First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
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I first heard about Loung from my co-worker who indicated that he saw her on television
and that she was very articulate and well spoken. I was so proud and excited about a
Cambodian success story that I could not even wait to get home and search for Loung
myself. Immediately, I called a friend with excitement to ask if he knew anything about
her. I even listened to a brief excerpt of Loung's interview on the Internet through my cell
phone. I was amazed and felt so proud and could not wait to read her book. Finally, a
Khmer author that could get some respect, I thought! I purchased Loung's book on
September, 26th, 2000. This was no longer than one week after hearing about it and her
appearance on television.
My excitement over the book quickly waned after reading several chapters. Loung's
comparison of her mom's beauty and the influent of her Chinese side caused me to stop
reading and take a deep breath. After consuming the brief racial remarks that seemed like
an eternity, I had to vent out my anger to my younger sister. It was apparent that Loung's
conceit about her Chinese descent is extremely high and both self-serving and ignorant.
As an ethnic Khmer, I felt betrayed and belittled by Loung. I could not understand why I
should want to read further. I was very much afraid that the coming chapters of Loung's
book would build more anger and frustration. I knew for years about the ignorance and
racism that some ethnic Chinese had toward native Cambodians. This type of egocentric
ideology is well documented in text written by Chinese explorers who travel to our land
even back during the Angkorian period. Nevertheless, I never imagined reading a piece
like this in modern times by a person who claimed to be a "daughter of Cambodia."
My joy and pride over Loung was shattered. I did not know whether I should excuse her
for her ignorance because of her upbringing, or to hate her for exploiting her experience
in Cambodia. The title of her book, "a daughter of Cambodia remembers," is a complete
slap in the face for all Cambodians, especially considering Loung is born to a very wealthy,
privileged family, the kind that has always benefited from the exploitation of poor
Khmers. There was nothing in the book to reassure me that Loung accepts any kind of
Cambodian descent either. I cannot accuse Loung of lying about other facts in the book
as other Cambodians have done because I do not know enough about Angkor Wat and
other political issues, but I do know that even the first part of her title is misleading. In
the book, Loung indicates that her sister, Keav, was the first in her family to be killed
by the Khmer Rouge through starvation. Loung's father was not taken away until after
Keav's death. I know this may seem minor to others, but why the title "First They Killed
my Father" instead of "...My Sister". Is it because her father was a high-ranking official
and she wanted to clear his name, or is it because this makes for a more sensational title?
One portion of the book is particularly telling of her family's elite status and
unsympathetic attitude toward native Cambodians. As the Khmer Rouge enter Phnom Penh,
Loung's father speaks to her saying:
"They're not nice people. Look at their shoes-they wear sandals made from car tires." At
five, I am oblivious to the events of war, yet I know Pa to be brilliant, and therefore he
must be right. That he can tell what these soldiers are like merely by looking at their
shoes tells me even more about his all-powerful knowledge. "Pa, Why the shoes? Why
are they bad?" "It shows that these people are destroyers of things." I do not quite
understand what Pa means. I only hope that someday I can be half as smart as he is."
Rather than demonstrating her father's intelligence, this excerpt shows him to be ignorant
and judgmental. It shows that her father looked down on those who had less than he did.
These Khmer Rouge soldiers were among the poor Cambodians who were recruited to
fight for their rights against a corrupt and exploitative regime. Did it ever occur to Loung
and her father that maybe the Khmer Rouge wore sandals made of car tires because they
did not have the financial or material resources to buy regular shoes and that making
shoes out of car tires was better than going barefoot?
Contrast the poverty level of most Cambodians at the time with Loung's own background.
She describes the luxury of living in an environment just like the west, where everyone
respected her father, and everywhere her brothers and sisters wandered people greeted
them. The theater owners give them free admission, etc. I thought to myself, corrupt
officials ran Cambodia now and then! Do you think fear had something to do with all the
greetings and free admission? I remember my elders telling me that in Cambodia it is
better to be on the good side of a military or political official. I don't know enough about
Loung's father to say whether he was a good or bad person; however, given the brutality
of Cambodia during that period of time and his direct participation in a regime partly
responsible for that brutality, I do questioned her description of his "God-like" nature that
never hurt anyone.
I have lost my homeland, friends and family, and my childhood, just like millions of other
Cambodians through the Khmer Rouge's acts of hatred. I think Cambodians understand
why it happened: inequality, exploitation, and racism were some of the things that gave
rise to the Khmer Rouge and lead to the Killing Fields. I am quite surprised that many
Cambodians of upper class background and Chinese descent still cannot change their
attitude after the genocide. It is unfortunate that the lesson to treat one another equally
regardless of race or class not only killed millions of Cambodians, but has not taught
Loung about ignorance. I am saddened that some individuals of Chinese descent would
cash in on anything that relates to Cambodia when possible, but otherwise refuse to say
that they are Cambodian when it does not benefit them. What our community needs right
now is to address the issues and to encourage publicity about the truth of our tragedy for
our people as a whole, not for personal gain.
Reviewed by Sopheap Keo
Sopheap is a certified social worker who encounters many victims of the
Khmer Rouge atrocities in her profession and works to help restore stability to their
For a list of recommended biographical books dealing with the Killing Fields experience,
see Review Homepage
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