KILLED HER SISTER: A DEFINITIVE ANALYSIS
by Soneath Hor, Sody Lay, and
First They Killed My Father makes for
incredible, sensational reading. It
is a tale of a young girl whose personal strength, precocious wisdom and
extra-sensory powers enable her to overcome the hardships of a faraway,
forlorn world. It has all the makings of a great fantasy thriller with only one
problem: it is being promoted as an autobiography a legitimate, believable
account of Cambodia during the 1970s. The
story's depiction through the voice of a child-narrator makes it difficult to
discern fact from fiction, however; and the number of inaccuracies,
inconsistencies and manifestly incorrect information found in this book cast
further doubt on its credibility as a reliable and historical source.
While individually some of the factual improbabilities and
misrepresentations may seem minor, taken in totality they present a
disturbingly inaccurate picture of an already misconceived and misunderstood
period in Cambodian history. This
is a book which, rather than honestly recounting events that really
transpired, interweaves reality and fiction to make for a more dramatic but
also unlikely story.
We do not deny Ung her personal tragedy, but question the
veracity of her memory and the details of her narration.
Our objections to this book rest on three main points: first, it
contains too many inaccuracies and fabrications to be considered credible;
secondly, it misrepresents and distorts Khmer
culture and history; and thirdly, it generally misleads the reader about
Cambodia in the 1970s and life under the Khmer Rouge.
To falsify and sensationalize such a story for the purpose of selling a
book demeans the all-too-real experiences of so many other Cambodians who
suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime.
The book is supposedly written based on the memories of
the author when she was between the ages of five and eight, with the Khmer
Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975 as its starting point.
Regrettably, many of the "memories" that the author so
lucidly describes are either inaccurate or implausible.
There are many personal events that we cannot confirm or deny, but
there are enough errors in Ung's descriptions of Phnom Penh in 1975 and enough
inconsistencies in her story later as to call into question these alleged
Describing Phnom Penh as she remembered it in April of
1975, the author observes: "Children in colorful T-shirts and shorts kick
soccer balls on sidewalks with their bare feet, ignoring the grunts and
screams of the food car owners. The
wide boulevards sing with the buzz of motorcycle engines, squeaky bicycles,
and, for those wealthy enough to afford them, small cars"
(1). This gives the reader
a fairly vivid image of the streets of Phnom Penh; but it is the streets of
the Phnom Penh of today, not 1975. To
begin with, Ung observes motorcycles, bicycles and small cars being on the
streets, but fails to mention military jeeps or lamtas, which were both
ubiquitous in Phnom Penh at the time. A
lamta is a passenger vehicle, such as a small bus or truck, where customers
enter from the rear. It and
military jeeps were as omnipresent to Phnom Penh in the early 1970s as yellow
cabs are to the New York City borough of Manhattan today.
Imagine describing the streets of Manhattan without mentioning yellow
cabs. If Ung remembers seeing
motorcycles, bicycles and small cars, she would have certainly also seen
lamtas, military jeeps and another vehicle called "lamaerk" (a
motorcycle or bicycle-pulled wagon) and should have included these in her
narration as well. These
vehicles are rarely seen in present day Phnom Penh, which her description more
likely depicts. Secondly, April
1975 was a time of chaos in Cambodia's capital.
The Khmer Rouge was closing in on Phnom Penh, the city was in disarray,
and people were scared. Parents
did not permit their children to nonchalantly play outside in the streets.
Parents kept their children near them or forced them to stay indoors
for safety. Virtually everyone
knew about the war. How could
they not when the city was under siege?
A child so precocious as to be able to recount her father's description
to her of the American political system must have been aware of these things
as well, yet we find no such observations.
The accuracy of Ung's memory is further put into question
when she describes her mother at that time praising Prince Sihanouk's wife:
"'Princess Monineath of Cambodia, now she is famous for being proper,' Ma
continues. 'It is said that she
walks so quietly that no one ever hears her approaching.
... What a gracious lady
she is'" (3). Her
mother's compliment of the Princess is out of place given the historic
context in which her words were spoken. Many
people in the urban centers were staunchly anti-royalist and supported Prince
Sihanouk's overthrow in 1970. From
the inception of the Khmer Republic regime to its defeat in 1975, rather than
being complimented, the royal family was constantly criticized and denounced.
That her mother would say such a thing in 1975 is unrealistic given the
pervading anti-royalist sentiment in the cities.
Recall also that Ung's father was serving as a high-ranking officer in
the Khmer Republic regime at the time the same regime that overthrew
Princess Monique's husband several years earlier.
Finally, how could her mother speak of a "Princess Monineath of
Cambodia" when in 1975 no such person even existed?
At the time, there was only Prince Sihanouk's wife, Monique the
name "Monineath" was not given to her until the 1990s when Prince
Sihanouk became King of Cambodia and she the Queen.
Ung continues to spin her web of fantasy saying: "It
was such a long time ago, when we visited my uncle's and aunt's farm in the
countryside and I played with their neighbor's daughter.
She and I had a chicken we would carry around to have fights with the
other kids' chickens" (4). It
is difficult to gauge when a "long time ago" is from a five-year-old
perspective, but assuming the trip to the countryside took place sometime when
she was between the age of three and five, that would place the date of her
trip sometime between 1973 and 1975. It
would have been unreasonably risky for her family to make such a trip during
that time, as fighting was at its peak just outside the capital and all the
major roads out of Phnom Penh were closed.
Travel was generally one-way, and that was into the cities.
Over a million people from the countryside fled into Phnom Penh for
shelter throughout the early 1970s.
As for the "chicken fights," this is most likely yet another
fabrication. Assuming that the
author is referring to cock fights (because chickens do not fight), it would
be highly implausible for a child under five years of age, especially one from
the city, to actually engage in such an extremely dangerous activity. Roosters have long,
pointed spurs that would have seriously harmed a little child if she had
actually gotten caught in the middle of such a thing; she would not have
simply escaped with "a big scratch" as Ung claims.
Mentioning a trip to the countryside and her participation in
cock-fighting as a child may make the story sound more interesting and exotic,
but it has little basis in reality.
Although the book claims to be
a recollection, the inaccurate description of 1975 Phnom Penh and her alleged
trip to the countryside shows it is more likely a reinvention an imprecise
one at that. How can this
be considered an autobiography, if the autobiographer cannot recall basic
details and instead includes such unrealistic or improbable information?
