First They Killed My Father


Loung Ung

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on First They Killed My Father makes teaching easy.

First They Killed My Father Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Loung Ung

Loung Ung was born to a middle-class family in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, in 1970. A rambunctious and curious child, Ung lived a life of relative privilege with her parents and six siblings until the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. Ung, then five years old, was forced to leave the city with her family and make a grueling journey to a distant rural village to work. Because Ung’s father, Sem, had been a military police captain for the now deposed government, the Ungs sought to pass as peasant farmers to avoid persecution. Sem was eventually executed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Upon his death, Ung’s mother sent her remaining children to different work camps for their own protection. She and Ung’s youngest sibling, Geak, were later killed by the Khmer Rouge. Orphaned and separated from her remaining siblings, Ung was forced to train as a child soldier until the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Ung’s eldest brother, Meng, and his wife eventually smuggled her to a Thai refugee camp, where they were able to secure sponsorship from a church group and come to the United States in June of 1980. The three moved to Vermont, where Ung attended school while caring for Meng’s two daughters. Ung earned a bachelor’s degree in 1993 and served as the spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World from 1997 to 2005. She now lives with her husband in Ohio, but has returned to Cambodia more than thirty times and given speeches throughout the world about her experience.
Get the entire First They Killed My Father LitChart as a printable PDF.
First They Killed My Father PDF

Historical Context of First They Killed My Father

Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, and became a monarchy under Prince Sihanouk. In 1962, political revolutionary Pol Pot became the leader of the Cambodian Communist Party, and formed the Khmer Rouge as a resistance movement against perceived monarchical corruption. Meanwhile, the United States bombed rural areas of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, destroying villages, further destabilizing the country, and increasing peasant support for the decidedly anti-capitalist Khmer Rouge. Backed by the U.S., Cambodian general Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk in a 1970 coup. The Khmer Rouge easily defeated the weak Lon Nol government, however, capturing the capital of Phnom Penh in 1975 and bringing an end to the country’s five-year civil war. The new government renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and forced hundreds of thousands of city-dwellers to resettle in rural collective farms, the first step in its attempt to create a self-sufficient, agrarian society. Deeply xenophobic, autocratic, and nationalistic, the Khmer Rouge banned anything suggestive of foreign influence—including Western medicine, technology, and religion—and engaged in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Cambodian minority groups. Khmer Rouge soldiers patrolled forced-labor camps, where people worked for up to eighteen hours a day on meager rations of rice and were killed for even slight infractions or suggestions of disloyalty. Soldiers infamously committed mass executions of those deemed—often arbitrarily—enemies of the state, including former government workers, doctors, teachers, the rich, and the educated.  Nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population—an estimated two million people—died from starvation, disease, overwork, and executions over this period, now widely-regarded as state-sanctioned genocide. The Khmer Rouge held power until Vietnam invaded Cambodia and defeated its army in 1979.

Other Books Related to First They Killed My Father

Loung Ung’s Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind begins where First They Killed My Father ends, telling the story of Ung’s life in the United States while also telling about the life of her sister Chou in Cambodia. Completing the trilogy is Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness, in which Ung discusses her journey to activism as well as the healing power of her relationship with her husband. Ung’s works are arguably the most famous memoirs written about life under the Khmer Rouge, but hardly the only ones. Survival in the Killing Fields is the story of Cambodian doctor and refugee Haing Ngor, who also won an Academy Award for playing Cambodian journalist Dith Pran in the 1984 film The Killing Fields. When Broken Glass Floats was written by Chanrithy Him, who, like Ung, was a child during Pol Pot’s regime and recounts the horrors faced by her family of twelve. Though former child soldier Ishmael Beah’s acclaimed memoir A Long Way Gone takes places in Sierra Leone, Beah’s story echoes the attempts of the Khmer Rouge to numb children tlike Ung to violence and teach them to commit atrocities. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son also tackles similar themes of propaganda, forced labor, and dictatorship in Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea.
Key Facts about First They Killed My Father
  • Full Title: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
  • When Written: The late 1990s
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 2000
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Cambodia from 1975 to 1980: immediately before, during, and after its takeover by the Khmer Rouge.
  • Climax: Vietnamese soldiers bomb the child soldier camp where Loung is stationed. In the resultant chaos she is able to escape the Khmer Rouge and reunite with her siblings Kim and Chou, with whom she then journeys to a refugee camp.
  • Antagonist: The Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for First They Killed My Father

Big Screen. First They Killed My Father was made into a feature film in 2017, directed by Angelina Jolie; it features entirely Cambodian actors and was co-written by Loung Ung.

Slow Justice. As of 2017, three high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials had been convicted of crimes against humanity by a UN-backed court.