Monday 2 April 2018

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung (2000)

Loung Ung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge army took over the city of Phnom Penh in April 1975. Her father had been a high ranking official in the previous government so when the Marxist regime came to power he had to flee from the city to the countryside with his wife and seven children in order to hide his identity. His former position as a government official rendered him ‘morally corrupt,’ while his Chinese born wife was considered ‘racially corrupt.’

First They Killed My Father is an eloquent and harrowing story of survival seen through the eyes of a young child.
For the first couple of chapters Loung’s narrative is mostly concerned with her upbringing, family background, and their life as a middle class family living in the city. Loung is a spunky, precocious child and she sees her world through the eyes of such a child. The innocence and naïveté of her perspective is at first disarming, but as her story progresses and she becomes a witness and a victim of unthinkable atrocities, it is almost surreal. How could a child possibly go through such trauma and survive?
Yet she did, as did other children, but at what a cost!
Loung writes as a ‘daughter of Cambodia’ and records details of her life under the Khmer Rouge that includes the loss of half of her immediate family, her time as a child soldier and a graphic account of an attempted rape upon her when she was about 8 or 9 years old.

Loung’s older brothers were taken to labour camps and later her sister, Keav, was sent to a teen work camp. Six months later after contracting dysentery, Keav died before her parents could get to see her. When they asked if they could take her body home they were told that her body had been thrown out because they needed the bed for the next patient.
One day two soldiers came for her father and he was taken away under the pretext that his help was needed to move a wagon stuck in the mud. He never returned.

...we all know that what we feared most has happened. Keav, and now Pa, one by one, the Khmer Rouge is killing my family. My stomach hurts so much I want to cut it open and take the poison out...
“Chou,” I whisper to my sister, “I’m going to kill Pol Pot. I hate him and I want to make sure he dies a slow and painful death.”
I do not know what he looks like, but if Pol Pot is the leader of the Angkar then he is the one responsible for all the miseries in our lives...I am a kid, not even seven years old, but somehow I will kill Pol Pot...
I despise Pol Pot for making me hate so deeply. My hate overpowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness. Sadness makes me want to die inside...Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill. 

There were some striking similarities between this book and Life and Death in Shanghai which I read last year, although Cambodia’s situation was unique in that the regime swept in almost overnight and squeezed their atrocities into such a short window of time. An estimated two million Cambodians were systematically killed between 1975 and 1979. I remember reading that the odds of an average Cambodian surviving Pol Pot's rule was slightly over 2 to 1. Considering how young Loung Ung was it’s incredible that she survived at all.
Some of the similarities I found were:

•    the Utopian dream of a classless society, which of course never eventuates because power goes hand in hand with corruption, and envy is never satisfied

When I ask Kim (Loung’s 10 year old brother) what a capitalist is, he tells me it is someone who is from the city. He says the Khmer Rouge government views science, technology, and anything mechanical as evil and therefore must be destroyed. The Angkor says the ownership of cars and electronics such as watches, clocks, and televisions created a deep class division between the rich and the poor...These devices have been imported from foreign countries and are thus contaminated...
Imports are defined as evil because they allowed foreign countries a way to invade Cambodia, not just physically but also culturally. So now these goods are abolished..

•    the harnessing of the youth to spread intimidation along with the loss of respect for older people. Traditionally Asian societies have a reverence for the aged so this was huge shift for both societies

•    Disdain for the educated; utilitarianism; no place for the disabled - and there were plenty of disabled people in Kampuchea as a result of the extensive use of landmines by the regime

'In the new agrarian society, there is no place for disabled people.'

Without taking her pulse or touching her, the nurse asks Keav a few brief questions and hurries away, saying she will return later to check on her and bring some medicine. Keav knows this is a lie. There is no medicine. There are no real doctor sort nurses, only ordinary people ordered to pretend to be medical experts. All the real doctors and nurses were killed by the Angkar long ago.

