There but For the Grace of God

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 7, 2005 | Destinations: Cambodia / Thailand / Phnom Penh / Bangkok

Popular English books in Thailand tend to fall into three very dissimilar categories. The first is what I like to call "My Tropical Vacation" -- poorly written and relentlessly egocentric tales of foreigners convinced that they are the very first to visit Southeast Asia and act out their wildest Epicurean fantasies. Representative of this genre are The Beach and Off the Rails in Phnom Penh, books very much to blame for a prejudiced view of the region.

The second category may be christened "My Self-perfection Regime" - books about Buddhism, Thai massage, acupuncture, self-flagellation and so on. They act as a kind of antidote to the debauchery of the first category, but if you have read one book about Buddhism, you have arguably read them all, and all too many.

Finally, and not happily, there are books about genocide and war. These books are perennial downers, and one cannot help but wonder how a desire for ha-ha and a desire for enlightenment can coexist with a desire to kill. But there it is. We are clowns, angels, and devils all rolled into one.

Hence First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung's memoir about growing up under the Pol Pot Regime. The American bombings. The corrupt US-backed Lon Nol regime. Scary men in black pajamas and tire-tread sandals and red scarves. Some 2 million deaths - almost one-fourth of all Cambodians. The liberation by the triumphant and relatively nice Vietnamese army. The starvation, the torture, the executions. Cambodia. Yet again. Why?

Loung Ung was a headstrong and curious child when the Khmer Rouge drove her and her middle-class family out of Phnom Penh and into various labor camps. Eventually her father, mother, and younger sister were executed, while an older sister died of complications arising from malnourishment. She and her eldest brother managed to escape to America, where Loung is now National Spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World (CLFW).

I do not envy her this job. Pop quiz: What do America, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Syria have in common? They are among a minority of countries that have rejected the Ottawa Convention to ban antipersonnel landmines, the scourge of postwar Cambodia. If this seems like odd company for America to keep, you can write, presumably to Loung Ung herself, c/o CLFW, 2001 S Street NW, Suite 740, Washington, DC 20009.

First They Killed My Father should be read by anyone who has never known what it is like to be extraordinarily hungry. If the newspaper headlines seem particularly dire nowadays, it may have something to do with the fact that some 2.8 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day. For hunger makes people into selfish and violent thieves, and it also makes them sick, languid, and hopeless. As Loung describes savoring a single grain of stolen, uncooked rice, I had difficulty enjoying my simple dinner of bread, cheese, and wine.

The book should also be read by those irrepressible people thinking that war is glorious, "surgical", or fun. Loung describes an execution of a Khmer Rouge soldier. The families of the soldier's victims are permitted to smash his skull open with a hammer and stab him in the stomach with knives. They then chuck the corpse into a putrid well. Dulce et decorum est.

Loung is exceptionally candid about how her circumstances made her vengeful and even borderline-homicidal. Part Chinese, she tries to choke somebody to death in retaliation for racial taunts. She resolves to kill Pol Pot in cold blood. She even writes of the Khmer Rouge that she will "kill them all" - the very words used by Deuch, the director of the KR's infamous S-21 prison.

Loung's awful tale reads like Orwell's Animal Farm in a Cambodian setting. Recall that "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others" eventually becomes Animal Farm's only commandment. In Cambodia, which was to have erased all class distinctions, the KR was on top, the villagers or "base people" in the middle, and the urban middle-class and minorities on the bottom. Like Orwell's animals, the Cambodians sang patriotic songs, worked like packhorses, worshipped their elusive and often illiterate leaders, and denounced chimerical enemies - the vague "West" but especially the "Youns", a derogatory Khmer term for the Vietnamese.

Indeed, this may be why the world never seems to tire of the Pol Pot Regime. By 1975, Stalin had been repudiated, Mao's Cultural Revolution was fizzling out, and yet Animal Farm happened all over again in Cambodia. How? And how to prevent it from happening again? Hint: avoid blind patriotism, excessive toil, elusive and illiterate leaders, and the demonization of fictitious enemies.

Well, it's a start.

- The End -

Review of Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Perennial, 2001.

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