I was honored to speak at City College of San Francisco, John Adams Campus, for APA Heritage Month. As part of the “East Meets West” Reading Series, I lectured and read from my newest novel, Dragon Chica on May 5, 2011.
Every reading at colleges that I’ve given for Dragon Chica has yielded new and important questions from the students. Today was no exception. One student who is himself originally from Cambodia stood up and asked, “Why did the Khmer Rouge kill?” He explained that he wanted to know what have scholars found out all these years later about why the Communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to the end of 1978 killed 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians.
The answer is not simple. And many scholars have debated what the motivations of the Khmer Rouge were. Here are some of the explanations: 1) at first the leadership wanted to eliminate anyone that they felt could threaten their hold over the people, so they wanted to kill anyone who was associated with the previous government and with America and thus possibly with the CIA. They also wanted to kill anyone who could become a leader or voice of dissent against their regime: so that meant killing anyone with an education (even a junior high education was considered dangerous), teachers, Buddhist monks and nuns, professionals like engineers or doctors, etc. Trained artists including singers, dancers, actors, poets, and musicians were also eventually considered a threat.
Since they had no way of knowing who was educated or not after they’d evacuated all the cities and forced everyone in Cambodia to move to work camps in the countryside, soldiers began to use arbitrary methods to determine if someone was educated: if that person wore eyeglasses, had soft hands, had a lighter complexion, if a person understood a foreign language (despite the fact that anyone living in a city might learn some foreign phrases, for example, as a street vendor or a pedicab cyclist), if a person could read and write, if a person used correct grammar when speaking, etc.
2) Secondly, the Khmer Rouge leaders claimed they wanted to re-make society and banish all “un-Cambodian” influences: so they targeted ethnic minorities such as the Cham Muslims, as well as “city people” whom they felt had absorbed influences from foreigners, including the French. As Cambodia had been a “protectorate” under French colonial rule in parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were many French influences in Cambodian cities–from Catholic cathedrals to pastries and other cuisine to the French lycées (high schools) to the pervasive way many French phrases had become part of the Cambodian language.
3) The Khmer Rouge became increasingly paranoid and began killing anyone they thought did not support them 100 percent and then they killed the family members. As a result entire families including babies were slaughtered.
4) Because the Khmer Rouge’s decision to return Cambodia to “Year Zero,” ending all city life, commerce and schooling, Cambodia went from a highly civilized, complex society to a land of primitive slave camps. Famine and illness resulted, killing even more people.
4) Finally, scholars have pointed out that the Khmer Rouge had been hardened during years and years of warfare. Even before they came to power, the Khmer Rouge recruited children and teenagers (many orphaned or displaced after American bombing raids and border fighting with Vietnam), and trained these young people to be obedient soldiers who would kill whomever their commanders deemed the Enemy.
I also showed a clip from the documentary “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” that explained Kissinger’s rationale for the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Cambodia was a neutral country up until 1969’s coup d’état. Technically speaking, President Nixon should have sought authorization from Congress before ordering bombing raids on Cambodia. He did not. Under Kissinger’s policy advice, Nixon ordered “Operation Menu” in which B-52s were sent to drop bombs on Vietnam but then mid-flight their coordinates were changed so that they instead dropped bombs over parts of Cambodia, code-named after menu items: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack. As a result, 3,630 bombing raids were flown over Cambodia during a 14-month period and an estimated 600,000 Cambodians were killed just during this short time period. (You can read the account by Christopher Hitchens in Harper’s Magazine by clicking on his name). Cambodian civil society was disrupted, people fled from their villages to the cities (straining resources and leading to much upheaval), and the Khmer Rouge–once a fringe group of about 10,000 members–was able to increase its ranks to 200,000 members by recruiting people and even children to fight against this mysterious “Enemy” who was dropping bombs from the sky on Cambodia.
As a result of the disruptions to Cambodian society, after the U.S. forces left Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge were able to take over the government and the country.
Some 150,000 Cambodians came to America as refugees in the 1980s, after having fled Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. Many lived in refugee camps for years, and some Cambodians were even born in refugee camps while their families awaited sponsorship to another country.
In Dragon Chica, I re-create the era when Cambodian refugees first began arriving in America in large numbers in the early 1980s. I want to bear witness to the many struggles Cambodians still faced as they learned to survive in the U.S.
I’m so happy that schools across America celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month so that the history of the many different Asians in America will not be lost and that opportunities for writers like me to speak with students exist.
(With CCSF librarian Maura Garcia and bookstore manager Eden Lee)
For more background information, check this previous blog posts and pdf:
Here are a few nonfiction, mostly academic books that provide some useful background on Cambodia:
David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996); J.-P. Dannaud’s Cambodge (Lausanne: Éditions Clairefontaine, 1956); Wilfred P. Deac’s Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1970-1975 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1997); Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger (NY: Verso, 2001); Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (NY: Harper Perennial, 2003); Dith Pran’s Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors (edited by Kim DePaul, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); William E. Willmott’s The Chinese in Cambodia (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1967).
(This list is far from comprehensive; it is meant simply to be one possible starting point for students who want to read more background.)