a sheer, ordinary thoughtlessness of everyday actors who are caught up in the frames of power. Professor Hinton argued that the book has an ethical aspect to it in its advocacy for critical thinking and the role that plays in critical genocide prevention and critical genocide studies.

The lively Q&A period after the lecture included discussion of many topics, including the questions of torture; parallels with the post-World War II Eichmann trial; reflections about the tribunal in general, including Professor Hinton’s testimony in the most recent trial; the significance of Duch’s Chinese ethnicity and the role of ethnic differences in the genocide; the inevitability of genocide; and a deeper discussion of the ‘ethnodrama’ form of the book and the methodological and theoretical choices Professor Hinton made while writing it.

Summary by Badema Pitic