Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The end of an adventure and the start of a new one

Finally, I completed the work I needed to do to complete my A Year in Indochina project and the whole experience remains an incredibly valuable one to me. I often look back on the time I spent in Vietnam and am overwhelmed by the things I did and the opportunities I had there. It has been an incomparable experience for me and one that I am incredibly grateful for. I finished the book I was working on, thereby completing the project, in the first few months of starting a History degree at the University of Liverpool; now I am half-way through that degree.

But obviously I couldn't stay in one place for too long. Through my desperation to travel again, some hard work and some good fortune, I was granted the opportunity to spend a semester studying in Melbourne, Australia. My new adventure begins in just under a week when I set off on a journey across the world, and I have created a new blog called Backpacker Student with which I will record my travels, studies and new experiences Down Under. I hope that those people who took interest in this blog will be equally interested in my new one, and I hope I will have some interesting stories and new discoveries to share from a totally different part of the world!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Book review: A Short History of Laos

A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between
Grant Evans, 2003

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Laos, the ‘land of a million elephants’, is a small, landlocked country bordered by China and Myanmar to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. Throughout its history this ‘backward’ country, seen as ‘passive’ and ‘sleepy’, has been dominated by the greater powers that neighbour it and those further afield that saw their colonial and imperialist interests here. During the Vietnam War Laos found itself in a key strategic position, taken advantage of both by the DRV, which ran its major north-south supply line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through the eastern reaches of Laos, but also by the Americans, who used the Lao highlands as a base for reconnaissance missions, often recruiting the support of montagnards and Thai missionaries for this.

The history of Laos is likely to be the least understood of any country in Southeast Asia, and Grant Evans, author of A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between is keen to look beyond popular stereotypes about Lao culture in order to relate impartially the unfortunate history this country has endured and to examine some of the lasting consequences of this:

“Visitors to Laos are usually charmed by the people’s grace and good humour, and are consequently prone to romanticise the country… but the idea of an ‘untouched’ Southeast Asian idyll has its flipside: Laos is one of the least developed countries in the world. Thus, successive Lao governments have been committed to ‘development’, and millions upon millions of aid dollars have flowed into the country- too often straight into the pockets of its leaders, and too often creating a psychology of dependency… Unfortunately, the ‘untouchedness’ so beloved by tourists is often a consequence of failed development plans and enforced communist isolation for almost two decades”. Certainly, Evans has done well to cast aside such romantic misconceptions (which, as somebody who has visited the beautiful Lao towns of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, I realise that it is easy to establish from first impressions), in order to give real insight into the problems the country faces.

A Short History of Laos, first published in 2002 by Allen & Unwin, is one of five works in the series A Short History of Asia, edited by the experienced Asia hand Milton Osborne, author of eight books on Asian topics. Other titles in the series cover Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and China and Southeast Asia. The collection was highly recommended by American travel writer Bill Bryson, who commented, “I cannot welcome this series warmly enough. It is sure to be a winner- and much needed”. The book’s author, Grant Evans, is an Australian anthropologist who has written widely on the subject of Laos and Southeast Asia in general. Other titles of his include Lao Peasants under Socialism (1990), Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos since 1975 (1998) and more recently, The Last Century of Lao Royalty: A Documentary History (2012). He currently works for the University of Hong Kong.

Personally, I found the opening chapter of A Short History of Laos, which covers the pre-colonial, dynastic period of Lao history, to be dry and unexciting; but persevering through I was rewarded to find that this is a great introduction to Lao history, written concisely and easy to follow. Evans traces Lao history from the pre-modern era, through the colonial period, the establishment of the LRG, civil war, the American war, the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) in 1975 and on to more contemporary issues such as the ascension of Laos into ASEAN, the dropping of the hammer and sickle as the national emblem and the continuing persecution of ethnic minority groups (many of whom were recruited by the CIA to fight the communist Pathet Lao in covert operations).

It was particularly interesting for me to learn of how Lao culture has developed in response to changing political circumstances- for example, that it was the French who encouraged the concept of a ‘nation’ to develop within the hearts and minds of a diverse and dispersed population, inadvertently leading to the birth of early Lao nationalism which was later to challenge French hegemony. Or, that it was the ill-considered channelling of US aid to the pockets of army and government officials of the Lao Royal Government (LRG) that introduced corruption to a largely Buddhist nation. Finally, Evans looks at some of the enduring consequences of the country's history on its society today- for example, in the field of education- and comments on how this continues to affect Laos' development.

