Killed my Father, by Loung Ung [...] what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, and why it happened. It will make specific reference to the involvement of both Cambodian and international people/groups/forces, and it must draw specific evidence from the personal experience of the author. Loung Ung lived through four years of hell in Cambodia during the regime of the Communist Khmer Rouge. Her survival is somewhat of a miracle - but what is more miraculous is how she has turned the experience into a commitment to helping others who suffer under the hand of vicious and evil regimes. Her book is at once chilling and inspiring, yet opens up many questions about what happened in Cambodia, and why the world stood by and watched while two million people died horrible deaths.
CAMBODIA UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE
The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the Communist party in Cambodia. They came into power in 1970, and attainted the peak of their power by 1975, when the book, "First They Killed my Father" begins. As the author notes at the beginning of the book, "From 1975 to 1979 - through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor - the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country's population" (Ung ix). As this dedication clearly indicates, historically, the Khmer Rouge was one of the most vicious and violent regimes in world history.
Ung's book opens quite naturally, and shows a comfortable life shared by many Cambodians before the regime of the Khmer Rouge. Her family obviously has money, for they own three automobiles, they eat many of their meals in restaurants, employ a maid, and have a large apartment. They have more to lose than many of the people of Phnom Penh, and they are more vulnerable to the whims of the Communists when they take power. All of the opening chapters of the book give hints to how normal life was in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over, and how everything turned into a nightmare after they took control and stormed the cities. As the author poignantly notes, "Yesterday I was playing hopscotch with my friends. Today we are running from soldiers with guns" (Ung 27).
The Khmer Rouge controlled the people through fear and violence. They killed anyone who did not agree with them, and anyone they thought might rise up against them. They also have skewed views of technology and science, comparing them to capitalism, and eschewing them in their "new" society. The Khmer Rouge might seem ludicrous today, but to millions of Cambodian peasants, their ideas seemed relevant - created to equalize an extremely unequal population. As Ung's narrations shows, there was a deep divide between the middle class and the poor in Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge used this divide to urge the peasants to support them. They change everything from the people's lives to how they speak and dress. They are the ultimate dictatorship, and in many ways, they are far worse than even Hitler ever dreamed of being. They are consummate evil, embodied in their hatred of anyone that had gained any sort of success in the old regime. Ung's family embodies everything the Khmer Rouge detested, and so they had to transform themselves in order to survive.
In the ultimate paradox, in a society that is supposed to be totally equal, there are still divisions between the village leaders, villagers who first embraced the Khmer Rough regime, and those newcomers from the cities who are not yet to be trusted. Already, there are holes appearing in the Khmer Rough's thinking and processes, but the people are too oppressed to take advantage of these chinks in the armor, and that is just what the regime wanted. As the story progresses, it is clear the Khmer Rouge cannot survive, there is far too much wrong with their disorganized organization, but while they do, they will terrorize the people, hanging on to their power with knives, guns, and brutality.
The author carefully explains the regime that held power before the Khmer Rouge in the beginning of the book, to give the background of the country to the reader. Since her father had a high post in the prior government, he was especially vulnerable to the Khmer Rouge. He hid his identity as long as possible, but in the end, he is found out and taken away by soldiers, and the mother realizes the family must separate in order to survive. She is right, for she is also taken away with the youngest child, and is never seen again.
The children who survive do so because of their strength, resiliency, and their growing hatred for the Khmer Rouge. As Ung trains to be a soldier, she dreams of killing Pol Pot and making him pay for the deaths of her mother, father, and two sisters. She becomes exactly what the regime feared the most, someone very capable of leading a revolt against their atrocities. She is literally consumed with hatred for these people, and it is not surprising, considering what has happened to her in three short years. All of the regimes planning and scheming to keep every kind of stimulation from the people has backfired, all they have created is a mass of angered people seeking revenge.
This background is important to a real understanding of what went on in Cambodia before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge took power. While the book vividly shows the experiences of Ung's family, it is important to understand how a regime like the Khmer Rouge could gain such power, keep such power, and eradicate so many people in such a relatively short period of time. It is also necessary to understand just how the people suffered under the regime, and not just the people like Ung's family, but the peasants, who actually supported the regime. Ung's book provides much of this necessary background information, and presents it in simple terms that are easy for a reader with the distance of thirty years to still understand what happened in Cambodia, and how it affected the country and the world.
How did the world stand by and allow the atrocities in Cambodia to occur? There are no real answers in Ung's book; there are only more questions. The refugee camp at Lam Sing, Thailand, where Ung escapes with her older brother and his wife in 1980 exists for Vietnamese and Cambodians fleeing the Communist regimes in their countries. Therefore, aid societies of the world knew these people needed help and came to their aid. Yet, the question exists, how did Cambodia's plight remain uncovered for so long, and why did everyone turn their backs on the suffering going on there? It seems to be some kind of syndrome in the world, especially in the successful capitalistic countries such as America, to ignore much of the suffering going on in the world. Most Americans do not know there are still millions of starving people in Africa today, or that the fighting in what is now Croatia occurred to oust a similarly evil regime. For many, the troubles of others simply do not matter, and Ung's book makes this all the more apparent. In 1975, most Americans were thinking about disco music, the end of the Vietnam War, and Watergate. What happened a world away did not seem real or even relevant. However, people like Ung remembered, and perhaps act a bit as our conscience. She writes of her time early in America with more understanding and pathos than most Americans had at the time.
On occasion, the war crossed over from my dreamworld to reality, as it did in 1984 when the drought in Ethiopia brought daily images of children dying from starvation. On the television screen, children with bellies too big for their bodies and skin hanging loosely on their protruding bones begged for food. Their faces were hollow, their lips dry, their eyes sunken and glazed over with hunger. In those eyes, I saw Geak, and I remembered how all she wanted was to eat (Ung 235).
The author is a success story, one of many that came out of the ravages of Cambodia. As her book clearly shows, there were many more who were not so lucky. Why this genocide had to take place is not clear, except that Cambodia was led by a corrupt regime before Khmer Rouge took over, so some thought they were the lesser of two evils. It seems to be an unfortunate truth that power corrupts, and no matter the noble intentions of leaders, sooner or later, they all fall victim to the corruption and the greed power brings with it. The Khmer Rouge were no different, they were just extremely desperate to hang on to what they had. Why the rest of the world stood back and watched is not clear, and it fact, it is chilling. Even more chilling is the knowledge…