The Khmer Rouge is a deeply paranoid, xenophobic, racist regime that seeks to rid Cambodia of all outside influence and so-called “ethnic poison.” As a child with no broader understanding of the historical or political issues that lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime, Loung Ung frequently questions the rationale behind the Angkar’s brutality, only to find that there really is none. In this way, her innocence highlights the absurdity of hating people on the basis of their ethnicity.
The Khmer Rouge takes power at a time when tensions between racial groups in Cambodia are already palpable. Loung notes that Cambodians of Chinese descent “have almond-shaped eyes, thin noses, and light skin” while “pure Khmer have curly black hair, flat noses, full lips, and dark chocolate skin.” Ma comes from a well-to-do Chinese background, and her “porcelain white skin” is associated with beauty and sophistication. Ma’s parents objected to her and Pa’s marriage specifically because Pa, who was born in a poor village, is dark-skinned. This is its own kind of racism and colorism—one more consistent with the global climate of colonialism—but in response to it the Khmer Rouge goes to the opposite extreme. Loung notices notice that the Khmer Rouge soldiers who march through Phnom Penh are “dark-skinned, like the peasant workers at [her] uncle's farm.” Pa later explains that the Khmer Rouge has exploited the atmosphere of resentment between the urban rich and the rural poor to garner support from the countryside. Because rural workers often have darker skin and more typically-Khmer features, the Angkar’s rule encourages extreme prejudice against anyone with lighter skin. Lighter skin is further associated with being mixed race—something the vehemently xenophobic Khmer Rouge cannot abide. The group thus exploits preexisting—but ultimately meaningless—racial divisions and prejudices to further its own horrific ends.
One of the first things the Khmer Rouge does upon seizing power is expel foreigners from the country and forbid anything suggestive of foreign—especially Western—influence. Things like cars and electronics are banned, Kim tells Loung, because the Angkar believes imports give “foreign countries a way to invade Cambodia.” Despite widespread famine, foreign aid is rejected on similar grounds. Upon the family’s arrival in Ro Leap, the village chief announces that everyone must wear the same black clothes to rid themselves “of the corrupt Western creation of vanity.” The Angkar goes so far in its quest for Cambodian “self-reliance” as to deem those who have always lived in the countryside “model citizens” while rejecting people from cities as having been “corrupted by the West.” As such, Pa insists that Loung’s family pretend to be peasants from the countryside and never speak of their life in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge’s hatred of foreigners is, of course, extremely shortsighted, leading to a lack of doctors and medicine that in turn contributes to a spike in otherwise preventable deaths (including Keav’s). Because the Angkar’s xenophobia is intrinsically linked to belief in the superiority of the Khmer race, it is inextricable from extreme nationalism and racial prejudice—which, together, set the stage for the Khmer Rouge’s genocide.
Indeed, Loung writes that “Pa says the Angkar is obsessed with ethnic cleansing,” and wants to rid Cambodia “of other races, deemed the source of evil, corruption, and poison.” As Chinese-Cambodians, Ma, Loung, and her siblings are easy targets for the genocidal regime and must therefore work harder to prove themselves valuable and loyal to the new government. “Ma also has to be extra careful because she speaks Khmer with a Chinese accent,” Loung adds, which “will make her a target for the soldiers who want to rid Cambodia of outside ethnic poison.” The Khmer Rouge spreads its hatred to the many villagers who, moved by the Angkar’s propaganda and isolated from the outside world, support the revolution. Without radios or televisions, the Khmer Rouge is the only source of information in these villages, so it can easily skew news to suit its own agenda. Leaders frequently condemn the “Youns” (Vietnamese) as intent on kidnapping Khmer children, raping Khmer women, and murdering Khmer men. Met Bong, the supervisor of the child soldier camp to which Loung is taken, describes the light-skinned Vietnamese “as savages who are bent on taking over our country and our people.” It is no surprise, then, that Loung observes villagers “make rude comments about ‘lazy white people’” to Ma. While at the child soldier training camp, Loung similarly notes that the other children “despise me and consider me inferior because of my light skin.”
Having inflamed an epidemic of vehement, paranoid ethnic hatred among its people, the Khmer Rouge is bloodthirsty in its attempt to rid Cambodia of so-called “ethnic poison.” Loung does not shy from describing the group’s brutality, noting things such as the overwhelming stench of corpses rotting in the sun; the “tofu-like” bits of brain she sees when her friend Pithy’s skull is crushed by a bomb; and the “trails and puddles of blood” she must walk through after the Khmer Rouge attack the Vietnamese displaced peoples camp. These vivid images emphasize the Khmer Rouge’s utter lack of respect for human life, its shallow justifications for extreme violence, and its attempts to use brutality to terrify the population into submission.
