Lost in Cambodia: the British professor who revered Pol Pot

The name of Malcolm Caldwell is remembered now by very few people: some friends, family, colleagues, and students of utopian folly. In the 1970s, though, Caldwell was a major figure in protest politics. He was chair of CND for two years, a leading voice in the anti-Vietnam war campaign, a regular contributor to Peace News, and a stalwart supporter of liberation movements in the developing world. He spoke at meetings all over the country, wrote books and articles and engaged in public spats with such celebrated opponents as Bernard Levin.

The name of Kaing Guek Eav is, arguably, known by even few people outside of Camdobdia. Instead it is by his revolutionary pseudonym “Duch” that Kaing is usually referred to in the press. Duch is the only man ever to stand trial in a UN-sanctioned court for the mass murder perpetrated by the Cambodian communist party, or the Khmer Rouge, in the late 1970s. His trial on charges of crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and homicide and torture concerning thousands of victims, drew to a close in November. Justice has taken more than 30 years, but a verdict and sentence are expected sometime in the next few weeks.

Although their paths crossed only incidentally, the two men shared two main interests. They both had a pedagogic background: Caldwell was a history lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, while Duch, like many senior Khmer Rouge cadres, started out as a schoolteacher. And they both maintained an unbending belief in Saloth Sar, the leader of the Khmer Rouge revolution, who went under the Orwellian party title of Brother Number One, but was known more infamously to the world as Pol Pot. It was an ideological commitment that would shape the fate of both men and they held on to it right up until the moment of death – in Caldwell’s case, his own, for Duch, the many thousands whose slaughter he organised.

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