The book is advertised as “an ideal introduction for tourists, business travellers and students”. As someone who is studying Indochina, this sentiment rang true for me as I found Evans' work very useful in providing a quick, insightful overview to the history of Laos. It is a balanced and interesting guide and I would certainly recommend it to anyone keen to learn more about the country. Of course, this edition (published 2003) is now ten years out of date, and I have often found it challenging to find reliable and up-to-date information about Lao issues that may provide some insight into more recent developments in the country. In particular, I would be interested to learn more about the current situation for the Hmong in Laos, an ethnic minority group that challenged Lao communism during the civil war and of which a large part fled en mass following the communist takeover. It is reported that Hmong insurgents continue to provide sporadic and small-scale resistance to the regime; but there seems to be little information available to provide further detail to substantiate these claims.

For more information about the recent history of Indochina, please refer to my book reviews of The Vietnam War: A Concise International History by Mark Atwood Lawrence and The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power andGenocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (Third Edition) by Ben Kiernan.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Book review- A Dragon Apparent

A Dragon Apparent- Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam
Norman Lewis, 1951

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The late Norman Lewis (1908-2003) is a celebrated English writer who authored thirteen novels and thirteen non-fiction works, mostly travel writing, throughout his lengthy career. Perhaps best known for Naples '44 (published 1978) and The Missionaries (1988), one of Lewis' seminal travel books was the much earlier A Dragon Apparent (1951), a record of the author's travels around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at the brink of the crumbling of France's colonial grip on Indochina, and in advance of the disastrous American war that was to follow.

The world that Lewis captures is considerably bleak and forlorn. One of his first impressions is of the disdain seemingly shown towards him, a foreigner, by Vietnamese people, who were described by early missionaries as inquisitive towards strangers. This seems to be a suggestion of the damaging impact of colonialism, one of many signs that Lewis notes as he travels across the peninsula, visiting tribal villages, plantations and Viet Minh strongholds.

Lewis' travels take him primarily through southern Vietnam, then still known as Cochin China, with briefer visits to Cambodia and Laos. Unfortunately he is not able to make it across the border to Tonkin, northern Vietnam, which surely would have been an interesting visit. On his numerous trips with French officers, Lewis meets communities of ethnic minority groups and witnesses their plight to retain their traditional customs within changing wider political circumstances. The tragedy of this book lies in the knowledge that the moment in history seen by Lewis was soon to be lost forever.

This special interest in tribal groups is not unique to A Dragon Apparent. Across his extensive repertoire of writings, Lewis is known for his interest in tribal societies and for his concern over the damage caused to them by outside influences, particularly through the activity of missionaries. Notably, Lewis is known to have regarded his life’s greatest achievement as being the outcome of his 1968 Sunday Times article Genocide in Brazil, which resulted in a change in the Brazilian law regarding the treatment of Indians, as well as the establishment of the organisation Survival International, which campaigns to defend the rights of tribal people around the world.

There are some interesting cultural revelations to be learnt from Lewis' travels in Indochina, due to his keen interest in the habits and lifestyles of the people he sees. On first arriving in Saigon, he observes: “There was a rapid, silently swirling traffic in the streets of bicycle rickshaws mixed up with cycles; a bus, sweeping out of a side street into the main torrent, caught a cyclist, knocked him off and crushed his machine. Both the bus driver and the cyclist were Chinese or Vietnamese, and the bus driver, jumping down from his seat, rushed over to congratulate the cyclist on his lucky escape. Both men were delighted, and the cyclist departed, carrying the wreckage of his machine and still grinning broadly.”

As the above passage demonstrates, Lewis has a dignified writing style that suits his self-styled position as an outside observer of everything he witnesses.

The 1982 edition of this book was published by Eland, a London based publishing house that specialises in travel books. The edition includes darkly printed photographs that were reproduced from the first edition (the originals no longer existed), which, despite being imperfect in quality, are nonetheless fascinating glimpses into the tribal lives Lewis describes. In his preface, Lewis comments on his travels in Indochina with the hindsight of the incredible destruction it had endured in the years between the first and second publications of this book. He writes hauntingly of “the greatest holocaust ever to be visited on the East”: “It consumed not only the present, but the past; an obliteration of cultures and values as much as physical things. From the ashes that remained no phoenix would ever rise”.