In wanting to make her readers empathize with her, the
author tries to make her family seem like a typical family in the mold of the
American middle class. She
repeats the term "middle class" as if the more she says it the more
people will believe her. The description of her family's wealth reveals
otherwise, however. She says: "I know
we are middle-class because of our apartment and the possessions we have"
(7). Their possessions actually
put them economically in the upper echelon of Cambodian society.
These belongings include: owning two telephones (she admits most other
Cambodian households do not even own one); having a full-time maid; swimming
at "the club" on Sunday afternoons; her mother collecting
"antique jewelry" (146); her fourteen-year-old sister owning various
necklaces and earrings (133); and her family owning two cars and a truck.
In America, it might not be uncommon for a family to own such things,
but in Cambodia during the early 1970s it was very rare to be able to
afford even one car. Ung herself,
in the very first page of her book, states: "The
wide boulevards sing with the buzz of motorcycle engines, squeaky bicycles,
and, for those wealthy enough to afford them, small cars."
If she admits that only those people who are "wealthy enough"
can afford a car, how could she consider her family middle class when they own
three? One of the cars allegedly
was bought for her teenage brother Meng (12).
For a family to be able to afford more than one car certainly meant
they were well beyond middle class. To
purchase a teenage son a car, when mopeds and scooters were the predominant
mode of personal transportation and countless people in the capital were
literally starving, was outright decadent.
By Ung's definition: "Being a middle-class family
means that we have a lot more money and possessions than many others do"
(15). She also says later,
"Riding in the Mazda sets us apart from the rest of the population.
Along with our other material possessions, our Mazda tells everybody we
are from the middle class" (20). The
author must either not understand or consciously chooses to incorrectly use
the term "middle class." People
who own material possessions that set them "apart from the rest of the
population" do not generally fall under the category.
Again, while such a lifestyle might be normal for an American family of
today, it was not for Cambodians in the early 1970s.
Only the extremely privileged in Cambodian society had access to such
things. Perhaps Ung can claim
that as a five-year-old child, the perspective from which she writes this, she
did not know. Such an excuse for
the inappropriate use of the term "middle class" is unconvincing,
however. In America, the term is
heard regularly in the media and so forth because there really is a middle
class to which most of the population belongs.
Not so in Cambodia where you were basically either one of the haves or
have-nots. Very few adults in
Cambodia had any conceptualization of "middle class" and a
five-year-old would certainly have had little reason to use the term it
would be akin to an American five-year-old referring to her family as
So why is it important to clarify that the author's
family was not "middle class"?
Because she claims in the prelude of her book that "if you had
been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too"
(ix - author's note). Since the
wealth of her family puts them in a socio-economic status level that well less
than one percent of the population could claim, as a middle class American
reading this, it would not have been "your story too."
Additionally, this issue of her family's wealth goes to the heart of
her portrayal of them as innocent victims.
While a vast majority of the almost two million Cambodians who died
during the Khmer Rouge period were in fact innocent, the opulence in which her
family lived meant they disproportionately benefited from the conditions that
lead to the destruction of Cambodia. It
was corruption and oppression that contributed to the rise of the Communism in
Cambodia and the tragedy that resulted afterward.
For the decadent lifestyle of the few in pre-1975 Cambodia, the entire
population eventually suffered.
Rather than a middle class American family, hers would be more
appropriately compared to that of a German commander who lived extravagantly
while so many others suffered during World War II.
When one realizes that corruption is to blame for much of what
happened in Cambodia the corruption from which Ung's family appears to
have disproportionately benefited suddenly her story is no longer so
compelling and victims such as her father do not seem to be so completely
In speaking about an attempted bombing of their family
Ung says, "These people didn't know Pa, but they thought all officers
were corrupt and bad" (11). She
even tries to justify her family's wealth by claiming that her father's job as
a military police "means he makes good money" (10).
She is correct in alluding to the fact that not all government
officials or military officers were corrupt, but a military police, even one
with "four stripes on his uniform," would not have made enough money
to permit his family to lead the luxurious lifestyle Ung's did.
The author herself unwittingly describes one instance of his
corruption: "Pa is so afraid something will happen to [my sister Keav]
that he has two military policemen follow her everywhere she goes" (13). Since
nothing in the narration indicates that these military police were following
his daughter after working hours or were being independently paid by him to do
so, it appears that her father was using these government-paid soldiers for
his family's private benefit. Such
abuse of power was not uncommon during the Khmer Republic period.
As for her family's wealth, Ung conspicuously does not mention any
additional sources of income, such as a side business or inheritance, from
which it could have come.
Ung tries to pre-emptively absolve her father of such
potential accusations by saying things such as: "He works hard...
Ma tells me that his success never came from stepping on everyone along
the way." (5) and "My heart is sick at the thought that someone
actually tried to hurt Pa. If
only these new people in the city could understand that Pa is a very nice
man..." (11). Why would
Ung's mother even discuss such an issue with a five-year-old girl?
More likely, Ung puts it in her story as an attempt to extricate her
father from such allegations. She
even goes so far as to claim that "during his life as a monk, wherever he
walked he had to carry a broom and dustpan to sweep the path in front of him
so as not to kill any living things by stepping on them" (12).
A person would be hard pressed to find a monk in Cambodia who actually
did this. It adds to Ung's
representation of her father as a person who "never did any harm to
anyone," but at the expense of distorting an entire nation's religious
practice. It is minor, but such
misinformation is not justifiable no matter how benign the comment may appear.
Would Christians, Jews, or Muslims appreciate it being proposed to
individuals who might not know otherwise that their religious figures carried
around a mop and bucket wherever they went, when they in fact do not?
Perhaps he was "a very nice man" to his family,
but Ung states that after her father left the monastery, he "joined the
police force. He was so good he
was promoted to the Cambodian Royal Secret Service under Prince Norodom
Sihanouk. As an agent, Pa worked
undercover and posed as a civilian to gather information for the government.
He was very secretive about his work" (12).
During the Sihanouk era, the Royal Secret Service was known for
brutalizing and secretly murdering countless individuals.
This knowledge was so prevalent that when several prominent left-wing
cabinet members disappeared in the late 1960s, "many people in Phnom Penh
were convinced that Sihanouk's police had murdered them."
