by Soneath Hor, Sody Lay, and Grantham Quinn·

 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[1] 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 memories.

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?[2]  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.[3]

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.[4]  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.[5]  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.[6]  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. [7]

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. [8]  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 "petty bourgeois."


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." [9]  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.[10]  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 innocent.

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.[11]

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."[12]  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 the time?


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.[13]  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. [14]  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.[15]

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.[16]  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 country folk.

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.


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.[17]  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 statement.


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 graces.

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."[18]  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 quite severely.[19]  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.[20]  Ung's representations of Khmer Rouge tolerance for societal anarchy is a complete misrepresentation of the draconian totalitarian system that actually existed.

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 author.[21]


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 fiction.

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 camp.[22]  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 shot an 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 superhuman strength.[23]  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.[24]  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 (159)[25], 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."[26]  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 Penh.  ...  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.


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 accent.

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, however, Ung herself consequently denies the suffering of ethnic Khmers, who constituted the vast majority of those who died under the Khmer Rouge regime.[27]  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).[28]  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 language.[29]  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.[30]  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.[31]

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 Genocide Convention.[32]  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.[33]  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 victims themselves.


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 marriage" (180).[34]  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 supervisor’s 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.[35]

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."[36]  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.[37]

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 Cambodia.

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.[38]


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Works Cited

Becker, Elizabeth.  When the War was Over.   New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  2nd ed.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

Deac, Wilfred P.  Road to the Killing Fields.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.

Jackson, Karl D., ed.  Cambodia 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Kamm, Henry.  Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998.

Shawcross, William.  Sideshow : Kissinger, Nixon and the destruction of Cambodia.  New and rev. ed.  London: Hogarth Press, 1986.

Smith-Hefner, Nancy.  Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Smyth, David.  Colloquial Cambodian.  London: Routledge, 1995.

United Nations.  Report on Tribunal.  A/53/850, S/1999/231, 16 March 1999.

Walter, John.  Rifles of the World.  2nd ed.  Iola: Krause Publications, 1998.

Willmott, W. E.  The Political Structure of the Chinese Community in Cambodia.  New York: Humanities Press Inc., 1970.

* The Khmer Institute and numerous victims of the Khmer Rouge endorse this analysis.  We encourage an accurate representation of Cambodian history so that future generations of Cambodians and humanity may learn the true nature of what took place in our homeland during the 1970s.  Our analysis is entitled "First They Killed Her Sister" because, although the title of the book is "First They Killed My Father," the reader finds out that it is actually the author's sister who first dies under the Khmer Rouge, demonstrating the author is willing to distort even the facts surrounding the death of her own family members to sensationalize her story and promote her book.

· Soneath Hor is a survivor of the Killing Fields who spent thirteen years living in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border.  In 1992, he worked for UNTAC to restore democracy to Cambodia.  Sody Lay is a lecturer in the Cambodian American Experience at UCLA and a former legal analyst at Radio Free Asia where he wrote a series of commentaries on the Khmer Rouge atrocities.  Grantham Quinn is President of the Khmer Institute.

[1] Throughout this analysis, we will use the terms Khmer and Cambodian interchangeably, because in the Khmer language there is no distinction.  Only one word is used to refer to the Cambodian people and language and that is Khmer.  Cambodians/Khmers of other ethnic descent are referred to with a suffix attached to the word Khmer – so, e.g., a Chinese Cambodian would be "Khmer-Chen," a Vietnamese-Cambodian "Khmer-Youn."

[2] One description of the 1974-75 siege: "While combat was flaring to the northwest and south, Phnom Penh continued to be the bull's-eye for numerous rockets and some shells.  The projectiles pelted the city almost daily at around 7 A.M., noon, and 10 P.M." (Deac 1997:188).

