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‘When Clouds Fell from the Sky’ sheds new light on a dark period in Cambodia’s history

Journalist Robert Carmichael examines the nearly four-year period of Khmer Rouge rule through a family's search for a loved one who disappeared into the regime’s secretive prison system, never to be seen again.

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    When Clouds Fell from the Sky
    By Robert Carmichael
    Asia Horizons Books
    377 pp.
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I came to the reading of this book about Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” carrying a lot of emotional baggage.

As a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor I covered the war in Cambodia on and off for five years from 1970 until close to its end in 1975. I still vividly remember colleagues and Cambodian assistants who were killed by the Khmer Rouge. As far as I know, the Khmer Rouge killed every foreign reporter, photographer, and TV cameraman whom they captured. They also killed many of our Cambodian co-workers. Of the six or seven Cambodian drivers and guides whom I employed over the years, only three survived.

More than four decades later, many of us are still trying to understand why the Khmer Rouge adopted policies that led to the deaths of up to two million or more people through executions, starvation, overwork, and disease. Several impressive books have been written on the subject. But Robert Carmichael's When Clouds Fell From The Sky both humanizes the story and brings new insights into the causes of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.

(I should state early on that Carmichael has become a friend whom I try to meet each time I visit Cambodia.)

 Five stories

A veteran journalist who has spent a total of eight years in Cambodia, Carmichael chronicles the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge through the stories of five different people.

The first is Ouk Ket, a Cambodian diplomat who returned to Phnom Penh to help rebuild his war-shattered country in 1977  – a time when it was not yet clear how the newly victorious Khmer Rouge would rule the country. The 30-year-old diplomat, who had served in Africa, had received a typewritten letter from the Democratic Kampuchea embassy in Beijing addressing him as “Beloved Comrade.”

“The Ministry has decided to ask you to come back to Cambodia,” it said.

The letter sent to Ket, a royalist and not a communist, was one of hundreds sent to Cambodian diplomats and intellectuals around the world inviting them to help rebuild their homeland. As Carmichael describes it, the letters seemed benign, but “in truth they were a ruse.”

Targeting “hidden enemies”

The ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge leaders were convinced at the time that their enemies were hidden everywhere, even within their own ranks. They murdered everyone they could find who had served the previous government. And now their purges were sweeping through the new communist ruling class.

But Ket didn’t believe the many refugee stories of massacres and slave labor that had begun to reach the outside world. He was convinced that the Khmer Rouge leaders were hard-working patriots. Cambodians wouldn’t kill Cambodians, in Ket’s view.

His view may have seemed naïve, but a number Cambodians living overseas at the time also saw the Khmer Rouge as a potential force for the good of the country. Indeed, until this day, many Cambodians whom I’ve met in Phnom Penh are convinced that a foreign country – China or Vietnam – must have been behind the killings. That view ignores the fact that the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of Vietnamese and many Chinese Cambodians.

Soon after taking power, the Khmer Rouge began targeting people, like Ket, who came from what they considered to bea privileged urban class.

The book’s title “When Clouds Fell From the Sky” refers to a traditional Cambodian saying which evokes the idea of human freedom as well as the city people who supposedly looked down Cambodia’s peasants. According to Carmichael, the Khmer Rouge regarded the country’s city people as automatically suspect.

After capturing Phnom Penh in April, 1975 the Khmer Rouge pushed the entire population of Cambodia’s capital into the countryside. There they were forced to labor in the fields and were tortured and killed if they showed any sign of dissent.

Upon returning to a nearly empty Phnom Penh, Ouk Ket disappeared. It took his family four years to discover that he’d been killed in a prison built to eliminate “traitors.” The last that his family had heard from him was a brief greeting written on a postcard from Beijing, his point of departure for Cambodia.

In 1970, Ouk Ket had married a French woman, Martine Lefeuvre, whom he’d met as a student in Paris. The 18-year-old Martine had fallen in love with him at a student campsite, where the guitar-playing Ket won a music competition playing Beatles songs.

That was also the year in which Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the head of government in Cambodia, was overthrown by his own prime minister in a bloodless coup. Sihanouk was persuaded to join with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge.

Ket had been posted as a diplomat to Senegal. A son and a daughter named “Neary” were born there. In 1976, Sihanouk returned to Cambodia but the Khmer Rouge forced him to resign as head of state. He became a virtual prisoner of the Khmer Rouge.

The search for a loved one

When her father went missing in Cambodia in 1977, Neary and her mother contacted a few of his old friends to see if they knew what had happened to him.

But it was only when the two reached a refugee camp inside Thailand near the Thai-Cambodian border that they encountered a friend of Ket who had seen Ket’s name on an execution list at the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh. At least 14,000 prisoners at S-21 had died of torture or execution.

Understanding Comrade Duch

The man who ran S-21 with ruthless efficiency was Kaing Guek Eav, widely known as Duch. He later became Cambodia’s first indicted war criminal. As I see it, Carmichael’s most difficult task in writing his book was explaining Duch’s motivation, personality, and psychology.

Duch began life as a conscientious student, then a caring mathematics teacher. It’s hard to imagine what turned this same person into a mass murderer, and Carmichael doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Here, he analyzes Duch through the contrasting views of several leading experts, including Rithy Panh, who directed the documentary film "Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell." The film involved hundreds of hours of interviews with Duch.

Panh concludes that although men and women like Duch claimed to be Marxists, they were incapable of understanding Marx. Instead they followed Mao Zedong, whose dogmatism, mixed in Cambodia with Khmer nationalism, unleashed hatred and murder against those whom the Khmer Rouge regarded as their enemy – people like Ket’s parents and siblings and others considered part of a privileged class.

Panh rejects the findings of scholars who at least partially blame Cambodian culture for what happened in Cambodia.

Alexander Hinton’s book "Why Did They Kill?" highlights Cambodian society’s “stress on obligations.” He sees a connection between the concept of “face” combined with great anger and a need to carry out disproportionate revenge against “enemies” that can easily lead to bloodshed. The Khmer Rouge, says Carmichael, needed to make the alien concepts of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism acceptable to an uneducated peasant class. In doing this, says Hinton, they blended the foreign concepts of Marxism-Leninism and Maosim with Cambodia’s Buddhist concepts.

According to one Cambodian peasant cited by Carmichael, this meant that indoctrination sessions combined the concept of revenge with the Marxist-Leninist requirement to kill class enemies.

But Panh objects strongly to efforts to explain the violence of that period by placing it in a cultural framework. According to Carmichael, “years of fierce contemplation” have led Panh to conclude that the violence was political and ideological, “a disease of purity,” and a kind of barbarism.

This fits to a certain degree with psychological studies of Duch. Cambodia’s leading psychiatrist and a French psychologist spent 40 hours with Duch in the year before his trial.

They concluded that Duch’s personality was damaged by four traumas, mostly suffered when he was young: the greed of an uncle that led to disillusionment with blood relatives; a young girl’s rejection of his advances when he was 19; anger over the injustice and poverty that prevailed in Cambodia at the time; and finally, the consequences of Khmer Rouge methods of control involving  terror, mistrust, and absolute obedience.

Duch’s trial for war crimes in 2009, says Carmichael, revealed that “the master of S-21” was a man whom the Khmer Rouge leaders could count on to deal with both their real and imagined foes. He was a man who “believed fervently in totalitarianism.” For him, the individual had no value. The collective was all.

Dan Southerland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia, is a former Monitor correspondent and a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.   

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