Nic Dunlop is a softly-spoken but charismatic man, whose understated intelligence and breadth of compassion befit someone who has spent his adult life immersed in a culture utterly remote from his own middle-class upbringing in Ireland. He describes this experience as trying to “understand something completely alien on every level.”
Dunlop is referring to his decision to work in South East Asia (he is currently based in Bangkok but has also worked in Burma and Cambodia), but specifically to the history of the Khmer Rouge, the followers of Pol Pot’s Communist Party, who held Cambodia in totalitarian sway from 1975-79.
As a boy, Dunlop felt “cheated” when he read of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and realised that the Western political order was only one side of a complex and often morally oblique geopolitical prism: “Cambodia was the first place that made me realise that the world wasn’t all upright and upstanding.”
He has a strong humanitarian instinct and desire for justice, tempered by an understanding of context and a recognition of the need for humility. I ask him what he thinks about the role of Western governments in influencing regime change in places such as Burma: “I agree with the activists, but sometimes we’re a little too shrill … We need to be wise. To go in screaming, laying down the law, can be counterproductive.”
Though “originally [he] was shocked by pictures” of the Khmer Rouge atrocity in Cambodia, he has gained an admirable perspective, warning us not to apply our standards of logic to events such as the wholesale massacre that took place at S-21. In this former school, converted into a prison-cum-torture-complex, only 7 of the 22,000 interrogated survived.
Within the context, he suggests, the irrational impulse to torture thousands of prisoners for a confession and then execute them is part of a survival instinct. “The Khmer Rouge are not…cardboard cut-outs of evil, they are real people who come from real places, they have families. And as with what we call terrorists today, these are people also, from a context, and I think that recognition is … comforting.”
Throughout his talk and our interview, Dunlop is careful to discourage a simplistic condemnation of the Khmer Rouge. Only through humility and a grasp of the context can we hope to gain understanding or achieve justice.
He rejects the tendency of Westerners to treat Cambodian history with self-righteous moral disgust. Dunlop is also sceptical about the role of the UN in bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to trial as he doubts the relevance of this alien and widely non-understood institution to normal Cambodians.
“Most Cambodians just want to get on with their lives, the general trend is to try to move on with life, not dwell on the past”. As Dunlop points out, not all Khmer Rouge can be punished, and not all were complicit in the brutality of ‘the Angkar’ – the secret party leadership.
The UN trial is in some ways merely symbolic in holding to account only four old men, mostly unknown to Cambodians. Indeed many would rather see their former tormentors shot although Dunlop believes that this attitude is changing, with many young Cambodians showing a greater interest in their history and understanding of the court but he is evidently still bothered by this Western moral hegemony.
I suspect what troubles Dunlop is the understanding he’s reached that individuals are largely powerless to effect change. “My 17-year-old self and myself now would hate one another”, he says, largely due to “my 17-year-old self’s self-righteousness”, and (one suspects) idealism; he first went to Cambodia at 19, determined not to be an armchair spectator.
Originally aspiring to be a fine artist, after a year in art school he became disillusioned with a vocation he believed would lead to “sitting in a garage” with no engagement with the outside world. Photography was the medium best suited to his ideas: “I wanted my work to do something other than look nice.” For this reason, he photographs in black and white, because he does not want his audience to be distracted by the “picture postcard beauty of Cambodia, but instead to focus on the human aspect”: “the content speaks more [when you] strip away the beauty.”
But at the same time Dunlop is troubled by the way his exposure of Duch impacted the ensuing trial and perception of the Khmer Rouge. In one breath he says that “[when] you get over that initial discomfort, of being a voyeur, and realise that maybe photography can be useful, that enables you to do [the job],” but that “the problem is we often want instant results…and sometimes the connections between cause and effect are more tenuous… I don’t know whether photography does anything at all.”
Dunlop has achieved a realism and integrity which means he judges what he does too harshly. Many a historian and journalist could learn volumes from the wisdom, honesty and impartiality that informs his work and renders it so compelling.