[3] Although minor, even the author's description of her experience in a noodle shop is indicative of present day Phnom Penh, not 1975: "As I add scallions, bean sprouts, and mint leaves to my soup, Ma dips my spoon and chopsticks into the hot water, wiping them dry with her napkin before handing them back to me" (3).  Cambodians only began the practice of dipping their utensils into hot water since the UN presence in the early 1990s, when so many foreign workers came into the country.  It was not a common practice in 1975.  At that time, if someone did request hot water in which to dip her utensils, it would have been as unusual as if someone did it at a restaurant here in America.  Her being given scallions and mint leaves to put in her soup is also peculiar.  It more accurately describes a Vietnamese noodle shop here in America than a Cambodian restaurant in Phnom Penh.  Customers are simply not given such things to put into Cambodian noodles – it would be like being given peanut butter as condiment for a hamburger, but Ung notes no such peculiarity and treats it as if it were commonplace.

[4] Even before Sihanouk's overthrow, "stories about the corruption of his wife, Monique, and her rapacious mother became increasingly scandalous" (Shawcross 1986:67), and "Monique, her mother, and her half-brother would subsequently be accused of playing a key role in black market and illicit land sale activities" (Deac 1997:31).

[5] "By April 1973 the Khmer Rouge were within artillery and mortar range of the capital, prompting the first major evacuation of foreigners from Phnom Penh" (Becker 1986:169).  "At the beginning of 1974 the Khmer Rouge went after Phnom Penh.  ...  Within days the Khmer Rouge shelled the city, destroying 10,000 homes and killing hundreds" (172).  And by 1975, "all roads into Phnom Penh had been decisively cut" (Shawcross 1986:346).

[6] As early as 1970, "the CIA reported that Phnom Penh's population doubled to 1,200,000 within the first months of the war [from the influx of refugees]" (Shawcross 1986:222).  Thousands more refugees continued to pour into the capital during the early 1970s causing serious food shortages: "Reports by the various charitable relief organizations and investigations by the World Health Organization...had already showed that malnutrition was a serious problem in 1974.  In February 1975, the office of Inspector General of Foreign Assistance at the State Department asserted that 'children are starving to death' in Cambodia" (348).

[7] In contrast to Ung's lifestyle just before the Khmer Rouge takeover compare: "No one knows how many thousands of children died in Cambodia in those final months before the end of the war.  ...  The U.S. AID Termination Report commented later that [as] more and more people were still pushing desperately into the enclaves and thus exacerbating the refugee crisis...'There was little or no food to be had by anybody – refugee, civilian or soldier.  Malnutrition became rampant, especially in Phnom Penh" (Shawcross 1986:349).

[8] According to Elizabeth Becker, a reporter who covered the war in Cambodia for The Washington Post, "greed and corruption created a hungry, nearly starving refugee population living next to a fat and rich elite and to a middle class that stumbled along, trying to stay above the poverty line..." (1986:166).  It is pretty clear that Ung's family was not by any means struggling "to stay above the poverty line."

[9] In addition to her constant refrain about being middle class, the author uses several other techniques to cultivate the American reader's empathy.  In commenting about her mother's beauty, she writes: "Ma is admired for her height, slender build, and porcelain white skin" (2); she continues with "[other people] comment on her perfectly arched eyebrows; almond-shaped eyes; tall, straight Western nose; and oval face.  At 5'6", Ma is an amazon among Cambodian women" (3).  Ung makes an accurate observation that in the Cambodian culture there is a preference for lighter skin complexion.  However, the accuracy of her observation ends there: Other Cambodians would have neither praised her mother for her height nor her "slender build."  A slim physique was already the norm in Cambodian society because of lack of food.  Hence, unlike in America, one would not have been complimented on being slender.  Furthermore, Cambodians prefer individuals to be of average height, neither significantly taller nor shorter than average.  At 5'6", rather than being praised, Ung's mother would have been criticized for being too tall for a woman.  This is not to say that her mother was not beautiful; but within the Cambodian context, she simply would not have been praised for the characteristics that Ung describes.  Lastly, why describe her mother as having a "tall, straight Western nose" when there is a picture of her in the book that clearly shows otherwise?  As with the author's perpetual use of the term "middle class," could the description of her mother as having a Western nose, white skin, and amazonian height be included simply to make her sound more physically similar to her Anglo-American readers in order to better elicit their sympathy?

[10] That such economic disparity motivated the Khmer Rouge can be seen in their description of 1970s Phnom Penh: "While the poor people...were dying from hunger or from assassination, detention, and the most savage tortures, the bigshot traitors and their henchmen indulged themselves in the most arrogantly luxurious life" (quoted in Jackson 1989:55).  Ironically, this passage could equally describe the Khmer Rouge leaders after they came to power.

[11] "Bribery and other forms of corruption had always been a way of life, but, with the disorder of war and the influx of American largess, it was carried to extremes" (Deac 1997:234).  "The army became the richest sector of society during the war, the one with direct access to millions of American aid dollars, and the most criminal" (Becker 1986:33) – "army officers and subordinates fleeced refugees at roadblocks set up at the city's entrances.  They confiscated anything of value..." (166)

[12] Shawcross 1986:67

[13] An embassy cable to Washington in January 7, 1975 noted: "Khmer Communist troops blasted their way into the New Year with major attacks all around Phnom Penh.  ...the enemy rolled up a number of positions northeast of the capital and on the east bank of the Mekong from which Khmer communist gunners fired some forty 107-millimeter rockets into downtown Phnom Penh" (quoted in Becker 1986:173).

[14] Henry Kamm, a New York Times correspondent to Cambodia, describes it very differently: "Cambodia's longest night began on the morning of April 17, 1975.  Gradually the Khmer Rouge guns and rocket launchers, which had continued to hail death and fire onto the defenseless city of Phnom Penh through the night and into the morning, fell silent.  The longtime residents of the capital called their children inside and locked the doors.  ...  The city waited nervously, its people trembling when an occasional burst of small-arms fire crackled nearby" (Kamm 1998:120).

[15] Toward the end of the war, "explosives kept falling from the sky as long as ANK [Khmer National Army] remained unable to shove the enemy back from the edges of Phnom Penh.  Frightened refugees, their ramshackle shelters inadequate, ignored the curfew and military checkpoints to surge into the city center.  They occupied every possible habitation niche" (Deac 1997:188).

[16] By August 15, 1973, "the total tonnage dropped since Operation Breakfast was 539,129.  Almost half of these bombs, 257,465 tons, had fallen in the last six months.  (During the Second World War 160,000 tons were dropped on Japan.)" (Shawcross 1986:297).

[17] Some Cambodians speculate that the picture was actually taken at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh.

[18] Jackson 1989:68

[19]  Francois Ponchaud, a priest and renown author on the Cambodian tragedy, notes: "Angkar's substituting itself in the parental role is especially significant as concerns marriage.  In 1975 several cases were reported of marriages where war invalids were authorized to pick a bride among the population expelled from the cities.  This type of union was relatively infrequent, however, and could be viewed in connection with the treatment of prisoners of war.  From 1976 on, marriages were carried out according to strict guidelines, applications of which have been traced to all regions.  Marriages were allowed only within set categories: young soldiers, male or female, chose their spouse only from 'within the ranks'...  They were not allowed to wed anyone from the 'new people.'" (Jackson 1989:166).  According to Becker, "the Khmer Rouge [became] so sexually repressive that sadism affected much of cooperative life.  ...  Any sex before marriage was punishable by death..." (1986:235).

[20] While guidelines for marriage was strict, Pouchaud observes that under the Khmer Rouge "a liberalization of marriage practices came into effect, especially for young women who now could take the initiative, which would have been unheard of in the past" (Jackson 1989:166).  Another researcher notes that among the Khmer Rouge's code of behavior were strict prohibitions against gambling, drinking, and any improper behavior disrespecting women (67).