Despite the tragedy of the destruction Indochina has endured, there is some comfort for the reader of Lewis' work, particularly one who has spent time in each of the three countries in question, to find that there are certain places and scenes mentioned in Lewis' account that are seemingly eternal elements of Indochina, transcending the passing of time and the destructiveness of war. In some cases this is the sublime, such as the beautiful ruins of the ancient kingdom of Angkor, and in other cases the ridiculous, such as the Cao Dai temple erected in Tay Ninh in 1926 as the holy centre of Vietnam’s most bizarre religion. The latter was described by Lewis as probably “the most outrageously vulgar building ever to have been erected with serious intent”, and, incidentally, was described in similarly derogatory terms by Graham Greene. Yet whether for better or for worse, it is comforting to be reminded of these distinct, nostalgic characteristics and to be reassured that at least some things have survived Indochina’s most volatile period in recent history.

Published only four years before Greene’s classic The Quiet American, it is interesting to note that A Dragon Apparent has been described as Greene’s inspiration. Greene was certainly a fan of Lewis’, describing him as “one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century”.

For his extensive collection of works and the impact they have had, it is perhaps surprising that Lewis is not better known as a writer. In the Guardian’s obituary for him, published in July 2003, this is accounted to the ‘modesty’ of this ‘deeply private’ author. Certainly, in A Dragon Apparent, Lewis is never showy and maintains a detached, civilized writing style. Yet for me, this lent the book to lack any feeling of passion, and consequently I did not find it to be particularly compelling. Nonetheless, as I have already alluded to, there are several moments of intrigue from Lewis’ experiences in Indochina, from which I learned new things about the culture of Indochina as it was before the wars. No doubt, A Dragon Apparent is an important documentation of a pivotal moment in the history of Indochina; a time and place at the brink of monumental change that would leave it irrevocably scarred.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Book review- The Road of Lost Innocence

The Road of Lost Innocence: The true story of a Cambodian heroine who fled sexual slavery and now devotes her life to rescuing others
Somaly Mam and Lisa Appignanesi, 2007

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Somaly Mam is a woman worthy of enormous admiration. Her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, is an incredibly harrowing and eye-opening story as to the reality of the sex slavery industry in Cambodia and South East Asia in general.  Mam has endured a shockingly abusive childhood; left by her parents from a young age, she was sold to a stranger by her only remaining relative to be wed into an arranged marriage and finally sold to a brothel. She has suffered unimaginable violence, rape and cruelty. Yet she asserts that her story is in no way atypical for a young Cambodian girl. The choice of subtitle for her book, The True Story of A Cambodian Childhood, pays testament to this reality. Mam’s writing paints a bleak and unforgiving portrait of Cambodian society, but she also offers insightful explanations into why the sex trade industry may continue to be so accepted and engrained in her native country. First published in France under the title Le Silence de L’innocence in 2005, the English version, translated by Lisa Appignanesi, was first published in 2007.

The Road of Lost Innocence is moving on many levels. Primarily, there is the raw pain of the injustice suffered by Mam, which is accentuated by her simple writing style and humble tone. Then there is the reminder of the amount of suffering endured by women and girls in South East Asia due to the prolificacy of the sex trade industry. It is thought that there are 11.7 million people in forced labour in the Asia Pacific region, the majority of whom are women and girls. Virgins are sold for high prices. Finally and perhaps most significantly, there is the admiration Mam inspires due to her work to counter these trends. Having escaped a life of forced prostitution, she co-founded AFESIP- Agir Pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire (Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances). Her autobiography recalls the organisation’s inception from its humble origins as a small, overcrowded shelter in the outskirts of Phnom Penh to its current status as a multi-national body that operates across Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The organisation is largely funded by the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF), which was established in 2007 as “a funding vehicle to support victim services organizations, eradicate slavery through global advocacy, and to empower survivors to be part of the solution to end trafficking”.

