The best-known portrayal of Angkar (usually called “Khmer Rouge” in the west) horrors focus on an American (“The Killing Fields). Angkar exterminated educated Cambodians and sought to eradicate anyone who spoke languages other than Khmer or who looked to be of non-Khmer descent (especially lighter-skinned Vietnamese and Chinese, even though Angkar was supported by the PRC). There were literate survivors of the Nazi holocaust (Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi), the Soviet gulags (Solzhenitsyn), the cultural revolution (Shen Fan), and the ongoing Burmese junta (Pacal Kew Thwe) but very few cosmopolitan Cambodians survived the starvation and executions of Angkar ethnic and social cleansing.
The “classless” Angkar dystopia was very stratified, as Loung Ung’s memoir makes clear: the Angkar cadres had the most food, the peasants who had never left their fields had enough to survive, those driven from the cities and presumed corrupted by urban life were starved or murdered outright.
Ung’s 2000 memoir, First They Killed My Father, begins with remembering a life of prosperity and privilege as her father’s favorite in Phnom Penh. Angkar troops occupied and emptied the capital on April 17, 1975. The five-year-old Loung naively believed that the “evacuation” would only last three days. Angkar lied, and the horrors burgeon. Savvy a survivor as her father is, he is eventually taken away. She’d like to believe the Angkarite who says he’ll return in the morning. Her father knows better and tells her twelve-year-old brother Kim that he must protect the family.
Kim goes to heroic lengths (to which no one of any age should have to go) against implacable enemies. Loung celebrates Kim and their father and mother, blaming herself for lack of understanding and sympathy for the latter. Loung and Kim have to be mature and crafty long before chronological adulthood. Above all, they must not let anyone know they are urban and of mixed (Chinese-Khmer) descent, though their light skin give them away as not being peasants.
As the Angkar mythos shifts into a cult of Pol Pot, Loung focuses the fury, which she cannot show, on fantasies of providing him the painful death he evaded. Desire for vengeance keeps her going (rather than eating her up) as she trains to be a soldier. She eventually watches two women hammer and stab an Angkar murderer, but does not enjoy it… And has more travails on the South China Sea en route to a Thai refuge camp.
From title and subtitle, I knew I was getting memories of sickening mistreatment. An older sister is eager to forget the horrors, but Loung provides witness—very young when witnessing, and very gifted a writer (in English) about the horrors she saw when her happy childhood turned into a protracted nightmare. The 29-year-old author (and anti-landmine activist) recalls a few rays of sunlight that reached her in Angkar hell, and the lost paradise of the childhood that ended just after she turned five.
What the adult author imagines happened to (altogether too many!) family members, based on Angkar practices is set off in italics. The five-year-old’s hero worship of her father leaves open to more distanced readers to wonder what her father did as a police official, though being killed by Angkar “justice” clearly did not require evidence of any misdeeds.
That Cambodia had to be saved from its nativist butchers who outdid the carnage and economic suicide of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by the far-from-democratic forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam is somewhere beyond ironic. That Ho Chi Minh City in 1979 seemed a paradise of freedom and prosperity says a great deal about the Cambodia in which Loung had spent the previous four years.
©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray