Monday, December 12, 2011

First They Killed My Father: Loung Ung Book

Cambodia's sad history and the genocide

'First They Killed My Father' is a historical autobiography about Loung Ung's war experience. Most people would consider the title overly dramatised but the sad fact is that it was a reality for many Cambodians. Loung Ung, the author writes about her horrific experience during the Khmer Rouge/Killing Field period and her journey to America as a refugee.

Despite sharing the same surname as Loung, I don't think I'm related to her -but how would I know since I lost three grandparents to the Khmer Rouge genocidal period and no one really knows our ancestral details in great depths since my Aunties and Uncles were also in their teens and early 20s when the genocide happened? All I know is from what my parents told me about their experience, their losses and the saddest and most miserable years of their life.

To analyse the entire book, I could write another book about it really. How Loung's family and her experience during the starvation, famine, disease and deaths paralleled my own parents journey of loss, death and fear during those same years. I love Australia. I love its freedom, friendliness and the democratic society here. Whenever I hear misguided people arguing in favour of communism and how they believe it's such a Utopic concept - it makes me angry and pity them for their ignorance. If only they had read about how communism failed the population of Russia, China, Cambodia and Korea. The misery that it inflicts.

Pol Pot - what an asshole, dickhead, prick, insane killer and murderer of two million people. I don't normally use profanities in my posts but his regime and horribly misguided ideas resulted in the death of many people including some of my own grandparents, aunties and uncles. And as I delve more deeply into my heritage about Cambodia and the horror that he and his regime inflicted, the more it makes me angry and realise how stupid and evil we can be as humans.

Cambodia and the classes of wealth

If you don't know much about Cambodia, it's a South East Asian country that was previously so rich in history, culture, mineral and agricultural wealth. With rivers, lakes and a coast line, it used to be abundant with wildlife, jungle, fish and food. The society was and is very much class based. It was previously a French colony so many Khmer people (the ones that survived) can speak, read and write fluent French. My parents were also educated in the French language alongside Khmer (the Cambodian language) and a minor Chinese dialect(Teo Chiu). Nowadays they speak English and can't understand why we can't be multilingual like they are.

The whole communism period was an uprising by the peasants and the outcast Khmer Rouge(direct translation is Red Cambodians/Red Cambodian Army). Due to the US bombing the crap out of the Cambodian countryside in their fervour to destroy the Vietnamese soldiers, they bombed Cambodia too. That was why it was so easy for the Khmer Rouge to evacuate the cities. They used the excuse that the US army were going to bomb the cities and they all needed to evacuate for three days. My mum to this day, still harbours deep regret about her immaturity during those years - how she was young and naive and took only some clothes and some books with her when she should have taken as much food as she could possibly carry.

How three days turned into five years of torture

The Khmer Rouge told the evacuating civilians that they could return to their homes in three days but it was all lies. The three day lies were only the beginning of the five years of torture, famine, hunger, starvation and overwork that was awaiting them in their future. Nowadays, noone could pull that type of lie anymore because we have mobile phones, internet, media and we are all much more informed due to technology. Imagine the mid 1970's when the only news were predominantly print media publications. If you had no media and all you knew was that your country was being bombed and were asked to evacuate by soldiers, what and how much would you pack if they said it would only be for three days? All those who refused to evacuate were eventually killed and shot by the Khmer Rouge.

The mass murder of the educated, teachers, doctors, wealthy affluent families, politicians, religious and or business owners

Do you fall into any of those categories? If you do, imagine if you and all you know who fit into those categories were persecuted, tortured and killed? That's what happened to my mother and father's family. They were killed and even the children were killed incase they grew up and took revenge for the deaths of their parents. They killed all the educated and anyone who could be intelligent or influential enough to create uprising and revolutions.

My parents said the only way to survive those years were to pretend to be only a poor farmer or servant and pray that no-one recognises you and your lies. They had to hide the fact that they could speak, read and write in a few languages, hide the fact that their parents owned properties, land and that they had servants. Hide the fact that they were educated and prayed that no-one would recognise them and report them for reward - a measly amount of food reward. If you were caught hiding your knowledge, they killed you and they killed your family. They pretended to know nothing, the less said the safer it was.

They split up families and used that as threats used to punish you if you misbehaved. If you misbehaved, the threat was that they would kill your siblings and family in the other 'camps'.

The starvation and deaths

My mum tells me about how they laboured in the rice farms for 12-15 hour days planting and growing rice which were mainly for exporting to China so that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime could pay China for their guns, ammunitions and financial loans. She said that they laboured in the hot tropical heat every single day for five years and each day, they would get one small bowl of watery porridge.

Have you ever dined in a Chinese restaurant and they give you those tiny bowls to eat your rice and food from? My mum tells me that they were fed a small bowl with about 1 tablespoon of rice in that watery mix for each day of back breaking labour and that was all they were given to eat. That's why so many Cambodians eventually perished from starvation, disease and overwork. There were no more doctors, nurses nor medicine since they were anihilated and murdered already. And any doctors or nurses that were able to survive were hiding their knowledge and experience due to the fear of being found out, tortured for more information and then killed.

My parents tell me about about their escape into Thailand's refugee camps and the mass graves they passed along the way. The stench of death and the fear of landmines, being tortured and being shot if they were caught.

The present and the future

Only by being aware of our past and spreading the knowledge can we prevent this from happening again. This is my homage to the future. May we all live to remember the suffering of the past and remember to treat our future respectfully and not wage war on each other. There are wars, suffering and repression being waged in Iraq, Burma, parts of South Africa and elsewhere in the world. I wish it would all end. I wish the world could live in peace and harmony.

Loung Ung's book strikes deep chord within myself and reminds me of my own family's history and the challenges that they faced to be standing here. It reminds me to not be selfish and donate, lend a helping hand and to always remember that no matter what I believe my sufferings to be, I am fortunate and I have nothing to complain about. I do wonder if she is somehow a relative of mine or related to me somehow and whether some of her losses in her book are also some of my family's losses.

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