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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / law / travel

Facing Death in Cambodia

Peter Maguire

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To purchase Facing Death in Cambodia

Title: Facing Death in Cambodia
Author: Peter Maguire
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005
Length: 196 pages
Availability: Facing Death in Cambodia - US
Facing Death in Cambodia - UK
Facing Death in Cambodia - Canada
  • With numerous photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : decent overview of recent Cambodian history, but uneasy mix of travel-account, history, and commentary

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Facing Death in Cambodia does a good job of describing the rise of the Khmer Rouge, the outrages committed by the regime between 1975 and 1979, and the after-effects to this day. Author Peter Maguire is particularly interested in the attempts to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice -- specifically through war crime trials -- and chronicles what he sees as the failed efforts to overcome the horrible recent past and allow for renewal.
       Maguire travelled to Cambodia several times between 1994 and 2003. He was especially fascinated by the infamous pictures of the prisoners at the notorious Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison and hoped to find the photographer, as well as anyone else who either worked or was imprisoned there. Over the years he met with and spoke to many victims and a few who were involved in at least some aspect of the atrocities, and along with the general historical account he offers he provides a solid overview of what has happened in Cambodia over the past three decades.
       His chronicle of the post-1979 failures, especially of the international community and the United Nations in helping Cambodia return to a semblance of normality, is also of interest. The facts, of course, are devastating, from the US publicly continuing to accept Pol Pot's regime as the legitimate one after 1979 to the catastrophic failures of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia mission in the 1990s. Maguire also correctly wonders what sort of justice is appropriate here: are trials what is best for the country, or is some sort of forgiving and forgetting an option ? He has little doubt, however, that the Khmer Rouge lost all right to any continuing say in Cambodia's fate, and should not have been permitted to continue to exist as a political -- much less military -- entity (though, of course, they were -- to the huge detriment of the country).
       Throughout, Maguire is also able to put a bit of a human face on all these events, in discussing the people he met and talked to. He sees the lingering effects of what happened among the survivors -- and new problems, especially the spread of AIDS. Over the nearly ten years during which he repeatedly visited the country he also observes the changes it undergoes as a result of the UNTAC mission and the still unresolved local political situation (the Khmer Rouge continuing to be a force). Much of his criticism is straight to the point -- and spot-on.
       Facing Death in Cambodia is a decent (and well-documented) look at recent Cambodian history, but it's an odd book in that it never seems entirely certain what it wants to be. Too much of it is travelogue, the author describing his experiences and impressions, his attempts to find and talk to certain people. Far too much winds up being anecdotal -- an odd fit next to the concise but thorough historical accounts he offers. If Maguire were an adept travel-writer or journalist this might pass, but that's not his strength: many of the stories don't really lead anywhere, raising more questions than they answer. (The East German films he hunts down, for example.) Perhaps typical is an encounter that ends:

About an hour later, Bou Meng stopped painting and stood up. The top of his head did not reach my armpit. We shook hands, but I could not bring myself to ask him a single question.
       In this case, he eventually does interview Bou Meng, but this mix of personal experience and historical documentation really doesn't work very well.
       (Several of the pictures included in the book are also of the author and his conversation-partners (though only one suggests conversation); certainly the one of him and Bou Meng would be much more affecting if it were cropped, the author entirely removed from the scene.)
       Incomplete as either historic record or a Westerner's view of Cambodia over the last decade, Facing Death in Cambodia is somewhat disappointing -- one wishes Maguire had opted for one or the other ambition. It also disappoints as an indictment of recent efforts to bring perpetrators of war crimes and/or genocide to justice: Maguire gives some decent examples and explanations of what has gone (and continues to go) wrong in the efforts to hold war crimes trials in Cambodia, but he doesn't focus closely enough on this either to really make a compelling case for how to do (or not to do) this.
       The Cambodian story is so tragic and disturbing that any reminder of these horrors that man (and modern politics) is capable of are welcome, and Maguire does a reasonable job of conveying this. But a more focussed book -- or a far more expansive one --, and one without such a strong authorial presence, would have been preferable.

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Facing Death in Cambodia: Reviews: Cambodia: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Peter Maguire specialises in the laws of war.

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