Mam is now a globally recognised humanitarian figure due to her work to challenge the sex trafficking industry and to empower its survivors. She has received countless awards, including the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation in 1998 and the Glamour Woman of the Year award in 2006. In 2009, she was named as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and in 2011 was included in the Guardian’s Top 100 Women: Activists and Campaigners. Yet despite this worldly recognition, in her writing Mam remains very modest; she is frank about the lasting impact of her ordeal on her life today. In this way, it is a poignantly personal story and is very touching. Not only has she suffered physical and emotional abuse based on her gender, she has also endured racism from Cambodia’s majority Khmers because of belonging to an ethnic minority group, the Phnong, and having dark skin.

I found a considerable amount to learn about post-Pol Pot Cambodian society from this book. Most of this was uncomfortably negative. Mam suggests that the legacy of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge era has blown a hammer to family values and left a shattered society overly focused on the individual. Yet traditional views towards the role of women and girls remain: they are expected to unconditionally obey their parents and are often seen as “money on legs”. These two factors, Mam suggests, have allowed the development of a society that deems both the sale of girls into prostitution by their families and the use of prostitutes (often children) by men as acceptable. Consequently, according to a 2005 report by Cambodian non-governmental organisation The Future Group, ‘it can be expected that at least one in forty girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery’.

Considering this disturbing reality, It is encouraging that AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation now reach as many women and girls across South East Asia as they do. Since its establishment in 1996, AFESIP has “rescued, rehabilitated and reintegrated over 4,000 women and children”, providing them with healthcare, education, psychological support and the means to begin a better life. Besides this, a crucial element of AFESIP’s work is in changing perspectives towards sex trafficking and the use of prostitutes in order to challenge the problem from its roots. One way in which this is done is through sex education classes for men. Another way is through the ‘Somaly’s Family’ radio show broadcast from Phnom Penh, in which trafficking survivors speak out about modern-day slavery to a regional audience. The show aired fifty-nine times last year.

The Road of Lost Innocence is a testament to the importance of the work of AFESIP and the relevance that the issues of sex trafficking and slavery still hold today. Moreover, it is a well-written and engaging story with many tender, heart-breaking moments. Mam’s story is horrifying, but more shocking is the reality that her story is not unique. I would recommend this book to anybody and everybody as a source of information about the unforgivable abuses of women and girls that occur every day around the world. Furthermore, I would recommend this book as the story of an incredibly brave and inspiring women who has turned a horrendous ordeal into an opportunity to help thousands of people who have shared her experiences. It would be too much to call this book uplifting, as the pain Mam evidently still feels resonates through the narrative. Yet Somaly Mam is undoubtedly an awe-inspiring individual, to whom I feel great respect. I would also encourage everybody to visit the websites of AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation to find out more about Mam’s work and to donate to an exceptionally worthy cause.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Book review- Nightmare in Laos

Nightmare in Laos: The true story of a woman imprisoned in a communist gulag
Kay Danes, 2005

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On 23rd December 2000, Kay and Kerry Danes were arrested in Laos and subsequently held for ten months in Phonthong prison outside Vientiane.  The Australian couple had lived in Laos since January 1999, where they had established Lao Securicor security services. The couple’s imprisonment, which was without charges for the first six months of their ordeal, came to global attention as it became evident the Daneses had been wrongly embroiled in a scandal related to a quantity of sapphires that had gone missing when one of their clients, Gem Mining Laos, was nationalised by the Lao government.

Nightmare in Laos: The true story of a woman imprisoned in a communist gulag is the second version of Kay Danes’ memoir of her experiences as a foreign inmate in a Lao prison, where her eyes were opened to the suffering of Laotians, foreigners and ethnic minorities incarcerated in a regime with appalling human rights records. Her story was first published as Deliver Us from Evil (Crown Content, 2002), before the publication of this, revised, edition in 2005 by Maverick House. Danes has since authored Families Behind Bars (New Holland, 2008) and Beneath the Pale Blue Burqa: One woman’s journey through Taliban strongholds (Big Sky Publishing, 2010).

Phonthong prison outside Vientiane is a mixed sex detention centre for non-Laotians. Between its walls Kay Danes met foreign nationals who had been accused of drug trafficking, money laundering or other crimes while in the country, as well as members of the Hmong ethnic group, who have historically been discriminated against in Laos for their support for CIA forces during the country’s civil war before a communist takeover in 1975. Under Lao law, suspects can be detained for twelve months without charges being laid against them; Danes reports that many of Phonthong’s inmates were held for years without trial. She was convinced that many of these were innocent of any crime. In her account, Danes reports the torture and mock executions of inmates that were a daily occurrence in the prison; for her part, Danes suffered severe emotional and psychological trauma long after her return to her family in Australia.