In an attempt to disassociate her family from the corrupt Khmer
Republic regime, Ung explains: "After Prince Sihanouk's government fell
in 1970, he was conscripted into the new government of Lon Nol.
Though promoted to a major..., Pa said he did not want to join but had
to, or he would risk being persecuted, branded a traitor, or perhaps even
killed" (12). If he was part
of Sihanouk's Royal Secret Service, one would imagine that he had to somehow
prove his loyalty to the new Khmer Republic regime; otherwise, rather than
promoting him to major, it seems logical that the new leaders would have tried
to mitigate his military influence by either reducing his rank or
decommissioning him altogether. Regardless,
why try to disassociate her family from a regime that had given them such an
affluent lifestyle if the author really believes they were middle class and
her father completely innocent of the corruption that pervaded Phnom Penh at
PHNOM PENH EVACUATION
When the Khmer Rouge take over Phnom Penh, Ung remarks:
"It is afternoon and I am playing hopscotch with my friends on the street
in front of our apartment. ...
I stop playing when I hear the thunder of engines in the distance"
(17). Assuming her parents were
the caring, responsible individuals she describes, they would not have
casually permitted her to play out in the streets on April 17, 1975.
The nation's capital was under siege, there was intense fighting at the
outskirts of the city, and Armageddon was looming.
Despite being the nation's capital, Phnom Penh is a small city where
only a complete recluse could have been oblivious to all this.
The sound of mortars over the past several months would have halted her
playing in the streets and alerted her to trouble well before the
"thunder of engines" rolling into the city.
A girl playing hopscotch as soldiers roll into town is a striking
image, but this book is not being promoted as fiction, it is billed as an
authentic account of what happened to the author between 1975 and 1979.
To those who were there during 1975, her narration rings false and
fails to give the reader a sense of the real disorder and fear in the
Cambodian capital at the time.
We do not hear about the military jeeps roaming the streets, the
sandbags set up alongside the road, the check points in various intersections
in the city, or the over one million refugees from the countryside who had
fled to Phnom Penh because of the war. The
reader is presented with a skewed description of the posh existence of this
little girl's family, not realizing that outside her walls there was real
upheaval and misery. It makes for
a much starker contrast to the later descriptions of life under the Khmer
Rouge, but at the expense of providing an erroneous picture of life in Phnom
Penh just before the fall.
After the takeover, the author's family, like so many
others, is forced to evacuate the city. She
describes the exodus with such questionable detail as to cast further doubt on
the integrity of her memory. First,
when she and her siblings need to relieve themselves after the first day of
travel, their mother says: "'Wait, I'll get you some toilet paper.'
Ma goes away and comes back with a bunch of paper sheets in her hand.
My eyes widen in disbelief, 'Ma! It's
money. I can't use money!'
'Use it, it is of no use to us anymore'" (25).
Something of this nature may have occurred much later, but at this
juncture it is unlikely. It is
too early for her parents to know that the regime will cease the use of paper
money. The excuse the Khmer Rouge
gave for driving people out of Phnom Penh was that the U.S. was going to bomb
the city. Many Cambodians
believed such a threat because American B-52s had rained over half a million
tons of bombs on the country throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Many people still believed that the Khmer Rouge were telling the truth
and hoped that they would actually be allowed back to their homes.
Hence, it is improbable that after half a day her parents would have
already begun throwing their money away in such a manner.
Ung also claims in her story that it took her family four
days to get from Phnom Penh to the town of Kom Baul (30).
The town of Kom Baul is at most twenty-five miles from Phnom Penh.
Even taking into account the disorder and clutter of the exodus, it
should not have taken much more than a couple of days to travel there, especially
considering her family had use of the truck on the first day of their trip.
Once they get to Kom Baul, the authenticity of Ung's narration is
further put into question when she asserts that before going to speak with a
Khmer Rouge leader her father tells the family to pretend that they are
peasants (31). It is unlikely
that he would have proposed something that would have been so obviously false:
it would have been completely unbelievable given the family's worldly
possessions, their clothes, appearance, and city accent (which is distinct)
and would be as if New Yorkers were suddenly dropped into rural Mississippi in
their urban attire and tried to convince rural Mississippians that they were
The author makes more implausible assertions in
describing their journey to the countryside when she claims that on the way
her family eats "'rice balls with wild mushrooms.
Khouy and Meng picked the mushrooms in the woods'" (32-33).
While this description of events may evoke sympathy in the reader by
showing that her family was already at the point where they had to scavenge in
the woods for food, it is unrealistic. In
Cambodia, it is common knowledge that wild mushrooms are dangerous,
particularly for city folk who would likely have a difficult time
distinguishing between poisonous and non-poisonous ones.
Most people only ate wild mushrooms during the Khmer Rouge period when
they were completely starving, absolutely desperate, and no longer cared about
living. Ung herself affirms this
later on in the story by observing: "...two sisters decided to go to the
forest and look for food by themselves. They
were so hungry they ate mushrooms that turned out to be poisonous" (86).
After only several days of traveling and with food still available, it
would not have been reasonable for her family to risk their lives eating
potentially poisonous mushrooms.
THE ANGKOR TRIP
Ung on two occasions proclaims memory about a family trip
to Angkor Wat. She states:
"I remember clutching tightly to Pa's finger as we walked along wide
crumbling corridors [of Angkor Wat]" (67); then later, she continues:
"It was during our trip to Angkor Wat that I first thought Pa was a god.
I was only three or four years old then.
With my hand in Pa's, we entered the area of Angkor Thom, one of the
many temple sites there" (109). The
Angkor sites to which she refers are located in Northwestern Cambodia, an area
inaccessible during the 1973-74 period (when she would have been three or
four) due to the war. To visit
the Angkor monuments at that time would have meant risking life and limb in a
battle zone. The supposed picture
of her family's trip to Angkor Wat in her book does not even show Ung, and
shows her sister Chou (who is 3 years older than her) as a toddler.
Furthermore, the picture is not of Angkor Wat at all: If readers look
closely, they can see clearly etched on the wall in the background, in
English, the word "Traite" Khmers of the 12th
century who erected Angkor Wat did not read or write English and such an
engraving cannot be found there.
What reasons the author has for lying about this trip is unclear, but
what is clear is that it is completely fabricated.
Such fabrications make it difficult to discern where the author's
imagination ends and reality begins.
