If Kate Winslet’s character as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader won her an Oscar, Him Huy didn’t. Him Huy was the head of the prison department in Tuol Sleng or commonly known as the S-21 where thousands of Cambodians were executed during the Khmer Rouge regime. From 1975 to 1979, 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, extreme labour, torture and executions.
Him Huy, now 53 lives in a village 80km from Phnom Penh recalled some of the memories from the time he served under Duch, one of the five senior officials on trial at the Khmer Rouge tribunal at the moment. In his village, he works as a farmer and appears to be well-liked by his neighbours. The father of nine children is said to be optimistic, hardworking and quick to smile.
“Yes, I did kill people,” he testified in an interview carried out by the International Herald Tribune. “I did transport people to Choeung Ek. I did verify lists of people of Choeung Ek. But Duch ordered me to do all that.” He also added, “I had no choice. If I hadn’t killed them. I would have been killed myself.”
Many prisoners held at the S-21 were executed by iron bars swung at the back of their heads with their hands tied behind them while kneeling down in front of a huge pit which had been dug out to bury the bodies. “I used an iron bar about that long,” Him Huy said spreading his hands wide, “and about as thick as my big toe.”
Although Him Huy claimed that he had personally killed five people, one of the S-21 survivors and two of his co-workers quoted him as mean, a seasonal killer who was an important figure at the prison and key participant in the execution process.
When asked whether he feels any remorse or guilt over what he did, Him Huy said, “I am a victim of the Khmer Rouge.” He was evasive about the extent of his duties as head of the prison department but insisted that whatever he did was driven by the fear of being killed. When asked to describe himself, he said, “I’m not a bad person. I’m a good man. I never argue with anyone. I have good intentions as a human being.”
During the trials, many have raised the questions about the guilt of lower-ranking officials like Him Huy, many of whom may never face trial. Surprisingly, the issue of forgiveness reserves no contention for some survivors who have willingly accepted that those who were forced to carry out orders are blameless.
A recent survey carried out by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia in February revealed that out of 1,110 Cambodians in 186 districts, 56.8 percent support the pursuit of more defendants for the Khmer Rouge trial. Although this is only a small marginal difference, it was mostly the young Cambodians who have expressed the most support, perhaps being more aware of what is right and wrong compared to the older generation, who are governed by traditional values such as forgiveness. 37.6 percent of those who don’t support this feels that there might be a risk of public disorder.
As someone who is not a Cambodian, I thought that it would be easy for me to pass on judgment and condemn officials who have carried out the torture and mass executions of civilians during the Khmer Rouge regime. However, it is not.
I realize that this is a difficult issue to be reckoned with. As the survivor who was mentioned above said, “I don’t know what I would have done in his place. I don’t think I would have been able to disobey.” I tried to put myself in Him Huy’s position and truthfully, I cannot in all certainty say that I rather be killed. But, if an iron bar were to be put in my hand and I was forced to take a hard swing against a helpless person, I am not sure whether I will be able to do it. But if I did, I think I will feel damn remorse and guilty as hell, even if it was under threat.
The other question would be how do we know that someone has been genuinely forced to carry out orders? Or, maybe it could have started off as an order which gradually becomes a form of power enjoyed by the person? If we were to excuse people like Him Huy, will it not be used as an excuse by those who have willingly participated in mass executions?
Him Huy might be the real version of Hanna Schmitz, a person who genuinely thought that what he did was right. The only difference is, he did not go to prison.
As a reader, what do you think?