Katya Cengel is a freelance writer based in San Luis Obispo, California, and lectures in the Journalism Department of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She was a features and news writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal from 2003 to 2011 and has reported from North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Her work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Marie Claire, and Newsweek. She is the author of Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life (Nebraska, 2012). Her latest book is Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back (Potomac Books, 2018).
As we celebrate Asian Pacific Heritage Month I am reminded of the difficult history Cambodians have faced—and continue to face. This history is reflected in individual stories and in the community story. It is a story that continues today in the United States but in part began following U.S. actions in Indochina.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of the brutal Khmer Rogue regime. During their rule from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rogue managed to eliminate 20 to 25 percent of the Cambodian population or two million people. Under the leadership of Pol Pot they initiated a dramatic remake of the country, emptying the cities and forcing people to work on collective farms. Former government workers, educated members of society, doctors, teachers and other “enemies” of the people were executed. Others died of disease and starvation. Survivors sometimes refer to the time simply as the “Pol Pot years”. What many don’t mention is that before Pol Pot the United States bombed Cambodia for four years beginning in 1965. The bombing contributed to the unrest that led to the rise of the Khmer Rogue.
The legacy of trauma does not end in 1979 when the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rogue. For years the Khmer Rogue remained a threat. They hid in the jungle and in plain sight in refugee camps in Thailand. Some even made it to the U.S., resettled amongst the 158,000 Cambodian refugees who came at the tail end of the last century. As a group, the Cambodians were never safe. The traumas they continued to experience in their new homeland were exacerbated by the trauma they had already endured. Resettled in violent inner cities at the height of the war on drugs, they became victims of crime and some began to commit crimes.
In my book Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back I follow four Cambodian families from the genocide in Cambodia to resettlement in the U.S. to the threat of their return via deportation to Cambodia. Every family experienced starvation and extreme physical and mental abuse under the Khmer Rogue. None made it out intact and in the U.S. the trauma continued. A genocide survivor and mother of five in Oakland, California lost her husband to deportation and her oldest son to murder. Her second son is serving a life sentence after committing murder in retaliation for his brother’s murder. A third son died of leukemia and a fourth son is in youth detention. Only the youngest child, a girl, is still in school. The trauma and tragedy seems extreme and yet almost every family I followed had similar stories.
As the U.S. pursues a punitive immigration policy that allows legal permanent residents to be deported for crimes only considered felonies under immigration law the trauma continues. Parents who gave up everything to bring their children to safety in the U.S. now face having those now adult children taken from them once again. The Khmer Rogue was expert at separating families. The U.S. is continuing the practice. Almost every Cambodian American who is deported leaves behind parents and often children who may well never see them again due to the cost and distance of traveling to Cambodia.
This is part of the Cambodian American heritage, but it doesn’t have to continue. The future could be different. Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, Asian Law Caucus and other groups are now fighting to change the 1990s era laws that make the deportations possible and to pardon some of those facing deportation.
This month it is time to remember the Cambodian American heritage and the role the U.S. played in it. It’s also time to think about the story that will be told during future Asian Pacific Heritage Months.