Ung gives the reader erroneous information about the
Khmer monuments as well. In
speaking about Angkor Wat she proclaims: "Covering more than twenty-five
miles of temples, Angkor Wat was built by powerful Khmer kings as monuments of
self-glorification in the ninth century and completed three hundred years
later" (67). Ung should have
done better research on a subject matter so important to the Khmer people.
Angkor Wat is a single monument built during the first half of the 12th
century. It is today the largest
religious temple in the world and at that time was not simply built for
self-glorification but also to help secure prosperity for the Empire.
The image of Angkor Wat has graced every Khmer flag since Cambodia's
independence from the French in 1953. Many
Khmer temples and monuments were built during the Angkorian period of
Cambodian history, which most scholars estimate as lasting from the 9th
to 15th century a six-hundred-year period.
A true "daughter of Cambodia" would not be so careless as to
provide such blatantly incorrect information about these temples, as they are
an integral part of Khmer heritage and pride.
It would be akin to an American declaring the Lincoln Memorial to be a
shrine of self-glorification that was built five hundred years ago by George
Washington. For the sake of a
foreigner or children who have no knowledge of American history, one would
reasonably expect a writer to take care not to make such an obviously untrue
MISREPRESENTATION OF FACTS ABOUT THE KHMER ROUGE PERIOD
Ung's obsession with food during the Khmer Rouge years
reflects an obsession almost all other Khmer Rouge survivors describe.
Many people died as a result of malnutrition or starvation.
Based on her narrative, however, it actually seems that Ung and her
family ate reasonably well, comparatively speaking of course.
She tries to make it seem as if they were deprived by saying things
such as, "When we catch animals, we eat everything feet, tongue,
skin, and the innards" (52); and in another scene, she describes her
family as "cold and hungry, the only food we have to eat are the fish and
rabbits that float by" (53). To
have access to all this meat actually meant that they ate better than most of
the rest of the Khmer population at the time.
They even have access to extra food denied others in the village.
In reference to the food they get from a village chief she says,
"Their leftovers are a feast! White rice and chicken!" (63).
That her family was able to augment their regular provision with these
leftovers made them extremely privileged.
Ung discusses how her brother Kim gets this food for them at the
expense of suffering the abuse of his employer, but it is never made clear why
he is being beaten. It is
inexplicable: If the village leader from whom he gets the food hates him so
much as to beat him, it seems peculiar that her brother would be given food to
take home. To be given such extra
food was a favor usually allotted only to those in the Khmer Rouge's good
Ung misrepresents Khmer Rouge society by making it appear
to be one of complete anarchy, when it was in fact one of brutal order.
Of the Khmer Rouge soldiers she says: "They come many more nights
and take many other girls. Some
of the girls are returned in the morning but many are not.
Other times, the soldiers come back with the girl and tell her parents
they have married. Many of the
girls who are forced to marry soldiers are never heard from again" (72).
In contrast to Ung's account, the reality was that under the Khmer
Rouge "permission to marry was only granted by [the Khmer Rouge
leadership], and premarital sex became subject to extreme punishment,
sometimes even the death penalty."
The Khmer Rouge had strict marriage guidelines and infringement of these rules
in the manner Ung describes, even by soldiers, would have been dealt with
Ung also misrepresents Khmer Rouge principles when she alludes to the
fact that the women who had allegedly been abducted "suffer greatly at
the hands of their 'husbands.' The
soldiers are often heard saying women have their duty to perform for the
Angkar. Their duty is to do what
they were made for, to bear children for the Angkar.
If they do not fulfill their duty, they are worthless and
dispensable" (72). While
certainly brutal, Khmer Rouge policies in many ways actually promoted or were
based on the notion of gender equality. The
Khmer Rouge certainly did not value women merely for their reproductive
abilities: women soldiers were commonplace and valued for their military
skills; and higher level female cadre, especially the wives of top-level Khmer
Rouge leaders, were given a great deal of influence and power.
Ung's representations of Khmer Rouge tolerance for societal anarchy is
a complete misrepresentation of the draconian totalitarian system that
On several occasions Ung speaks about Pol Pot, claiming
his name was circulated among the people and discussing how she would seek
revenge against him. During
January of 1976, she states: "Some people are saying that maybe he is the
leader of the Angkar" (77). Then
later that year, she says: "I am a kid, not even seven years old, but
somehow I will kill Pol Pot" (108).
This is a heroic sentiment with one major problem: Almost no one but
the highest level Communist party members knew who Pol Pot was at the time.
Nowadays, the name Pol Pot is synonymous with the Khmer Rouge, but
during the time in which he actually held power, between 1975 and 1979,
Cambodians only knew of the Khmer Rouge leadership as the "Angkar."
While it may appeal to the reader's imagination to hear about this
defiant little girl directing her anger and hatred at this individual who many
Cambodians and the world view as evil incarnate, it has no basis in reality
and is yet another fabrication of facts and distortion of history by the
HER LIFE UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE
Several incidents during the Khmer Rouge period that the
author describes in detail seem quite incredible.
The first is the reunion of all her family members at the infirmary.
Considering all the members of her family were separated at the time,
it seems overly coincidental that they would all have been granted leave to go
to the infirmary at exactly the same time.
The Khmer Rouge did not casually permit those under their supervision
to go anywhere. And Ung herself
states that often times the infirmary was just a place where people went to
die. Instead of being extremely
ill, however, everyone in her family seem to have been in fine health:
"After much discussion, we conclude that we are not so much sick as weak
from starvation" (155). If
this were the case, then the entire population of Cambodian at that time would
have been in the infirmary. Also,
Ung describes her and her family as being given at the infirmary an
"amount of food comparable to what I was given while I worked"
(155). The Khmer Rouge did not
waste such food on people in the infirmary their motto, after all, was
"To destroy you is no loss, to keep you is no gain."
Instead of describing the infirmary as the death trap that infirmaries
were, Ung describes how amongst all the suffering she basks in her family's
happiness because they are all together.
While effective as a literary device to make the story more interesting
and to give the reader a reprieve from all the hatred and misery, the event is
so implausible as to make it out of place even if the book was publicized as
Another event the author narrates in shocking detail is
her experience in the "child soldier training camp."
