From Paris to Tuol Sleng: A One-Way Ticket

James Brooke / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Robert Carmichael. KT Photo: Jonathan Pannetier

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Nearly 40 years after the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, that terrible era continues to tear at Cambodians.

Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to keep the peace by limiting trials of former Khmer Rouge cadre. Yet the Kingdom braces for April 17, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh. This Thursday morning, a memorial stupa will be unveiled outside Tuol Sleng, the French lycee turned S-21, the Khmer Rouge torture and execution center.

Of the 20,000 names that are to be inscribed on the memorial’s base, one is that of Ouk Ket, a 30-year-old Cambodian diplomat called back from Paris in the summer of 1977. Days after flying here, he passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng. 

He was never heard from again.

Robert Carmichael, a veteran South African journalist here, has written a book that focuses on that one man, his French widow, his oldest daughter, his cousin, and the mastermind of Tuol Sleng – Duch.

“When Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal” goes on sale next week at Monument Books.

Carmichael, a regular contributor to Radio Australia and Voice of America, spoke to Khmer Times out his research and book.
KT:Why did he come back?

Carmichael: “Ouk Ket was a royalist. He was not a communist, but he did support the revolution. Like a lot of Cambodians who lived outside the country and returned, he had really no idea of what was going on inside the country. And the stories they did hear, they did not believe, because ‘Khmer do not kill Khmer.’

He returned, leaving a young wife and two very young children – aged 2 and 4 – in France. So they waved him off at the airport, and they never heard from him again. His wife, who was only 26 at the time, spent years trying to find out what happened to her husband. Eventually, as we now know, he was taken to S-21 immediately on arrival in Phnom Penh. He was held there for six months and executed.”

KT: It may a case of blaming the victim, but readers might be thinking: in June 1977, 29 months after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, why was this guy so stupid to come back here?

Carmichael:  “I don’t think he was stupid to come back, He was a civil servant, he was ordered to return. He didn’t think he was in any danger. 

It is important to put it into context. Today we know, it seems like a foolhardy thing – to put it mildly – for him to do. At the time, they believed the revolution was going in the right way. You had foreign groups going in and reporting back how wonderful the revolution was. 

You have people crossing the border, refugees, telling these terrible stories about the Angkar people being worked to death in gulags. But a lot of that was dismissed. And wrongly so. But no one returns to a certain death. They return because they don’t believe those stories, and they were fantastical stories. This wasn’t what the revolution has promised. It was not unreasonable to think these stories were untrue. And certainly he believed they were untrue.

He said to his wife: the worst thing they will make me do is plant rice for six months to cure my bourgeois instincts, my bourgeois heritage.”

KT: Tomorrow morning, hundreds of people will gather at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum for the unveiling of the memorial stupa. What happened to Ouk Ket inside?

Carmichael: “We don’t know. His file at S-21 disappeared, a lot of files disappeared. So all we know about him is that he was there within a few days of arriving in Cambodia…What was certain is that he was marked as an enemy. And he clearly did not have any protection. 
His father had run the palace for Sihanouk. He was the major domo. So he was a Sihanoukist. By then, Sihanouk was an enemy of the state. He was French educated. He had overseas experience for over a decade. People like that were not to be trusted.

The people the Khmer Rouge did not trust, they killed. There was no place for reeducation. It was not part of the Khmer Rouge mindset. You are either with us, or against us. And if against us, you are killed. That is it.”

KT: And the paper records from Tuol Sleng?

Carmichael: “It is highly likely that the Vietnamese took a bunch of files back to Hanoi. It is virtually certain that people here used papers in the files to wrap fruit and vegetables in the local markets, or to burn as fuel.”

KT: You covered the first Khmer Rouge trial, you have been in an out of Cambodia since 2001. What surprised you when researching this book?

Carmichael: “One of the key things that comes out of it for me is how dangerous totalitarian systems are. And particularly in Cambodia’s case, where it was combined with paranoia. They saw enemies everywhere. We saw this with Stalin in Russia. We saw this with Mao. We certainly saw it here. There was this combining of totalitarianism and zero accountability and paranoia.

And ineffective leadership. The Khmer Rouge were hopeless at running Cambodia. When there was a shortfall of rice in an area – it was not because conditions were bad. It was because enemies were destroying the rice seedlings. They were threshing badly.

Enemies were everywhere. That meant you had to kill people to get rid of the enemies. The default reaction is to kill everyone who might be against the revolution.

One of the key things that came out of it is how fundamentally dangerous unrepresentative political systems are.”

KT: Around two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge, and yet you focus heavily on the French widow and daughter. Why this approach?

Carmichael: “I tried to write the book so it would be understood by an overseas audience. 

I deliberately brought into the book these two French women whose experience is quite representative of a lot of Cambodians in many ways. Their loved one disappeared. They had nobody. They did not know what had happened.

They testified at Duch’s trial. They spoke about what had happened and how that affected them.

For a foreign audience, it’s a different way putting forward the Cambodian experience, using their story to parallel what happened to so many Cambodians. 

To raise awareness in the West, you almost have to focus to a degree on what happened to people from France, from New Zealand or wherever. It is a link for people from those countries to what happened here.”

KT: As a post-apartheid South African, how do you assess the Khmer Rouge tribunal, or Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia?

Carmichael: “South Africa had its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Cambodia had its ECCC process. Something being done is better than nothing being done. At least then some truths will emerge. 

A nation’s population can choose to find out, if they want to. They don’t have to attend. They don’t have to listen to the radio, to watch on television. But they have the option to do so.

ECCC is a judicial process. In the TRC process, if you stepped up and had committed terrible crimes for political reasons, you would be offered an amnesty. A lot of guys, who under the apartheid regime did terrible things and either confessed wholly or partly to what they had done, were offered amnesties. It was obviously a hugely controversial thing. You can’t satisfy everyone with whatever process you choose.”

KT: You covered one trial. How do you assess the ECCC so far?

Carmichael: “The five defendants put on trial were politically expendable. That is why they were there. Those who were not expendable were not there. And there are people within the current government – who will remain nameless for this interview – who might have a case to answer for war crimes charges. But it will never happen.”

KT: Prime Minister Hun Sen has said: Stop!

Carmichael: “The longer this goes on, the bigger the risk for him politically that some of the people he relies on in government, or in business, might have some evidence coming out about what they were up to. 

And politically, that is not the deal. The deal is this: we have these key people; they are expendable – culpable too – but politically they don’t count any more. Whereas, there are people in government who do count.”

KT: What’s behind the poetic title to your book?

Carmichael: “There is an old Cambodian phrase: ‘when clouds fall from the sky.’ 

The Khmer Rouge referred to urban people as clouds. They skidded across the land and looked down on the rural people. They don’t respect us. And we will bring them down to earth.”

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