[21] Historian David Chandler notes that the first known use of the pseudonym "Pol Pot" was in a confidential party document of March 1976, well after Ung's claim of when the name began circulating among the people (1996:213).  Also, based on his interviews with Khmer Rouge refugees, Kamm writes: "Cambodians knew of no definite connection of a specific person or identifiable group with the unforgiving high authority.  ...  To most Cambodians the center of absolute power over their lives was known until the end only as Angkar or Angkar Loeu, the 'organization' or 'high organization.'  Until 1977, in the political indoctrination sessions, [even] the Communist party was never mentioned" (1998:129-130).

[22] We know it is an AK-47 because she claims the rifle is "the same kind I have seen many times before on the shoulders of the Khmer Rouge soldiers"(139).

[23] The Chinese-made Kalashnikov AK assault rifle, the primary weapon used by the Khmer Rouge, is just under 3 ft in length and weights almost 10 lbs with an empty magazine (Walter 1998:103).

[24] Usually only relatives, close family friends, or individuals who had lost all their own children would take in and care for children who were separated from their parents.

[25] This is mentioned in order to explain her being able to visualize with her "mind's eye" both the death of her sister and father and her subsequent premonition of her mother's disappearance.

[26] Smith-Hefner 1999:85-86

[27] Death rate estimates: "25 percent for urban and rural Khmer 'new people,' and 15 percent for rural Khmer 'base people'.  Overall, the various estimates point to a death rate of approximately 20 percent of the April 1975 population" (UN Report on Tribunal 16 March 1999).

[28] "One such attempted purge of the eastern zone in May 1978, led to the largest of several local insurrections during the regime.  ...  The battle was characterized by major human rights abuses by government forces, who may have killed at least 100,000 people in the region, many of them local civilians whom it regarded as having 'Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds'" (UN Report on Tribunal 16 March 1999).

[29] A popular phrase in praise of a woman's skin is "sah s'at" – literally translated "white beautiful."

[30] "[The] Chinese were held in awe by the Cambodians, despised and envied for their industry and their seeming lack of scruples.  These Chinese were the people who held the country's peasantry in ransom, who had hoarded rice until the price shot up to intolerable levels, and who had charged interest rates that bankrupted families in the city as well as in the countryside" (Becker 1986:254).

[31] "Although the Chinese form a distinct ethnic group in Cambodia, relations between Chinese and Khmer are relatively cordial.  ...  Intermarriage has been both the result and a further cause of this cordiality" (Willmott 1970:8).

[32] According to legal experts assigned by the UN to report on possibilities for bringing the Khmer Rouge to trial, only the following groups were covered by the Genocide Convention in the case of Cambodia: "the Muslim Cham as an ethnic and religious group; the Vietnamese communities as an ethnic and, perhaps, a racial group; and the Buddhist monkhood as a religious group" (UN Report on Tribunal 16 March 1999).

[33] Smyth 1995:18

[34] The concern with "'sheltering' young girls from certain 'dangerous domains,' above all those related to sex and procreation, was a recurrent theme of women's life histories...  A common refrain in women's stories of their youth was, 'we didn't know anything,' 'we were too shy,' 'we didn't say anything.'" (Smith-Hefner 1993:146).

[35] The Khmer Rouge "had taken control over marriages and outlawed sex and romance outside of marriage, often murdering offenders" (Becker 1986:176).

[36]  Smith-Hefner 1999:176

[37] Ung makes many other observations that are equally remarkable: At the age of six she says, "When night comes, the gods again taunt us with a radiant sunset.  'Nothing should be this beautiful,' I quietly say to Chou" (104).  Then a short time later, "My hate empowers and scares me...  Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life" (108) and "My heart hardens at her words, knowing I cannot allow myself the luxury of hope.  To hope is to let pieces of myself die" (108).  Such reflections concerning beauty, hope, and hopelessness seem all too profound to realistically be uttered by a six-year-old child.

[38] The inaccuracies and implausible events/observations mentioned in this analysis are by no means comprehensive.  Many more that we have chosen not to include in this paper can be found in the book.

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