What to read about the Khmer Rouge
Chief Khmer Rouge executioner "Duch" faces a jail sentence. Which books best dissect the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime?
The Khmer Rouge is blamed for the deaths of 2 million people during its 1975-79 rule of Cambodia. Today, the regime's chief executioner, Kaing Guek Eav – better known as “Duch” – was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity by a UN-backed war crimes tribunal.
Even as debate swirls as to whether the sentence was sufficiently harsh (the 67-year-old Duch was sentenced to 19 years in prison, too short a term for the likes of many Cambodians who point to the horrors of the S-21 prison that Duch oversaw and where as many as 17,000 prisoners were tortured and killed), public interest in this horrific chapter of human history is on the rise.
What are the best books on the topic? There are many, including a number of harrowing accounts by journalists and memoirs by survivors. Here are a handful of strong titles that make a good place to start:
1. "The Lost Executioner," by Nic Dunlop. This 2006 book is one of the reasons that Duch is now standing trial. In the 1990s, Irish photographer-journalist Nic Dunlop, who was working in Cambodia, set off on a quest to both understand the Cambodian genocide and to find Duch. Not only does Dunlop succeed in tracking down his prey, but he also puts together a powerful account of Cambodia's history, both ancient and more recent, to help readers better understand the horrific events of the 1970s.
2. "When the War Was Over," by Elizabeth Becker. This 1986 book by Washington Post journalist Elizabeth Becker weaves together seemingly disparate strands from Cambodia's past and shows how they combined to help create the terror of the Khmer Rouge. According to a Monitor reviewer, "Theravada Buddhism, animism, Cambodia's god-kings, the kingdom of Siam, French colonial administrators, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Vietnam, the United States, and the Cambodian people themselves all figure in the complicated, dialectical web" that contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
3. "When Broken Glass Floats," by Chanrithy Him. Chanrithy Kim was born in Cambodia in 1965. When she was 10, the Khmer Rouge came to power and she was one of the few members of her family to survive the regime's labor camps. Kim's account of her life is harrowing but also illuminating.
4. "First They Killed My Father," by Loung Ung. This book has been called "The Diary of Anne Frank" of Cambodia. Loung Ung was only 5 when the Khmer Rouge swept her father – a high-ranking government official – from power and caused her family to flee. Four years later, when the country was liberated, Ung – no longer a child although she was still only 9 – was being trained as a soldier. Her story – told at a remove of two decades – is also a remarkable tale of the resilience of the human spirit.
5. "Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land" by Henry Kamm. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Henry Kamm takes readers through more than 30 years of Cambodian history, from 1970 to the present. As Southeast Asia reporter for The New York Times, Kamm gained extraordinary access and insight into the nation and culture that he covered.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.