Loung rubs dirt and charcoal on her skin to better blend in with the other villagers, but she ultimately has no idea “what ethnic cleansing means.” Throughout the book Loung does not understand why the horrors she witnesses are happening, unable to grasp why people would treat her—or anyone—differently on the basis of appearance or background. When villagers in Ro Leap spit at Pa’s feet and shout that capitalists should be killed, Loung, who does not know what a capitalist is, cannot understand why the villagers look at her family so angrily when they are “very much the same.” In fact, Loung thinks that, apart from superficial differences like lighter skin or thinner noses, everyone she meets simply looks like a human being. Similarly, when she reaches the displacement camp after the Vietnamese invasion she says, “these men look remarkably human”—not like “the devils” the Khmer Rouge said they were. As a child with no understanding of the political or historical complexities behind the Khmer Rouge’s rise, Loung is in a unique position to cut to the heart of the absurdity of racial, ethnic, and class prejudice. Her childlike view of the world highlights not simply the Khmer Rouge’s barbarity, but the utter irrationality of persecuting people on the basis of their ethnicity in the first place. Loung’s story is thus a condemnation not only of the Khmer Rouge, but of dehumanizing prejudice of any kind.
Genocide, Racism, and Propaganda ThemeTracker
Genocide, Racism, and Propaganda Quotes in First They Killed My Father
Ma saw that he was kind, strong, and handsome, and she eventually fell in love with him. Pa quit the monastery so he could ask her to marry him, and she said yes. However, because Pa is dark-skinned and was very poor, Ma’s parents refused to let them marry.
The explosion from the bomb in our trashcan knocked down the walls of our kitchen, but luckily no one was hurt. The police never found out who put the bomb there. 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, someone who's always willing to help others, they would not want to hurt him.
By the time we arrive at the rendezvous area on the roadside, about thirty people have already gathered there. They squat and sit on the gravel road in four family groups. Many have almond-shaped eyes, thin noses, and light skin, which suggests they might also be of Chinese descent. Pure Khmer have curly black hair, flat noses, full lips, and dark chocolate skin.
“The Khmer Rouge are executing people perceived to be a threat against the Angkar. This new country has no law or order. City people are killed for no reason. Anyone can be viewed as a threat to the Angkar—former civil servants, monks, doctors, nurses, artists, teachers, students—even people who wear glasses, as the soldiers view this as a sign of intelligence. Anyone the Khmer Rouge believes has the power to lead a rebellion will be killed. We have to be extremely careful, but if we keep moving to different villages, we may stay safe.”
"Capitalists should be shot and killed," someone yells from the crowd, glaring at us. Another villager walks over and spits at Pa's feet. Pa's shoulders droop low as he holds his palms together in a gesture of greeting. I cower at the edge of the truck, my heart beating wildly, afraid to get off. Fearing that they might spit at me, I avoid their eyes. They look very mean, like hungry tigers ready to pounce on us. Their black eyes stare at me, full of contempt. 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.
My first red dress, the one Ma made for me for the New Year's celebration. I remember Ma taking my measurements, holding the soft chiffon cloth against my body, and asking me if I liked it. "The color looks so pretty on you," she said, "and the chiffon material will keep you cool." Ma made three identical dresses for Chou, Geak, and me. ... I grind my teeth so hard the pain in my throat moves up to my temples. My hands clench in fists; I continue to stare at my dress. I do not see the soldier's hand reach into his pocket and retrieve from it a box of matches. I do not hear his fingers strike a match against the side of the box. The next thing I know the pile of clothes bursts into flames and my red dress melts like plastic in the fire.
As much as I want to become a thief myself, I do not have the courage to do it. It seems a lifetime ago when I was rich and spoiled in Phnom Penh, when children stole from me and I did not care. I could afford to be stolen from, but I judged them harshly for doing so. I thought thieves were worthless, too lazy to work for what they wanted. I understand now that they had to steal to survive.
Ma is proud of her heritage but has to hide it before it proves dangerous to us all. 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, so that people of the true Khmer heritage can rise to power again. 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.
I am a kid, not even seven years old, but somehow I will kill Pol Pot. I don’t know him, yet I am certain he is the fattest, slimiest snake on earth. I am convinced that there is a monster living inside his body. He will die a painful, agonizing death, and I pray that I will play a part in it. I despise Pol Pot for making me hate so deeply. My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness. Sadness makes me want to die inside. Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life. Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill. I feed my rage with bloody images of Pol Pot's slain body being dragged in the dirt.
In Phnom Penh, Pa once told me the Youns are just like us but with whiter skin and smaller noses. However, Met Bong describes the Youns as savages who are bent on taking over our country and our people. I do not know what to believe. The only world I know beyond this camp is the one Met Bong describes to me. Sitting in the dark, I find myself starting to believe her message about the enemies.
My breath becomes short and shallow; images of the Youns torturing and killing their victims flash before my eyes. I have never seen a Youn and yet these men look remarkably human. They are the same size as our Khmer men and are similarly built … The Youns look more like Ma than many Khmers. They do not look like the devils Met Bong said they were.
One by one, people return to their homes, leaving me standing there alone, staring at the corpse. My mind plays back images of my parents' and sister's murders. Again my heart tears open as I stand there and wonder how they died. Quickly, I push the sadness away. The slumped over corpse reminds me of Pithy in her mother’s arms. Pithy’s head bled in much the same way. His death will not bring any of them back.