She describes the camp as housing "about eighty girls, their ages
ranging from ten to fifteen" and admits "I have yet to turn
eight" (131). If the camp
was for girls from ten to fifteen, why would they permit one of only seven
years of age to participate? Why
would they make her an exception? Ung
looks quite young and small in the picture of her in the book that was taken
in the refugee camp several years later, so it could not have been because she
was big for her age. It is also
doubtful the girl in the picture could have had the strength to lift and aim
an AK-47 rifle, as Ung asserts she was trained to do in the child soldier
But, again, it is not the little girl pictured in the refugee camp who
supposedly had the strength to handle such a heavy weapon, it is a
malnourished child several years younger.
To further impress her readers, Ung actually goes so far as to claim to have
AK-47 (142). To be only seven years old and malnourished and still
capable of firing an AK-47, a weapon that is even difficult for a full grown
adult inexperienced in its use to manage, Ung had to have had
The Khmer Rouge were extremists, but it is hardly believable that
they would give such an important and valuable piece of weaponry to a little
girl at a time when they were killing people with axes and machetes in order
to save bullets. Finally, keeping
in mind Ung's constant refrain about how the Khmer Rouge did not trust and
hated light-skinned people, why would they then give such a weapon to a
light-skinned girl? She explains,
"They think I am one of them, one of the pure base children"; but
how could they if she is so different in appearance that, as the reader is
often reminded, she is constantly discriminated against?
Later, Ung again demonstrates her superhuman abilities
when she overpowers a Vietnamese soldier and foils his apparent attempt to
rape her. How is it possible that
a malnourished eight-year-old girl overpowers and outruns a full grown,
presumably well-fed combat soldier? Even
if this is possible, the credibility of her story is further put into doubt
when she later shows no fear of him. Instead,
she claims: "My mind swirls with rage of revenge.
My heart jumps to my throat, and I take off after him.
'Monster!' I yell, running" (182).
But conveniently, she steps on a piece of broken glass which halts her
assault. In an environment
without sanitation and medication, small cuts often turned into festering
wounds rather easily, but, coincidentally, we never hear about this injury of
hers again. Also, contrast this
scene with another not too long afterward: "I stand and find myself
almost face-to-face with him, separated by only fifteen feet.
... My heart beats wildly.
Fear seeps into my body. ...
I take a step back, leaning into the crowd for protection" (204).
In this case, Ung is face-to-face with a tied up Khmer Rouge soldier.
How is it that she does not fear a soldier who just assaulted her and
whom she just kicked in the groin, yet tremors while she is in the midst of a
large crowd before another soldier who is tightly bound to a chair?
Another incident that Ung describes is her and her
siblings' "adoption" by a family of strangers.
While this was known to occur because so many children lost their
parents during the Khmer Rouge period, the author's over-dramatization of the
event is wholly unreal: "That afternoon I wait with nervous anticipation
to meet my new family. I wonder
what they are like and what it would feel like to belong to a family again.
A new family!" (175). Her
anticipation here sounds more like that of a child in America waiting to be
adopted, rather than a child in Cambodia living in the midst of hunger,
starvation, misery and warfare. Particularly
given her animosity toward all the "base" people, why should she
feel excited to now live with them?
Within the Cambodian context, her anticipation that a strange,
unrelated family would take her in as their own during a period of civil
strife is unjustified, particularly when the parents already have children of
their own to worry about feeding.
Even in America, foster care or adoption is often marked by a great
deal of anxiety on the part of the child.
To give the reader a greater sense of her alleged disappointment, Ung
proposes: "The realization of our work arrangement sends chills down my
spine" (176). Again, she
would have no reason to anticipate anything less.
Why would getting a few household chores send "chills" down
her spine? Considering that
almost everyone was hungry and desperate at this time, getting chores would
have been the least of her concerns. Ung claims to have been able to sense in her heart at the age of six that her
father was dead and even offhandedly insinuates possessing extrasensory powers
so how can it be that being given simple chores comes as such a shock to her?
The sad fact is that Ung is using such melodrama not to
depict an accurate account of events that transpired, but merely to try to
appeal to the reader's sense of compassion and augment her portrayal of
herself as a victim (not just a victim of the Khmer Rouge, but in this case
the victim of a Khmer family that actually helped her).
For example, even the grandmother of the family who just had a bullet
shot through her leg and is suffering miserably has just enough strength at
the hospital to torment Ung. Rather
than the person who had just been shot being the victim, Ung somehow twists it
around to make herself appear the object of victimization.
And the following day, when the grandmother comes home from the
hospital, the author recounts: "In the hut, she laughs and plays with the
grandchildren, ignoring Chou and me..." (189).
It is a dramatic scene designed to induce pity for her and her sister,
but how does the grandmother have the strength to "laugh" and
"play" with the grandchildren when she just got out of the hospital
and was still suffering from a fairly fresh gunshot wound?
Someone in that condition, especially an elderly person, would likely
be bed-ridden and too weak or in too much pain to play with anybody,
particularly since Ung notes that the nurses at the hospital were unable to
give her any medication whatsoever. Unfortunately,
this manipulation of events to make the victims themselves appear to be
victimizers is a recurrent theme in the book.
While Ung may be "Cambodian" by virtue of being
born in Cambodia, it is clear from her book that she does not identify herself
as such. For "a daughter of
Cambodia," Ung has an unsettling propensity to misrepresent Cambodian
culture as well as frequently failing to acknowledge critical aspects of
Cambodian culture where appropriate.
Near the beginning of the book, Ung describes her
mother's return from shopping: "When she returns hot and fatigued from a
day of shopping, the first thing she does, following Chinese culture, is to
take off her sandals and leave them at the door" (9).
It is peculiar that a "daughter of Cambodia" only mentions
Chinese culture here, as Cambodians traditionally take off their shoes when
they enter a dwelling place as well. Thus,
nine pages into the book, the reader is subtly
introduced to the notion that this in fact may not be the story of "a
daughter of Cambodia" as advertised.
Ung states later in her book: "In the Chinese culture, young
children never call their elder siblings by name..." (219).
Using proper kinship terms is a critical aspect of Khmer culture as
well. A professor of linguistics
who has done research in the Cambodian community observed: "Khmer
children are encouraged to address even their own siblings and cousins as
either bang (older brother or sister) or aun (younger brother
or sister), depending on their relatives' ages...
For Khmer, the expression of respect between individuals of differing
status is, in effect, an elementary form in social life.
Khmer elders view the ability to greet and address others as a critical
index of the child's social status and moral upbringing."