This story is a moving and poignant one written by a woman with real sensitivity towards the plight of those around her in the prison that was her home for ten months. Kay and Kerry Danes were detained for six months before being charged with embezzlement, destruction of evidence and other charges relating to the gem disappearances. It has been largely recognised that the couple were held as ‘hostages’ in place of Gem Mining Laos founder Bernie Jeppesen and his partner Julie Brunz. In a court trial that lasted five hours, Kay and Kerry were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and ordered to pay over one million Australian dollars as ‘compensation’ for the loss of jewels. In a country in which no one has ever been acquitted after being charged, it is hardly surprising that the jury’s summary was produced after twenty-five minutes of consultation, already typed. Ultimately, it was the intervention of the Australian government that secured the release of Kay and Kerry through negotiation with the Laos government. In an unprecedented move in Lao history, the couple were granted a royal pardon in November 2001.

Despite her significant health problems, Danes’ life since imprisonment has been incredibly admirable. Determined to improve conditions for current prisoners in Laos, fight for justice for those who have been wrongly accused and raise awareness of corruption in the system, she has dedicated herself to humanitarian work and activism. As a volunteer for the Foreign Prisoner Support Service and the Childlight Foundation for Afghan Children, Danes has been described by WHO magazine as “an inspiration for giving a voice to the oppressed and unjustly accused of the world, and for shedding light on the struggles faced by the Afghan people, particularly women and children”. In 2012 she was a State Finalist for the Australian of the Year award and in 2013 was again nominated for this prestigious title. More recently, Danes has been inducted into Worldwide Who’s Who for Excellence in Humanitarian Services. Furthermore, she has spoken at US Congressional hearings forums on multiple occasions on the persecution of the Hmong and wider human rights issues in Laos.

Nightmare in Laos is a touching and simply-told story about a woman’s endurance of a hellish ordeal that saw her separated from her children, lose her freedom and be subjected to physical and psychological torture. Perhaps the most moving element of the story is Danes’ continued concern for her fellow detainees throughout her imprisonment. In Phonthong prison, Kay and Kerry Danes fought to improve conditions for others, whom they recognised had fewer privileges than themselves, such as regular consular access and high-profile media interest in their case. There are few rays of sunshine in this tragic story but one may be the Daneses kindness towards others that led to measurable improvements inside the prison. 

If Danes’ primary motive for recording her story was to help to clear her name and that of her husband from any crime accused of them, then she has done well. Her memoir is a very convincing testament to the innocence of the couple; further evidence fully persuaded me that Kerry and Kay Danes were falsely charged in what seemed to be largely a case of appointing culprits, followed by repeated face-saving exercises, on the part of the Lao government. Sadly, controversy still surrounds the case and the couple remain with a blackening criminal record. If Danes’ primary motive was to raise awareness of the disgraceful mistreatment and injustice faced by prisoners in Laos, she has also done incredibly well. Danes’ work through the publication of her memoirs, her other non-fiction works and her involvement in humanitarian organisations has no doubt shed light on the corrupt justice system of a secretive communist state and has hopefully served to improve conditions for the friends she left behind in Phonthong, many of whom may remain there today without justice.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book review: The Pol Pot Regime (Third Edition)- Ben Kiernan (2008)

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In the case of such a secretive regime as Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK), access to accurate information about the period for historical study can be challenging. Many questions remain unanswered regarding what really happened between the closed borders of Cambodia between April 1975 and January 1979, but studies such as Ben Kiernan’s into the Khmer Rouge era provide valuable sources of information. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 is the culmination of extensive research on the part of the Australian historian and author of Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Yale University Press, 2007); it draws upon evidence of five hundred interviews with survivors of the Cambodian genocide as collected by Kiernan himself. With this information, Kiernan offers two key arguments that form the basis of this work: that Khmer Rouge conceptions of race overshadowed those of class; and that the regime struggled for top-down domination.

