Loung Ung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge stormed her native city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1975. Four years later, roughly two million out of seven million Cambodians were dead. Loung lost her parents, two sisters, and 20 other relatives in the genocide. In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and put an end to the terror.
In 1980, 10-year-old Loung and her older brother and sister-in-law escaped to Thailand. Eventually, they relocated to Vermont through sponsorship by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy Family Church parish.
On October 6, 2016, Loung spoke at the International Women Authors event, cosponsored by the Stanley Foundation and the Women’s Connection of the Quad Cities. Before the event, she spoke with the foundation’s Francie Williamson about her experiences in Cambodia.
The Stanley Foundation: Your first book, First They Killed My Father, details the brutality of life under the Khmer Rouge, the deaths of some of your family members, and your eventual escape to Thailand, then America. Do you think what happened then could ever happen again in Cambodia? Why or why not?
Loung Ung: Well I certainly hope not, and it’s disheartening to see it happening in other countries. I’m hoping that it won’t because there are so many great people in Cambodia working to make sure and to keep that hope alive. It is people doing the grunt work of mapping the 20,000 mass graves, it is people putting together the curriculums to teach students, people gathering stories and documentations.... If it does not happen, it is because of the hard work and the big hearts and all the generosity of all these people doing this work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
TSF: We talk a lot with our partners about early warning signs of atrocities. Do you think there were signs that the Khmer Rouge was going to be so brutal, and what do you think the world could have done to intervene earlier?
LU: There were definitely signs that there were massacres of people in the Khmer Rouge zones. They were telling lies. I think they started building one lie upon another. They weren’t really thinking of what’s best for the people. They didn’t have the best interests of the people at heart. And nobody knew who they were. Who do you fight if you don’t know who you’re fighting against? They were known as Angkar, literally translated in English as “the organization.” For a year into their regime, we had no idea who the leaders were. Can you imagine a government running the US today where we didn’t know the name of the president? When you are hiding in plain sight and … you have bred so much fear that people can’t even protest against your faceless, nameless, ruthless regime.... They didn’t come in and take all our rights away from us instantly. Through all these years, one by one, they took our rights away. And we were too afraid to speak up. Even that made you a target for arrest or imprisonment or executions. And all those were warning signs leading up to how brutal they became.
TSF: In terms of memory and reconciliation, is the Khmer Rouge period talked about more openly in Cambodia today? What more could be done?
LU: Many people are starting to tell their stories. The healing journey is an individual journey for everybody, and the time and place when the person is able to share is different for everyone. But we are finding that a lot of people now, close to 40 years later, are starting to speak out. And it’s because they’re believed and it’s because the tribunal happened and stories were being told in newspapers and on radios and books and magazines and movies that people are starting to believe that it really happened. And because the next generations are now curious and are asking questions, like what are the big holes in the ground? I think people are now starting to feel safe to speak, and I think just as important to know that when they do speak, they are believed.
TSF: What has changed in Cambodia since the early 2000s, which is where you leave off in your second and third books, Lucky Child and Lulu in the Sky?
LU: Cambodia is a country the size of Oklahoma and now populated by just a little over 15 million people. We bring in approximately four million tourists in a year. So Cambodia is opening up. And I think what’s changed for the positive is that people are now seeing Cambodia’s beauty, seeing Cambodia’s wonders and magic and colors and people and food and restaurants and roads and the spirituality and the 2,000-year-old culture. We are now growing beyond what was the four-year blip that was the genocide. It’s part of our history. But it is not the whole of our history. So as more and more people come to Cambodia and the country opens, people are seeing that, and that makes us proud.
The land itself is being demined on a daily basis and therefore allowing access to farmers to work and for children to walk to school and for people to grow food. So all those are really wonderful developments in Cambodia.
The hard part is there’s so many outside influences coming in, and the change is happening very, very quickly. I think sometimes you don’t really know what the results of the changes are going to be.
TSF: And how is your family now?
LU: My sister Chou in Cambodia has five kids and is a grandmother for the fourth time, and my brother Khouy in Cambodia has six kids and is about to have his first grandchild. So the trees of life continue to grow and extend. [My brother] Meng is doing really well; he lives in Vermont and his two daughters, one of them is a chemistry teacher and the other is an architect intern. And [my brother] Kim is doing really great; he is a baker in Los Angeles and has two kids.
TSF: What do you tell people who want to help those suffering from atrocities?
LU: If you want to help, first you choose to help. You have to make that choice. It’s not enough to want. Want is a great motivator, but it’s just not enough. If all we do is want, it’s never going to get done. Once you make that choice, then you can go on to the next step. Whatever you are able to do is perfectly fine because activism is a muscle. The more you use it the stronger it will get. So you’ve got to start using it.
If you encounter someone who has experienced atrocities, first, you listen. And then you ask questions. And you believe. Should there be any discrepancies in the stories, you don’t automatically judge. Sometimes your mind can’t accept what’s happened. And when that happens, you weave new narratives for yourself. But there’s truth in their stories, and it may not be the version you want to hear, but it’s there.