•    Changing the meaning of common language, rewriting history & the destruction of historical markers e.g.  antiquities, historical sites, cultural expressions

•    Cult of personality - both Mao & Pol Pot were treated as gods

The Khmer Rouge government also bans the practice of religion. Kim says the Angkar do not want people worshipping any gods or goddesses that might take away devotion to the Angkar.

•    Breakdown of family structures and religion

“In Democratic Kampuchea,” the chief continues, “we are all equal and do not have to cower to anyone. When the foreigners took over Kampuchea, they brought with the bad habits and fancy titles. The Angkor has expelled all foreigners so we no longer have to refer to each other using fancy titles...the children will change what they call their parents...”

•    Propaganda, terror, forced labour, hopelessness

 In a Khmer Rouge hospital, people moaned and whimpered in pain, but did not scream. Here at the hospital in the newly liberated zone, people scream in pain because they’re fighting to live.

•    No dissent or criticism of the regime allowed

•    No appreciation for beauty, no room for diversity

I’ve read a good number of books about the Marxist regimes that held power during the 20th Century, mostly those concerning Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, & Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. You would think that the knowledge we have now of the parallel circumstances that existed between these regimes would be sufficient to help us discern the roots that give rise to the fruits of this type of movement. As a system of government, communism seems to have had its day, but as a system of ideas, it lives on. ‘Political Correctness is Cultural Marxism. It is Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms’:

Some interesting links to check out:

This article on Genocide compares the Nazi system of classification and symbolization, the first two operations in the genocidal process, with the Khymer Rouge exterminations of people in the Eastern Zone:

At Phnom Pehn the Khmer Rouge issued every man, woman and child from the Eastern zone a new blue and white checked scarf, a kroma. The Khmer Rouge then required them to wear the scarf at all times. 

Power Kills'As a  government's power is more unrestrained, as its power reaches into all the corners of culture and society, and as it is less democratic, then the more likely it is to kill its own citizens.'

Large corporations & institutions can tend toward totalitarian structures:

Linking to Carole's Books You loved: April


Aflyonmyhomeschoolwall said...

Oh! I'm shuddering. There are so many ways to express and force evil in this world. I simply cannot take it all in. I don't mean to hide my head in the sand--I do have 6 children right in my own home who are victims of the atrocities of men--but I think I am at my limit for pondering and coping with such horror.

Ruthiella said...

I am glad that Loung Ung has been able to tell her story. It is so easy to look away and think that things like this are in the past or only happen in places far away.

I would not equate Political Correctness with Cultural Marxism, however. I my personal experience, I am glad to not have to work in an environment where I have to confront racism or sexism 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. When I was younger and first in the work force in the 1980s, this was not always the case.

Carol said...

Anne, I know what you mean. There are certain subjects that at different times in my life that I've felt a certain fragility about so I've avoided them. I can barely imagine how Loung managed to write about such experiences.

Carol said...

Hi Ruthiella, thanks for your thoughts on this! I wouldn't have linked the two but in every book I've read about tyranny/totalitarianism etc, changing & mandating language has been one of the main agendas. I find it quite fascinating to look at an idea and follow its line of reasoning to its logical end. I agree with your comments on the workplace. They can be pretty toxic places but on the other hand, I don't think attitudes are changed by legislation.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Fantastic review, Carol! I wish people today in my country and the Western world in general would inform themselves of what a world would truly look like if their ideologies came to pass. But that is asking people with blind eyes and deaf ears to acquire a comprehension and discernment that their darkened understanding is incapable of. Jude 1:10

Carol said...

Thanks, Sharon & yes!🙂

Michele Morin said...

Great review! It's so important that these chilling stories be told so we never forget the suffering that comes with totalitarian regimes.

Carol said...

Thanks Michele.

Marianne said...

Thank you for including this in "Carole's Chatter" list. I read this years ago with my book club and think it deserves to be widely recognized. See my review here.

We have to carry on talking about this so history won't repeat itself over and over again.

Carol said...

Thanks for leaving the link to your review. Have started following your blog 🙂

Marianne said...

You're welcome. And thank you for following me. I have done the same and look forward to some nice discussions.

Have a good day,
Marianne from
Let's Read