Based on his own evidence and that of other historians, Kiernan estimates that 1.7 million Cambodians, ethnic minorities and citizens of neighbouring countries were killed in the period in which Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge held power over Cambodia in a regime that he describes as an “amalgam of communism and racism”. Cities were emptied and the population relocated to the countryside to work on an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful national project of dam- and canal-construction to increase dry-season crop yields. Under a regime that “probably exerted more power over its citizens than any other state in world history”, control was maintained by uprooting and dispersing communities and by assigning individualised work targets in a communal setting. “The CPK [Communist Party of Kampuchea] atomized its citizens to assure maximum social control”, Kiernan argues.

During this period, all aspects of the country’s pre-revolution past were effectively nullified; nineteen seventy-five was renamed Year Zero by the new government and those who had been educated, lived in cities or were ethnic minorities were particularly targeted. Cambodia became an agrarian society in which preferential treatment was given to those who were peasants (the ‘base’ people) with no relation to city-dwellers (the ‘new’ people). In May 1979, Heng Samrin, Khmer Rouge defector and chairman of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, established after the Vietnamese overthrow of DK, revealed to the outside world how citizens under Pol Pot had been classified as ‘full rights’, ‘candidates’ and ‘deportees’ in relation to their background, family and ethnicity and their subsequent perceived eligibility for ‘rights’. Furthermore, Kiernan was the first writer to note in print how deportees from Eastern Cambodia, where rebellions against the regime had occurred, were forced to wear blue when relocated to distinguish them for execution.

Besides the devastating death toll (believed to be over 20% of Cambodia’s 1975 population), family life, culture and society was decimated with lasting impacts. The third edition of this book, published 2008, includes a preface that takes the story up to the ongoing tribunal by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Established in 1999, the UN-sponsored tribunal found five former leaders guilty of crimes against humanity in July 2007. However, the KR figurehead Pol Pot died as a free man in 1998 and in March 2013, DK deputy prime minister, minister of foreign affairs and Number Three in the party hierarchy Ieng Sary died of natural causes before he could be found guilty of the genocide crimes he was charged with in 2009. Justice is coming slowly for Cambodians, and the surviving pioneers of the genocide are becoming very old. Fortunately, studies such as Kiernan’s and work by DC-CAM, the largest resource base for information on the Khmer Rouge era, are increasing global awareness of the devastating events of Cambodia’s recent history. Notably, it was Kiernan who founded the award-winning Cambodian Genocide Programme at Yale University which was to become DC-CAM, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, now based in Phnom Penh.

Kiernan’s interest in Cambodia is far-reaching. He first visited the country in his early twenties, before the expulsion of all foreigners in 1975. He has subsequently learnt Khmer and written several books on the subject of the Cambodian genocide. The Pol Pot Regime is an incredibly detailed work that covers the functioning of the CPK party and state- from government to regional and district levels- living conditions under the regime, the persecution of ethnic minorities, rebellions against the regime and Democratic Kampuchea’s foreign relations. The quantity of information available is impressive and Kiernan’s arguments are convincing. Particularly interesting for me is his assertion that the Khmer Rouge were primarily motivated by racial, and not class, distinctions: “Non-Khmers, who comprised a significant part of the supposedly favoured segment of the peasantry, were singled out for persecution because of their race. This was neither a communist proletarian revolution that favoured the working class nor a peasant revolution that favoured all farmers”. He denounces the claims of other historians that the revolution was peasant-led, favouring the view that the revolution initially held peasant support, but often out of “fear”.

For the purpose of my project, this was perhaps not the best choice of reading for information on Pol Pot’s Cambodia. This is a very academic book and was not easy to read; it took me a long time to get through. I would not recommend it as introductory reading to Khmer Rouge history, only to those who are studying this period in depth. Nonetheless, I gathered a great deal of information from this book and reading it gave me an appreciation of the value of the information Kiernan has collected in the context of such information being difficult to come across and to confirm. Finally, I find the arguments that Kiernan has produced to be well reported and convincing, particularly as they seem to have been drawn from a large pool of extensive and reliable evidence. He has done well to explain the functioning of a regime that was at the same time so devastatingly brutal and curiously self-destructive.

