Activist Loung Ung Discusses Cambodian Genocide

When Loung Ung, activist and author, shared stories of her experience during the Khmer Rouge Regime, tears came to some students’ eyes.

Ung’s presentation, “First They Killed My Father: An Eyewitness Account of the Cambodian Genocide,” was held last Wednesday in Kemper Auditorium.

Ung said, “War doesn’t end just because soldiers put down their guns, politicians say it’s over and newspapers stopped writing about it. The war didn’t end for me just because I left and came 12,000 miles to America.”

Ung described tragic aftermath of Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge tried to establish a new society, that aimed to posit poor peasants as model citizens. The Khmer Rouge executed approximately two million people, according to an article in BBC.

Ung explained, “A country, the size of the state of Oklahoma, is today littered with over 20,000 mass graves.”

Ung began her narrative with her childhood memories of Cambodia and encounter with the Khmer Rouge soldiers. As one of seven children of a military officer, Ung lived a sheltered early life in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

When she was five, the Communist Khmer Rouge seized control of the government, forcing her family to flee.

Eventually, the oppressive regime separated her from the rest of her family. They could not reunite until after the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge regime nearly four years later. In the four years, 1.7 to two million out of seven million Cambodians died of starvation, disease or execution.

During the lecture, Ung recalled her traumatic experiences as a victim of the Khmer Rouge. She said, “In my time here, I just want to share with you what it was like to grow up in that war, to survive the war, and what it took to survive the peace afterward.”

As a result, the Khmer Rouge executed anyone who could oppose the regime. Her family attempted to evade the soldiers from discovering her father’s identity, but the soldiers eventually took her father away.

She continued, “For as long as I live, I will never forget the day the soldiers came for my father.” Later, Ung and her siblings were forced to separate so that they would not all be put at risk.

Once Ung left her siblings, she worked in child labor camps and soldier camps, often living in poor conditions. Even after the Vietnamese pushed back the Khmer Rouge, Ung struggled to find her siblings.

After reuniting with her siblings, Ung’s eldest brother decided that they had to leave Cambodia. However, the siblings were only able to afford to send two of the four siblings abroad.

Ung’s eldest brother chose Ung to accompany him to a refugee camp in Vietnam where they eventually received a sponsor, which allowed them to go to America.

In the lecture, Ung wanted to give people an intimate look at the aftermath of war as well. Ung placed emphasis on the danger of landmines and continued, “It does not matter whether the foot that steps on [the landmine] is a friend or foe.”

She said that landmines contaminate 40 percent of Cambodian land, and statistics show between 80 and 100 people die in Cambodia from landmines every month.

These statistics inspired Ung to address removing landmines. She has worked with many different international organizations, including Veterans International, which supplies low-cost prosthetics.

According to Seyoung Lee ’12, head of Asian Society, Asian Society, Asian Girls Forum, the Community and Multicultural Development Office (CAMD) and STAND planned the lecture to raise awareness about the Cambodian genocide. Since Ung was such a powerful speaker, they invited her to speak at PA.

Aya Murata, faculty advisor of Asian Society, attended a presentation by Ung four or five years ago. Murata also wanted to raise awareness about this important part of world history that is not well known.

Ryan Brigdon ’15 said that the lecture raised his interest of the Cambodian genocide and presented an interesting perspective on the events.

Ung has spoken at other schools with a similar message: the story of the Cambodian genocide and her philosophy on activism. Ung said, “I wanted to plant my seed of activism and surviving and empathy.”

The lecture was part of the Ullman Speaker Series, sponsored by Leo Ullman ’67.