The family arrives at the village of Ro Leap, their third move in the seven months since they were forced out of Phnom Penh. There is a town square where people wait for announcements and work assignments. When the family gets off the truck they are surrounded by villagers wearing black pants and red and white scarves, the familiar outfits of the Khmer Rouge. Someone shouts that capitalists should be killed and spits at Pa’s feet. Loung can’t understand why the villagers look at them so angrily when they are “very much the same.” She asks Pa what capitalists are, but he does not respond.
The immediate antagonism of the Ro Leap villagers foreshadows the difficulty the Ungs will face in their new home, which already appears even stricter than the last. Because Loung is a child with no understanding of political ideologies, she is able to immediately see the absurdity of the intense hatred the villagers feel for her family when they are all simply human beings.
The five hundred original villagers of Ro Leap, called “base people,” are considered model citizens by the Khmer Rouge because they have not been “corrupted by the West” and supported the revolution. Kim explains to Loung that a capitalist is someone from the city, and that the Khmer Rouge view science and technology as evil. Things like electronics and cars allow the “urban rich to flaunt their wealth” and are also “contaminated” because they have been imported by foreign countries. Thus all such goods have been abolished; only trucks remain to relocate people and carry weapons to silence dissent.
Loung’s family is again a source of information. Kim’s explanation of capitalism reveals the rationale, however extreme, behind the Khmer Rouge’s cruelty, as well as its blossoming hypocrisy. Despite professing equality for all, the group has already stratified the new Cambodian society into a system of haves and have-nots. Essentially it has removed the positive byproducts of capitalism (technology, communication, education) and emphasized its worst aspects (dehumanization, class divisions, hierarchies of prejudice).
That evening the chief arrives. He is Pa’s height and has sharp, coal-dark eyes. The chief tells the new arrivals that they must live by the strict regulations of the Angkar. Everyone must dress the same and wear the same hairstyles to avoid Western vanity. One by one a soldier dumps out each new family’s clothing. Loung watches in anguish as her beloved red dress, which Ma made her for New Years, is tossed on the pile. She cannot understand why the others seem to hate them. The soldier lights all the colorful clothes on fire as the chief says they will be issued a new set of black clothing every month.
The Khmer Rouge shallowly equates conformity with equality. Loung’s red dress is a symbol of her happy life in Phnom Penh, and its destruction represents the destruction of the hope that she may one day return to things as they were. Loung again cuts to the meaninglessness of hatred between people on the basis of skin color or political background.
The chief continues that all foreigners have been expelled, and everyone must be addressed as “Met” rather than “Mr.” or “sir.” Children must call their parents “Poh” and “Meh.” There will be no private property in the village, as everything belongs to the Angkar. People will be fed according to how hard they work, with the base people and soldiers monitoring for laziness or traitors. Schooling of any kind is not allowed. After this, Loung falls asleep. When she awakes she learns that a doctor, his wife, and their three children from Phnom Penh have committed suicide by swallowing poison.
This scene further establishes the strict authoritarianism of the Khmer Rouge as well as the ways in which the group uses fear and violence to silence dissent. The Khmer Rouge robs citizens of their voices, identities, and property, while its emphasis on productivity foreshadows the way many will die from overwork. The suicide of the doctor’s family reveals that, to many, life under the Khmer Rouge is a fate worse than death.
Despite the professed equality of the Khmer Rouge, there are three “levels of citizenship.” First-class consists of the chief and Khmer soldiers, who make all village decisions and enforce the Angkar’s laws. The “base people” are largely free from oversight of the soldiers and do not have to work or eat with the new villagers. They are “bullies” who tell the new people what to do. Finally, the new people like Loung’s family who have been forced from cities are the lowest class. They have no freedom, are closely watched, and have the hardest workload. Within the lowest class are racial divisions, and as Chinese-Cambodians the Ungs must work harder to prove themselves valuable.
Loung’s description of the stratification of society under the Khmer Rouge again highlights its hypocrisy in asserting that it is creating a more equal society. The Khmer Rouge carries out its genocide in part by exploiting resentment between villagers and comparatively wealthy urban Cambodians; the group encourages extreme prejudice against ethnic minorities and former city-dwellers, who are treated like slaves and must do more work than other groups in order to survive.
The family eats the communal dinner of rice and fish, but they are still hungry. Pa arranges for Kim to work as an errand boy at the chief’s house. The chief’s “boys” take a liking to Kim and often give him their leftover food to take home. It is clear from marks on his skin that they also abuse him, however, and Loung understands her ten-year-old brother’s sacrifice to help his family. Pa has grown extremely thin, and his eyes often linger on Kim’s bruises. Loung eats her food with shame.
Pride has no place under the Khmer Rouge, and Pa does what is necessary to help his family—even if this means allowing his son to be hurt. His shame at seeing Kim’s bruises again highlights the tough choices people must make to survive. Kim’s actions, too, show the strength of his will to survive and the bond he feels with his family, for whom he is willing to sacrifice his personal safety.
There is almost no social interaction between villagers, as people fear others will find a reason to report them to the Angkar in exchange for more food, or in some instances to save their own lives. Loung works in the garden with her younger siblings, while her parents and older siblings toil in the rice fields for twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. The village is completely isolated from the outside world, with mail, radios, and newspapers banned. All news comes from the chief during meetings. The chief espouses the philosophy of the Angkar, saying it will bring about a perfect agrarian society free from Western influence. Soldiers patrol at night; if anyone is caught discussing politics their entire family disappears.
Without radios or televisions, the Khmer Rouge is the only source of information in these villages and as such can easily spread propaganda and skew news to suit its own agenda. It is able to enforce its rule by keeping citizens both ignorant and fearful. Yet again, people may compromise their morals or allegiance to their neighbors in the name of survival.
With women so overworked, few become pregnant. Those that do often miscarry, and most newborns die within days. Pa says the country will have a missing generation of children, and vows that Geak will not be the “Khmer Rouge’s next victim.” He works harder than anyone else, and the chief makes him leader of the new people. Despite the professed equality of “Democratic Kampuchea,” as the country is now called, the new people are treated like slaves and never have enough to eat. Those who steal food have their fingers cut off or are forced to work near minefields. Anyone who becomes disabled is killed, as they are useless to the “pure agrarian society.”
Loung reveals one of the ways in which women suffer uniquely under the Khmer Rouge. Pa again swallows his personal beliefs and works harder than others in the name of helping his family survive. The Khmer Rouge continues to enact its genocidal agenda via extreme violence, forcing citizens into submission through fear and cruelty—all while using idealistic, entirely unrealistic language.
The Khmer Rouge also ban religion, fearing it will detract from people’s loyalty to the Angkar. They destroy religious sites including much of Angkor Wat, the enormous monument built in the ninth century by Khmer kings and one of the seven man-made wonders of the world. Loung remembers marveling at the sacred temples with Pa, who said it was where the gods live. The Khmer Rouge mutilate it with bullets and kill any monks who refuse to accept the Angkar. With the temple destroyed, Loung wonders “where the gods go.”
Much like Loung’s red dress, Angkor Wat holds happy family memories for Loung and is partly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. This fulfills Pa’s earlier description of the Khmer Rouge soldiers as destroyers of things, and also reveals the extent of their disrespect for the heritage of the Khmer race they claim to honor. Loung’s musing about where the gods have gone reflects the isolation and loneliness she feels.