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  • Behind the Killing Fields: A Khmer Rouge Leader and One of His Victims
  • Surya P. Subedi (bio)
Gina Chon & Sambath Thet, Behind the Killing Fields: A Khmer Rouge Leader and One of His Victims (University of Pennsylvania Press 2010), 178 pages, ISBN 9780812242454.

Cambodia witnessed one of the worst atrocities committed in the twentieth century during the Khmer Rouge period from the middle to the end of the 1970s. Since the country went through a period of political instability and conflict prior to and after the rule by the Khmer Rouge, not much has been written by the Cambodians themselves or about their own experience of life under this brutal regime. From this stand point, this book, which contains a first-hand account of the mindset of one of the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number 2, is a welcome addition to the literature on Cambodia. Nearly thirty years after the Khmer Rouge rule, the authors have done a commendable job by revisiting the tragic past of Cambodia, by unearthing some of the facts, and by bringing these facts, ideas, and social and political realities of the time to a wider readership.

In this book, co-author, Sambath Thet, a Khmer Rouge victim himself, shares his personal perspectives on the Khmer Rouge regime and how some victims have managed to rebuild their lives. The book narrates the political ideology of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in the butchery of large numbers of people in the killing fields of Cambodia. In doing so, the book presents a chilling account of the convictions of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge behind the killing fields and the political, economic, and social situation prevailing in Cambodia at the time of the emergence of Khmer Rouge. The role of international players, especially that of Vietnam and the United States in the making and unmaking of the complex political situation in Cambodia, also comes under examination in this book.

The information presented in this book is informed by more than 1,000 hours of interviews conducted over a six-year period with Nuon Chea, who began his career fighting for a good cause as a dedicated freedom fighter, but ended up as a member of the core Khmer Rouge team that brought so much misery and sufferings for so many millions of people in Cambodia. He now is facing a trial before the UN backed Cambodian tribunal on allegations of crimes against humanity. In an attempt to understand the mindset of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the book traces how the seeds of the killing fields were sown and what led Nuon Chea, who was believed to have held more power than Pol Pot himself, to be known as Brother Number One. This book is particularly interesting in the sense that, when telling the story of Nuon Chea, it actually is telling the story of the Khmer Rouge itself as he was regarded as the political ideologue of the regime and is believed to have come up with many of the policies pursued by the regime.

While presenting the story of Nuon Chea, the book also tells a contrasting tale of one of his victims, co-author Sambath Thet, who lost his parents during the Khmer Rouge period. Thet reveals how he has tried to forgive and rebuild his life in the aftermath of the tragedy. By presenting [End Page 878] the moving and inspiring experience that Sambath underwent during and after the Khmer Rouge period, the book perhaps represents the similar struggles and experiences of many others during the period. This makes the book a worthy read for those interested in the tragedy, hope, and survival strategy adopted by many Cambodian people in a situation similar to Sambath's. While Nuon Chea represents the tragic past of Cambodia, Sambath represents a forward looking approach to life in contemporary Cambodia. Like Sambath, the whole nation of Cambodia is trying to rebuild shattered lives and reconstruct its state institutions in order to ensure that the country does not descend into old practices. For this, Cambodia adopted a democratic constitution which is underpinned by the values...


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pp. 878-879
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