I am embarrassed to say that before coming to Cambodia, I didn’t know much about the Khmer Rouge. I watched ‘The Killing Fields’, but it wasn’t until I read this memoir that I gained a better understanding of this act of genocide by the organization led by Pot Pol in 1975. The Khmer Rouge subjected Cambodia to a radical social reform process that was aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society, forcing over 2 million people out of the cities to work in collective farms, depriving them of their basic rights as they controlled how Cambodians acted, what they wore, who they could talk to, and many other aspects of their lives. Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered.
In addition to the relocation and forced labor, the Khmer Rouge isolated the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, and confiscating all private property. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions and torture, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.
About 4 million people, over half of the country’s population, were lost to the unspeakable and brutal ways of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died on April 15, 1998, having never been put on trial.
‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung is a firsthand account of a five year old girl forced to flee from Phnom Penh in 1975 with her family, eventually being trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans. Her story is heart wrenching and horrific, and yet reminds us how strong the human spirit can be in the face of such horrors.