More: Read my reviews of two women's memoirs of the Khmer Rouge period and its aftermath:

To The End Of Hell by Denise Affonco

After They Killed Our Father by Luong Ung

Monday, 17 June 2013

Book review- After They Killed Our Father

After They Killed Our Father: A Refugee from the Killing Fields Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind- Loung Ung, 2007

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After They Killed Our Father: A Refugee from the Killing Fields Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind is the second memoir from Cambodian-American author and activist Loung Ung, who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide as a child before resettling in the United States. Her first book, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers was first published in the USA in 2000 and became a national bestseller, earning the Asian/Pacific American Librarians’ Association’s award for ‘Excellence in Adult Non-fiction literature’ in 2001.  While her first memoir details her experiences in the Khmer Rouge killing fields from the age of five, a period in which Ung lost her mother, father and two of her sisters, her second is a coming-of-age story that follows the parallel upbringings of Ung and her sister Chou, who remained in Cambodia while Ung, the younger sibling, was taken to the United States. After They Killed Our Father follows the lives of Loung and Chou Ung from 1980 to 2003, with Loung’s story written in the first person and Chou’s in the third, and with consecutive chapters dedicated to each.

The two sisters, separated in 1980 at the ages of ten and twelve, were reunited fifteen years later in 1995 with Loung Ung’s first return to her native country. Since then, Ung had made over twenty journeys back to Cambodia before the publication of this book as a part of her work for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s landmine clearance campaigns. The time spent with her sister during these visits allowed Ung to hear Chou’s story from the time they had spent apart, and Ung was to translate her sister’s words from Khmer to English for the purpose of this memoir. The book was first published in the USA in 2005 with the title Lucky Child; this name rings true for Ung, whose new life granted her safety, comfort, education and independence, while her sister’s life in the village she lived in with an aunt and uncle was defined by housework, childcare and early marriage, leaving her no time to go to school. Despite her relative privilege, Ung recalls the acute loneliness and depression of her first years in Vermont, plagued with mourning for her deceased and distant relatives and her nightmares of the Khmer Rouge atrocities she had witnessed; such memories are painfully described and are incredibly moving.

This touching story highlights both the bravery of refugees such as Ung who fled Indochina in their millions following the communist takeovers of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975, as well as serving as an insight into the deep fractures that penetrate Cambodian society today as a result of the dark years of the country’s recent history. During the years of Khmer Rouge power between 1975 and 1979, between a fifth and a third of the population of Cambodia were wiped out, families were torn apart and the land remains littered with landmines from American bombing in the war preceding the communist takeover. Today, Loung Ung does valuable work to help to reconcile her native country’s turbulent past. Besides providing a strong voice on Cambodian issues through her writing, Ung serves as the national spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World and “has lectured widely at schools, universities and corporations on Cambodia, child soldiers, women and war, and landmines”.

After They Killed Our Father has not been a hugely useful read for the purpose of my project, primarily because there is little to learn from it about life in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Instead, the focus of this memoir is on the aftermath of the killing fields; the experiences of a refugee fleeing Cambodia and trying to come to terms with her identity in a foreign country, and of another who stays behind and lives in fear of attacks from the Khmer Rouge, who remained at large in Cambodia for many years following their ousting by a Vietnamese invasion. Having already read a very poignant memoir of survival in the killing fields, Denise Affonço’s To the End of Hell, and therefore having some understanding of the horrors endured by those who lived through those times, Ung’s second memoir provided me with a new perspective; that of the long-term impact that the raw tragedy of the Khmer Rouge era had on a family in the succeeding two decades. Yet despite the immense sense of pain and loss that pervades the lives of the Ung family as described by the author, Ung uses humour to good effect and has a very amiable character; in fact her own character is much better developed in her memoir than that of her passive and subservient sister Chou. There are several funny moments from Ung’s memories of learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture and overall, the book has an upbeat ending. Chou Ung seems to find peace in Cambodia, happiness with her large family and prosperity with the business she runs with her husband. Meanwhile, Loung Ung, the first person in her family to graduate from college, finally comes to terms with her dual identity after many years of struggling; after her first brave visit to Cambodia in 1995, the author found her spiritual home and now owns land in her sister’s village.

A family is reunited after a decade and a half spent apart, albeit not complete. And although their lives have become so significantly different due to their contrasting upbringings, the Ung sisters return to the closeness of their childhood years despite the bridges between them. For me, the most touching aspect of Ung’s story was her ability to re-connect with a culture that she tried so hard during her teenage years to shake off and to finally seem to find peace with who she is. And now, Ung is working to raise awareness of Cambodia’s traumas in the wider world. Luong Ung is evidently a strong character and an inspiring woman. The life experiences she shares in this memoir are both moving and eye-opening.