How could a daughter of Cambodia neglect to mention such a fundamental
aspect of Cambodian culture? It
is fine if Ung wants to distance herself from everything Khmer, but she should
not have then cashed in on the subtitle "A Daughter of Cambodia
Remembers" and mislead the public into buying a book many assumed would
be written from a Cambodian perspective.
Ung completely misinforms readers about Cambodian holiday
traditions as well. The customs
she describes are not Cambodian, but possibly Chinese.
Yet, she more often than not fails to point this out to the reader:
"New Years is a special occasion and during the celebration everyone is
allowed to wear red" (33), and later, "[m]y first red dress, the one
Ma made for me for the New Year's celebration" (59).
The "red, chiffon dress" that Ung describes is far from
traditional Cambodian formal wear, which actually consists of hand-woven silk
skirts and laced tops and are usually not red in color.
Although the American reader may consider it a relatively benign
"mistake," it would be akin to saying Americans traditionally dress
up in gaudy pink prom dresses to celebrate the Fourth of July.
It is just patently untrue. Ung
also says: "I dream and relive the New Year's celebration we had in Phnom
The part I liked best was when the parents took the children around to
their friends. Children are not
given presents during this holiday. Instead,
we are given money brand-new crisp bills in decorated red paper
pouches" (79-80). Again,
this may be practiced by some ethnic Chinese in Cambodia, but it is most certainly
not a Cambodian holiday tradition.
Would Americans appreciate being described as eating a
traditional feast of fish tacos for Thanksgiving?
Fish tacos certainly are delicious, but it would be wholly
inappropriate to describe a "traditional" American Thanksgiving meal
in such a manner. Although these
may seem like insignificant mistakes, they are so obvious that they should not
have been made. Readers who are
unfamiliar with Cambodian culture would be totally misinformed by this book.
Ung not only inappropriately misrepresents Cambodian
culture in these instances, but she also unfairly distorts the truth about
Khmer Culture in other instances: "When the foreigner took over
Kampuchea, they brought with them bad habits and fancy titles.
The Angkar has expelled all foreigners so we no longer have to refer to
each other using fancy titles " (60).
Whether or not this is a true representation of the Khmer Rouge's
speech to her, it is worth clarifying here that Cambodians have always had
special indigenous terms to describe different hierarchical relationships.
The Khmer Rouge were not simply trying to eliminate foreign influences,
they were trying to eliminate any kind of hierarchy, both within society and
within the Khmer language. However,
Ung's claim that the Khmer Rouge force children to "change what they call
their parents. Father is now 'Poh"
and not Daddy, Pa, or any other term. Mother
is 'Meh'" (60) is completely erroneous: In the Khmer language, Poh
does mean "Daddy" and Meh does mean "Mother."
For rural people, who account for about 90% of the population, Poh
and Meh is what they call their parents.
Khmer persons who use these terms were not necessarily Communist or
Communist-sympathizers as the author's presentation seems to insinuate.
This notion is as insulting as if you were to accuse Jews of being
Nazi-collaborators simply because they used German kinship terms.
Sadly, through these omissions and misrepresentations of
Cambodian culture, Ung's narration expresses an exclusive rather than
inclusive philosophy: it reflects the destructive "us vs. them"
("light-skinned Chinese vs. dark-skinned Khmer") mentality that
pervades the entire book.
THE RACE ISSUE
On numerous occasions Ung tries to make herself seem the
victim of pervasive racism. She
even claims that her father tells her the Khmer Rouge are engaged in a policy
of ethnic cleansing: "Pa says that the Angkar is obsessed with ethnic
cleansing. The Angkar hates
anyone who is not true Khmer. The
Angkar wants to rid Democratic Kampuchea of other races, deemed the source of
evil, corruption, and poison. ... I do not know what ethnic cleansing means.
I just know that to protect myself, I often have to rub dirt and
charcoal on my skin to look as dark as the base people" (92).
The image is vivid a six-year-old girl rubbing charcoal on herself
to hide her skin color. But how
could her father say this when her mother's brothers, who we assume are
"pure Chinese" like her mother, are considered "model
citizens" by the Khmer Rouge? "Uncle
Leang and Uncle Heang have lived in the countryside since before the
revolution and have never lived in a city. The
Khmer Rouge considers them uncorrupted model citizens for their new
society" (37). It does not
make sense that her father would talk about ethnic cleansing when the Khmer
Rouge are touting these pure Chinese men as "model citizens."
Again, Ung distorts the truth and leads the reader astray.
The Khmer Rouge certainly would have killed her and her family if they
knew of her father's employment with the Khmer Republic regime and her
family's past wealth, but it seems evident they would not have killed her and
her family for simply being ethnic Chinese.
Many of the Khmer Rouge's leaders were themselves Chinese-Cambodian.
If the Khmer Rouge's policy was really one of "ethnic
cleansing," Ung's whole family would have been wiped out at the outset,
as her father notes: "We are different, your ma speaks Khmer with a
Chinese accent, you kids have lighter skin... " (54) no amount of
dirt would have been able to disguise their white skin or her mother's Chinese
Because the term "ethnic cleansing" has been
repeatedly used over the past decade with the tragedies in Rwanda and the
former Yugoslavia, it evokes strong feelings and images in the American
reader. Nevertheless, it was not
in the Cambodian vernacular. It
is likely that rather than her father, it is Ung herself who is making the
claim not as a six-year-old girl, but as a thirty-year-old woman who has
been exposed to it by the American media over the past decade.
While it is certainly a colorful word with powerful and disturbing
connotations, it is inappropriately used here.
We would not deny that Ung and her family suffered a great deal under
the Khmer Rouge; by using this term to describe the Killing Fields period,
Ung herself consequently denies the suffering of ethnic Khmers, who
constituted the vast majority of those who died under the Khmer Rouge regime.
True, the Khmer Rouge were fearful of Vietnam at the time and
persecuted people who they thought would be sympathetic toward their enemies
to the east such as ethnic Vietnamese, but even in this instance the Khmer
Rouge leadership's paranoia was such that a greater number of Khmers were
killed because of it than even Vietnamese-Cambodians (many of whom had already
fled to Vietnam as refugees by the time the Khmer Rouge began their purges of
Eastern Zone peoples).
Ung's distortion of the truth denies millions of people who suffered
under the Khmer Rouge proper acknowledgement for their suffering.
