L oung Ung is the author of First They Killed My Father, a memoir about surviving
the Pol Pot era. The book recounts the murders of both her parents and a younger
sister, the starvation of another sister, as well as Loung's own indoctrination as
a child soldier. She was assisted with the book by Rachel Louise Snyder, a journalist
from the US.
Loung Ung, author of a memoir about surviving the Pot Pot years, hopes a Khmer Rouge Tribunal will help Cambodia escape its past. She is writing her second book.
Loung Ung and I sprawl on the bed in the guest room of my Phnom Penh house with two
of the magazines I brought from the US laid out before us: the New Yorker and Playboy.
It is an almost impossible juxtaposition. The staid and the sexy. I had been trying
to conduct An Actual Interview with her. A serious discussion on things like the
Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the current lack of a government.
But each time we began the verbal tête-à-tête, we were sidetracked
by naked girls in mock Starbucks aprons or by fantastical musings on Johnny Depp
or the fact that however unbelievable it may seem, we two are here together, giggling
like gremlins on the bed in Loung's native country, a place we've talked of traveling
to together for seven years. It is a country that haunted me after my first visit
in 1996 and the land that nearly killed her.
She escaped in 1979 after the Vietnamese invaded and seized Phnom Penh. She came
to America with an older brother who now lives with his family in the northeastern
US. But for Loung, it is the family she left behind that consumes her, not just those
like her parents who are buried anonymously in the countryside. As many as 100 of
her other siblings and relatives still survive.
"We need to encourage investment and gain investment credibility because Cambodia
can not be a beggar's country forever.
Now, about four years after the publication of her first book, she is in Cambodia
on her longest stay yet writing her second book. It is about her life after the Khmer
Rouge. It is the story of one child who grew up in the privileged classes of America
and the other who became a wife and mother in rural Cambodia.
But to regain some semblance of modicum and feminist respectability, we close the
Playboy and turn to a profile of Hillary Clinton in an October issue of the New Yorker.
As a woman who has endured both worldwide humiliation by her husband's actions and
quietly fought her way back to the respected ranks of politics, she earns high honors
from both Loung and me.
In any case, neither magazine can be ignored. They embody two sides of Loung's personality.
She is an American down to her rollerblading, fitness club, movie-going self. She
is a cosmopolitan woman, traveling, lecturing, expertly mingling in cocktail parties
stacked with politicians and movie stars. She is friendly with both US Senator Patrick
Leahy and Angelina Jolie of Tomb Raider fame.
But she is also the Khmer girl buying green mangoes from stalls on dusty tracks.
She is so protective of her surviving family that she does not mention in print who
they are, where they live or what they do. There is a part of her that treads carefully
on the unfamiliar footing of her modest fame, fearful as an eight-year-old soldier
under Pol Pot.
The first time we spoke on the phone seven years ago, Loung and I immediately connected.
We are the same age. We both lost our mothers when we were eight (hers to genocide,
mine to cancer). We endured tumultuous years and emerged intact on the other side.
I wrote several articles about her and eventually ended up editing Loung's memoir
of her experience under the Khmer Rouge, First They Killed My Father.
But it was our shared heartbreak that really connected us.
We both credit our mothers for our own emotional survival as adults. Her mother,
knowing that the family was targeted for execution, sent Loung and her siblings walking
in different directions as 'orphans' so they would be taken in by a children's camp
in early 1977. Undoubtedly, Loung's mother chose to hide behind propaganda instead
of revealing the truth and certain death.
Loung's second book, the working title of which is Lucky Child, depicts the vastly
different path her life has taken from that of her sister who remained in Cambodia.
It illuminates how different two lives from a single family can be.
That is its larger mission: comparing the refugee living in America to a refugee
at home in Cambodia. Its smaller mission, Loung admits, is "a ruse to get my
sister to talk to me about it".
With just two years separating them, the two have visited together more than twenty
times since Loung left Cambodia, but the conversations have generally not delved
into those horrifying genocidal years.
The book also examines the things that separate them, most profoundly the existence
"I have choices," Loung says. "I can choose to have children or not
to have children or adopt. With her you don't have that choice, you just have babies."
Further still, Loung can choose to visit Cambodia or stay at home. She chooses her
job, her friends, an entire lifestyle unimaginable to her sister. But most importantly,
she is free to express her voice in the wider world.
What she does with her voice, in some small measure, is mend the fractured shards
of a Cambodia she only remembers. She writes her story in the hopes that one day
the Khmer Rouge Tribunal will occur inside a courtroom.
"I support the whole process for practical reasons and for historical reasons,"
she says. "We need to encourage investment and gain investment credibility because
Cambodia can not be a beggar's country forever. Also, we have no comprehensive forum
where Cambodian voices can be heard, where someone in Battambang can hear what happened
in Takeo... You don't want to talk about it until it serves a purpose."
"I can choose to have children or not to have children or adopt. With her you
don't have that choice, you just have babies."
For this she credits the work of Youk Chhang and the Documentation Center of Cambodia
for gathering together the scattered memories of the atrocities. Through their work,
a story like Loung's is now just one of five million recorded accounts. He and his
staff have done more to reconcile the country than any international criminal court
could achieve, says Loung.
"He has sacrificed so much for this country. His time, his energy, his spirit,"
For Loung, the situation is pure pathos. She does not analyze the politics or place
blame. She does not comment on who has held up the Tribunal or why or how the Khmer
Rouge leaders might be more quickly prosecuted.
She simply glances down at the black and white picture of a smiling Hillary Clinton,
shakes her head and says: "I don't want to get my heart broken by Cambodia again."