Anglungthmor: July 1975 

The representatives for their new village, Anglungthmor, lead the family up the mountains. The walk takes the entire day and, when they arrive, they are assigned a new hut and given instructions about their daily labor. They join many other new families in the village. Pa, Meng, and Khouy labor to the point of exhaustion every day, but no matter how much rice they plant, there is less food with each passing day. The brothers augment the family’s food by fishing and foraging, but there is not enough. Everyone is always hungry. The annual rains are particularly intense, drowning animals. The children catch frogs and grasshoppers and, during a strong storm, they scoop up drowned rabbits. The rains make food even scarcer and Pa decides that they need to leave. Ma’s Chinese heritage makes her easy to label as a threat to the Angkar, and the Khmer Rouge executes such people. They depart early one morning and now Luong no longer asks questions. A truck takes them to Leak and, during the trip, she observes how gaunt Geak has become. 

Ro Leap: November 1975 

Seven months have elapsed as the family enters Ro Leap, where they are met with hostility from the villagers. Much of this chapter provides an overview of the political and societal priorities of the Angkar and its soldiers, the Khmer Rouge. The people who lived in the village before the revolution are called “base people,” and the Angkar values them because they are not corrupted by western ideas. The base people will train new people like the Ung family until they become worthy of being called Khmer. Western corruption takes many forms, all of which the Khmer Rouge associates with capitalism. Science and mechanical objects are outlawed, as are ways for the rich to gain power over the poor and destroy Cambodian culture. Soldiers confiscate all colorful clothes and burn them because they believe bright colors corrupt the mind. Because the Khmer Rouge idealizes universal equality, everyone must wear the same uniform, black pants and shirts with a red scarf or sash. Education and modern machinery are forbidden. The goal is to establish an ideal farming society like the ancient Khmer empire. 

Despite their claims of equality, members of the Khmer Rouge are at the top of the social hierarchy. To Luong, they seem all powerful, and can teach, judge, punish, and execute others at will. Beneath them are the base people, who do not have to eat communally or work with the new arrivals. Although supposedly all food will be shared, the base people eat better than the new arrivals. As Luong angrily notes, her family lives and works like slaves. As the family settles in, Kim, the “little monkey,” is selected to spend time with the chief’s children. They mistreat him but they also give him their leftover food, which the Ung family desperately needs. 


One of the narrative challenges for Ung in writing First They Killed My Father is presenting different periods of time as distinct. Some disasters, like hurricanes or mass shootings, are major events and stand out against the daily monotony. Other tragedies, like starvation and disease, take more time and become part of everyday life. Both of these negative occurrences bring tragedy in their wake, but the former are easier to see and understand. In these cases, a tragedy strikes and claims victims, then the survivors react. With a famine, however, there is no single moment when tragedy strikes, which is why Luong’s constant grinding hunger also blends into the background of her existence. This makes it very difficult for an author like Ung to describe these slow-moving tragedies while keeping readers engaged. In these chapters, the newness of the  

In First They Killed My Father, Ung uses a child’s perspective as a way to mark change. As Luong comes to terms with her situation, she focuses on small details, like catching frogs or drowned rabbits. She becomes accustomed to the uncertainty in her world and this changes the way she thinks. For example, readers might expect a child to play with frogs and rabbits, but the idea that she does so in order to eat them takes something familiar and makes it terrible. These moments show how Luong’s character is developing, and they break the monotony by creating interest. Importantly, the book never shies away from the fact that starvation is monotonous, which is part of its horror. There is no escape. 

Luong engages little with political ideology, but in these chapters she considers different concepts of equality. The Angkar claim that equality is the primary goal of their rule, but even five-year-old Luong recognizes that the society created by the Khmer Rouge is unequal and unjust. At an orientation at Ro Leap, the Ungs are taught the rules that will govern their lives. The Angkar aims to erase the social hierarchies that characterized Cambodia before the fall of the Lon Nol government, but even Luong notices how the old and new social structures collide when family arrives in Ro Leap. When the villagers spit at the Ungs and call them capitalists, the reader understands that the old social hierarchy has been turned upside-down. The Khmer Rouge is willing to accept prejudice, radical inequality, and political violence because they claim it will lead to future equality. This is a common phenomenon in periods of revolution, such as the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, where a new regime reverses the social hierarchy in order to secure equality.  

Ung’s use of the child’s perspective emphasizes how arbitrary the new social hierarchy can feel. When the family gets off the truck, Luong wonders how the villagers immediately recognize that they are different. She thinks that her family and the villagers look very similar, although their black clothing and red scarves establish the villagers as the dominant group. Based on their non-uniform clothing, the Ungs are clearly outsiders and considered deviant. New arrivals to the village are immediately stripped of their individual identities and of clothing that is connected to pre-Angkar life. As the village chief burns their clothing, he tells them that everyone in Ro Leap is the same, but this only applies to outward appearances. As the new people in the village are enslaved and prevented from speaking to one another, the social groups above them more easily see them as drones that lack any individual identity. As the Ung family becomes more desperate, they even stop communicating with one another for fear of being overheard and punished. They give up part of their humanity in order to survive.