Proposing the Khmer Rouge's policy was one of "ethnic
cleansing" implies that Khmers themselves were not victimized.
Once again using a World War II analogy, it would be akin to ethnic
Germans who opposed the Nazis writing an account in which it appeared that
they were the only ones who suffered persecution.
Fortunately, because the tragedy of World War II has been so highly
documented and publicized, most people realize that countless other groups,
such as the Jews, Gypsies, Poles, etc., were victimized as well.
Not so with the Cambodian tragedy, which remains something of a mystery
for many people and for whom this book may represent the totality of their
knowledge. Therefore, such
misinformation and distortions of the truth are particularly dangerous and is
insulting to the millions of Cambodians who toiled in misery and perished in
the Killing Fields.
Of the other Cambodian children who themselves are
victims of the Khmer Rouge, the author says: "The children despise me and
consider me inferior because of my light skin.
When I walk by them, my ears ring from their cruel words and their spit
eats through my skin like acid. They throw mud at me, claiming it will darken
my ugly white skin" (126). It
is the nature of children to pick on other children who are different, whether
it be skin color, height, economic status, or otherwise.
It is of course wrong and unjustified.
But for Ung to claim that they comment on the ugliness of her white
skin is, once again, implausible in the Cambodian context.
It is even difficult to translate "ugly white skin" into
Khmer, as light skin and beauty are so closely associated in the Khmer
Ung herself mentions early in the book how others admired the beauty of
her mother's white skin. If
Cambodians generally consider lighter skin complexion to be attractive, why
would they be proclaiming its ugliness here?
Also, in a prior passage Ung commented: "I don't understand why
they are looking at me as if I am a strange animal, when in reality, we look
very much the same" (57). Which
is it? Does she look the same as
these other children or different?
Ung even goes so far as to propose that other villagers
complain about "lazy white people": "The villagers also look
down on her white skin and often make rude comments about 'lazy white
people'" (111). The Chinese
in Cambodia had quite a reputation for being diligent workers (similar to the
image in America during the 1980s of the Japanese).
Khmers have always both admired and resented the Chinese for their
industriousness and financial success.
Hence, it would have been unlikely that they would have been
specifically targeted for this particular derision.
The phrase "lazy white people" if translated into Khmer would
be "Sah ckel" which would mean "lazy Caucasians."
Cambodians do not refer to other Asians as "white people," no
matter how light their skin. It
is actually impossible to translate the phrase "lazy white people"
into Khmer and still have it refer to light-skinned Asians rather than
Caucasians. The author's use of
the expression is pure pandering to an Anglo-American audience.
If they wanted to be racist, the villagers would have simply used the
expression "lazy Chinese" ("Chen ckel").
If the villagers said anything at all, however, it probably would have
been "lazy city people." How
can Ung expect the reader to believe there was this much animosity in the
villages toward others simply because of their Chinese descent when her own
uncles were touted as "model villagers"?
That fact should show that it was an issue of resentment toward urban
dwellers more than anything.
These various observations cannot have been made by a
five-year-old at the time, as concepts such as "ethnic cleansing"
and expressions like "lazy white people" are not indigenous to
Cambodians; they are more likely imported from the mind of an adult author
familiar with such terms. Such
distortions of racial tensions are harmful because they promote and provoke
divisiveness within the Cambodian community.
While ethnic minorities were disproportionately harmed during the Khmer
Rouge period, this was not due to a policy of "ethnic cleansing" per
se, but one of trying to eliminate religious or cultural differences to create
a pure Communist society. As
such, some minority groups, mainly the Cham-Muslims of Cambodia, were
egregiously abused and victimized; but many ethnic Khmer Buddhist monks were
killed as well. Vietnamese and
Khmer-Vietnamese were persecuted because of the Khmer Rouge leadership's fear
of infiltration and subversion by agents of Vietnam.
As for the Chinese in Cambodia however, a United Nation's report
released in 1999 notes no such persecution within the definition of the
The report mentions that Cambodians of Chinese descent were
discriminated against, if at all, by virtue of their association with the
urban capitalist economy of the old regime.
The Khmer Rouge executed anyone discovered to be in positions of power
and wealth during the Khmer Republic era, such as government officials,
military officers, businessmen, and the like.
While it may have been easier for darker-skinned Cambodians to hide
their urban background and blend in with the rural Cambodian population,
discovery of any such elevated position within the old society would have
meant death for them as well, regardless of skin color.
In reference to the Vietnamese, Ung uses the term "Youn"
and uses it liberally throughout her book to try to heighten the reader's
impression of the Khmer Rouge as racist.
When they get to Vietnam, her brother allegedly tells her to "call
the Youns by their proper name, Vietnamese" (222).
There is actually no other term in the common Khmer vernacular for
Vietnamese. The word "Youn"
has been used by the Khmer for centuries and is the only term for Vietnamese
known to most Cambodians.
It is the same as American use of the word "Cambodian" to
refer to Khmer. To a Cambodian,
"Youn" means Vietnamese, just as "Chen" means Chinese, and
"Khmer" means Cambodian. Thus,
Ung's additional comment that "Youn is a derogatory name" (222) is
also wrong. Khmers who have
married Vietnamese still refer to their spouses as "Youn."
They do so not because they want to degrade them, but because it is the
only colloquial term for Vietnamese that Cambodians have.
Just as Ung tries to associate the popular Khmer terms for father (Pok)
and mother (Mah) with the Khmer Rouge, she does so again with this
term. By manipulating her
audience into believing that there is something inherently wrong and evil
about these words, that it is part of the Khmer Rouge vernacular, she again
blurs the distinction between the general Khmer population and the Khmer Rouge
who both use them.
The author's general depiction of victims as being
light-skinned and tormenters as being dark-skinned is a misleading
representation of the Killing Fields period.
That most Khmer Rouge cadres were dark-skinned Khmers does not mean
that all dark-skinned Khmers were supporters of the Khmer Rouge.
To blur the line of distinction between Khmer victim and Khmer Rouge
oppressor is irresponsible. To
demonize all Khmers for the destruction wrought by a minority of the
population is harmful and offensive. This
book does Cambodian ethnic minorities a disservice by distorting the real
cause of their suffering and redirecting their anger from specifically those
who deserve it to the Khmer people in general, most of whom were in fact
A CHILD'S PERSPECTIVE?
