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.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Book review- Tragic Mountains

Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992
Jane Hamilton-Merritt, 1993

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Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 is the culmination of fourteen years of experience and research of the Indochina Wars from journalist, war correspondent, photographer and human rights activist Dr Jane Hamilton-Merritt. Since the 1960s, Hamilton-Merritt has covered war in Indochina and its aftermath, taking a particular interest in the role of the Hmong, an ethnic minority group that live in highland areas of Laos and Vietnam. 

The Hmong are a four thousand year-old culture that originates in southern China, but which extended southwards to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in a mass migration to escape Chinese persecution in the eighteenth century. During the Vietnam War- more accurately described as the Second Indochina War- thousands of Hmong were recruited by the CIA to assist and rescue American soldiers as a part of the USA’s covert operations in Laos to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh supply trail and to counter insurgency by the communist Pathet Lao. Promised by the Americans that with their help the communists would be defeated, the Hmong, led by General Vang Pao and in many cases trained to become pilots through US and Thai support, became loyal and fearless allies of the United States. However, the Nixon administration’s inauspicious negotiated peace settlement of 1972 left the doors open for rolling communist victory across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975, without allowing proper provisions to defend their allies in Laos, the Hmong.

Kaysone Phomvihane’s Pathet Lao came to power in Laos with an open declaration to “wipe out” the reactionary Hmong who had fought alongside the Americans for decades. The United States Government’s shameful abandonment of their former allies is detailed harrowingly by Hamilton-Merritt, who became a voice for the refugee Hmong community in Thailand that grew as Hmong fled their homeland in fear of persecution. The author, who shows immense respect and sympathy for the plight of the Hmong, worked for the US State Department as Expert Consultant on Highland Lao Refugees in the 1980s and has several times testified before US congress on issues regarding refugees, human rights abuses and genocide in Asia. Furthermore, she has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the Hmong, in 1988 and 2000. 

At over five hundred pages, this edition does justice to the many years of dedicated research that went into it. Personally, I found myself losing interest in the details of military operations throughout the American war in Laos, a focus that takes up much of the middle part of the book. Where Hamilton-Merritt’s work really comes into its own is in the explanation of events after the American withdrawal and communist takeover; when Laos became one of the world’s most secretive totalitarian states. “Extinct Destruction Operations”, a genocidal campaign by the newly-formed Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) to eliminate the Hmong minority, passed almost totally ignored or denied by the international media. The most startling element of this came in the reports from Lao Hmong who had escaped to Thailand of poisonous rains dropped over Hmong settlements in their home country, causing acute sickness and death to those infected by it. The theory that the Soviet Union had been violating the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in providing the LPDR with chemical weapons to attack the Hmong- later discovered to be true- was denounced by the US government and international media, who preferred the explanation of scientist and politician Matthew Meselson that the ‘yellow rain’ reported by the Hmong was in fact bee faeces. Hamilton-Merritt’s dynamic journalistic skill allows that the wider issues pushing US policy- in this case, the Carter administration’s wish to pursue better relations with the Soviet Union- are examined as closely as the individual cases of Hmong families, to which the author applies great care and interest. This allows the reader a broad understanding of the context of US policy decisions, as well as a deeper appreciation of the impact these decisions had on Hmong lives. 

The USA’s ‘secret war’ in Laos is not widely known of, a consequence of the reticence that surrounded American actions in Laos at the time and for years following the end of the war. Even less understood is the role played by the Hmong as allies of the USA, and the horrifying consequences this kinship brought. The first edition of Tragic Mountains was published in 1993; in the 1999 edition, Hamilton-Merritt’s introduction describes the moment, on 15th May 1997, when the Hmong contribution to the USA’s anti-communist fight in Indochina was finally given official recognition by members of Congress, at a procession of three thousand Hmong and Lao veterans who served under General Vang Pao. Nonetheless, Hamilton-Merritt wrote in 1999, “it is true that the identity of the Hmong people is not yet established among all US policymakers, and that the American public remains largely uninformed [about the role of the Hmong in supporting the USA in Laos]”. 

Ban Vinai was the largest Hmong refugee camp in Thailand, accommodating the thousands of Hmong who fled over the ‘Berlin Wall’ of the Mekong River that marks the border between Laos and Thailand. Following a programme agreed by Thailand, Laos and the USA in regards to these refugees, Hmong in Ban Vinai began to be forcibly repatriated to Laos without proper security measures in place to ensure that they would not automatically be pushed into ‘seminar’ forced labour camps. As recently as 2010, TIME magazine reported on the fears of Hmong refugees still living in Thailand of being forcibly returned to Laos, where sporadic insurgency by Hmong groups against the communist government has been ongoing. 

Tragic Mountains is highly commendable for its comprehensive analysis of the Hmong-CIA relationship and its terrible consequences for the Lao Hmong. I did not learn as much about Hmong society from Hamilton-Merritt’s work as I did from The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, another book written by a woman with many years of experience of the Hmong; however, it provides sufficient information on the Hmong lifestyle, character and history for an understanding of how and why this group became involved in the CIA’s covert operations and the impact this has had. Reading Tragic Mountains has significantly developed my understanding of the recent history of Laos and has opened my eyes to a shocking and shameful element of the Indochina War- the abuse and betrayal of America’s former allies, the Hmong- that continues to be overlooked and uncompensated.