The author fails in her attempt to write this book from a
child's perspective because there are too many instances where the
child-protagonist is given wholly too much wisdom, sensitivity and
conscientiousness to be believable. At
the age of seven, she says: "I hear tales that the soldiers rape the
girls they catch stealing, no matter how young they are" (114).
How does such a small child have any conceptualization of rape?
Regarding knowledge of sexual relations, Ung herself states that in
Cambodia "the bride finds out all there is to know on the night of her
Another observation she makes is equally unbelievable: Of two Khmer
Rouge cadres she says, "They talked softly, but the words were drowned on
the male supervisors shoulder and he put his arms around her.
She is, after all, a young woman, and anywhere else this would be an
everyday scene" (138). In
America this might perhaps be an everyday scene, but demonstrating affection
in public is not socially acceptable within Cambodian society.
As a child who grew up in Cambodia, how would she know that
"anywhere else this would be an everyday scene" when even in
Cambodia it would not have been? During
the Khmer Rouge period, to openly display such affection would have been not
only incredible but also incredibly dangerous.
The author's reflection on her sister's death is
similarly implausible: "She is fifteen and has never held a boy's hand,
never been kissed by a boy, never felt a lover's warm embrace" (95).
While it is difficult to believe generally that a child of six would
have such thoughts, it is totally unrealistic for a six-year-old Cambodian.
In Cambodia, it is not socially acceptable even for married couples to
hold hands or kiss in public; as for sexual relations: "Unmarried women
report they were barred even from seeing childbirth.
Because of fears that knowledge of sex would encourage female
promiscuity, most say they were told nothing about sex before marriage."
Hence, what would this child know of "a lover's warm
embrace"? Even in
retrospect, as an adult writing this, it should have been evident to the
author that this is totally out of place.
Ung contradicts herself later in commenting: "It fascinates me to
see the Youns courting girls in public, for in the Khmer culture these things
are done in secret" (173). How
did the child-protagonist know about a lover's warm embrace if she admits here
that "courting" is done secretly?
Actually, Cambodians do not even engage in courtship.
Like many traditional societies, Cambodians follow the practice of
arranged marriage and "courtship" outside of parental arrangement
was rare and considered improper.
If this book is seriously written from a child's perspective, why is
this placed here? It is an
attempt to dramatize the story, at the expense of providing improbable
scenarios that incorrectly reflect Khmer culture and society.
Other passages equally throw into question whether the
story is being truly presented from a child's perspective or from the
perspective of someone writing it twenty years later.
In one passage the author recounts: "Twelve months since I said
good-bye to Kim, seventeen months since the soldiers took Pa away, twenty-one
months since Keav... in my world
where there are so many things I don't understand, counting dates is the only
sane thing I know to do" (152). With
all the suffering and hunger she has to endure, it seems very odd that a
little child would be able to remember dates so accurately.
For a person who is pre-occupied with survival and for whom every day
is the same miserable existence without time out for weekends or holidays
and without a calendar remembering dates would be incredibly difficult
even for an adult. It is
remarkable that such a small child in Cambodia had done so or would even care
to do so.
Ung selectively gives the child wisdom, neglecting the
accuracy of facts when it does not suit her story or her goal of eliciting the
readers' sense of compassion. That
the story is written from a child's perspective also does not give the author
the right to distort the truth or to feed her readers factual
misrepresentations, false information, or fabrications.
How is it that the child-protagonist fails to recount basic facts about
Cambodian culture and society, but remembers quite accurately a description of
the American political system and American customs?
Obviously, this is not a diary that was written at the time of the
events. An adult has written this
story years afterward an adult whose "memories" are augmented by
facts retrospectively made known to her or sometimes simply manufactured.
Nevertheless, the author still manages to be both inaccurate and
inconsistent in what she says. When
the presentation of a scene must necessarily be skewed because of the use of a
child's perspective, it would in fact add to the realism of the story for the
author to make clear to the reader that the perception is skewed.
It would have shown that this was really a little girl with all the
flaws, weaknesses and misperceptions of a little girl, rather than a little
girl with the ability to know and do things of such extraordinary magnitude.
Although Ung's story has been praised for drawing
attention to the Khmer Rouge period, her distortions of the truth about such a
tragedy is itself tragic, particularly since this book may be the only source
of information some readers obtain concerning the Killing Fields.
In using literary devices such as talking about her "red, chiffon
dress," her "middle class" family, and the Khmer Rouge's
contempt for "lazy white people" to elicit sympathy from her
readers, Ung fails to present a story worthy of the book's billing as a
non-fictional account of what happened. The
book sacrifices too much in terms of accuracy and honesty, and these strained
attempts at evoking pity detract from the story's authenticity.
Rather than making the book inspirational and informative, the many
incorrect facts, misleading references, and misguided observations make this
book disturbing and dangerous: It perpetuates racial tension, misrepresents
Khmer culture and history, and distorts what really happened in 1970s
The author's greatest refrain throughout the book is
"the more my hatred grows." She
repeats the word "hate" throughout her book as if it were an
incantation, at times appearing almost consumed by it.
She says, "Someday, I will kill them all.
My hatred for them is boundless" (119); in reference to other
children in the village, "I hate her.
I hate them all" (126); and when she sees dead bodies, "It is
easier to feel no pity for the dead if I think of them as all Khmer Rouge.
I hate them all" (192). The
question is, of whom is she referring when she says, "I hate them
all"? To whom is her hatred
directed? The Khmer Rouge and the
specific individuals who have done her and her family harm?
Sometimes it seems this way, but other times the reference is more
ambiguous. Sometimes, as with the
village children and the corpses, it seems the "them" being referred
to is the Khmer people in general. Her
book never makes a clear distinction between innocent Khmers and the Khmer
Rouge: We are essentially presented with light-skinned victims and their
dark-skinned tormentors. While
the presentation of a clear-cut case of good and evil makes for more easily
digestible reading, it is not reflective of reality.
This "light = good, dark = evil" image is irresponsible,
serving to incite misdirected hatred and condemnation of people who were
themselves victims. Loung Ung
needs to move beyond her hatred of Khmers and understand that not just her
family but a whole nation light-skinned, dark-skinned, urbanites, and
rural farmers shared in the suffering.
Through the distortions in her book, the author dishonors those who
suffered and died under the Khmer Rouge regime.
She makes a travesty of tragedy and demeans the Cambodian people's all-too-real experiences.
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