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Resilience of the Human Spirit: Luong Ung's Story of Survival, First They Killed My Father and Cambodian History  

Last Updated: Oct 19, 2010 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

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Essential Questions

  1. What does one person's story of survival have to do with me?
  2. How does a person's story affect my learning about history and my learning about myself?
  3. Why do people share their personal stories of survival?

Lesson Sequence

Lesson 1 Life Before the Khmer Rouge

  • Literature
  • Teach before students begin to read First They Killed My Father independently

Lesson 2 Contrasting Life Before and During the Khmer Rouge Takeover

  • Literature
  • Teach before students begin to read First They Killed My Father independently

Lesson 3 Impact of the Khmer Rouge Invasion on the People

  • History
  • Teach as students read first two "chunks" (pp.1-68). of First They Killed My Father

Lesson 4 Khmer Rouge's Objectives for the Evacuation of Phnom Penh

  • History
  • Teach as students read first two "chunks" (pp.1-68) of First They Killed My Father

Lesson 5 Impact of Khmer Rouge Period on Contemporary Cambodia and Luong Ung

  • Literature
  • Teach after students have read First They Killed My Father



Historical Background

The Great Ancient Khmer Civilization

The history of the Khmer people and their country, Cambodia, dates back 2,000 years. The apex of the Khmer civilization came during the Angkor Era between the 9th-14th centuries A.D. During this time, the Khmers maximized crop production by constructing a well-planned irrigation system, which supported large land areas under intensive cultivation (28, SarDesai). During the Middle Ages, the Khmers' rice production sustained a population of approximately 1,000,000 people, surpassing Medieval Paris, which sustained 600,000.

Because the Khmer economy was self-sustaining, energy and resources could be directed toward the development of the arts, culture, and architecture. The semi-divine Khmer kings expressed their power and authority through the construction of great temple compounds near the Tonle Sap, the center of the Khmer civilization. Angkor Wat, the Hindu temple, was constructed in the first part of the 12th century under Suryavarman II. Angkor Thom, the new capital city, was built to honor the reign of Cambodia’s first Buddhist king, Jayavarnum VII in the second part of the 12th century. Carved upon the walls of the temples were vestiges of every day life reflecting the hierarchical nature of Cambodian society, the celestial Apsara dancers, and the symbolic movement from the earthly world to the heavenly realm.

A number of factors led to the decline of the Khmer civilization. The Khmer economy could not sustain the ambitious building projects envisioned by its rulers. Food production suffered, and the population began to rebel. Constant fighting with Ciampa (current day Vietnam) competed with the maintenance of the life-sustaining hydraulic system. Finally, the population embraced Theryveda Buddhism, which rejected the divine right of kings. From the 14th-18th centuries, the Khmer civilization fell victim to successive incursions by the Siamese from the North and the Vietnamese from the South and East. Cambodia was under unrelenting siege.

In 1860, the Cambodian emperor requested that France establish a protectorate in Cambodia. At that time, Cambodia was sparsely populated, largely agricultural, and 80% Khmer. There was no educated middle class to speak of; literacy centered on Buddhism and was primarily expected of boys and men only. There was little development of Cambodia under French rule with one exception. The French focused on the Cambodian elite in Phnom Penh, opening French schools and sowing the seeds for the first generation of a Cambodian middle class. In 1953, King Sihanouk outmaneuvered his rivals and negotiated Cambodian independence from the French.

King Sihanouk's first tenure (1953 – 1970) was marked by his attempts to keep Cambodia out of the Second Indochina War (the "Vietnam War"). The war pitted the South Vietnamese supported first by the French and then by the U.S. against the North Vietnamese supported by China and the USSR. Despite Sihanouk's efforts, Cambodia became hostage to events in Vietnam (p. 193, Chandler). Sihanouk signed secret agreements with the North Vietnamese allowing them to transport war materials on the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the eastern edge of Cambodia as long as Cambodian sovereignty was respected. The lives of Cambodians worsened; Sihanouk's domestic policies failed to address the suffering of his people. In 1970, the secret deals were uncovered and Sihanouk was deposed.

Khmer Rouge

Lon Nol, a pro-American leader, was installed, and the civil war between the armed forces of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge began. The Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, had spent years planning their revolution first while in exile in Vietnam and later in the jungles of Cambodia. In 1970, the Khmer Rouge controlled 1/5 of Cambodia. Under the Lon Nol government, American bombing of Cambodia escalated, targeting the Ho Chi Minh Trail and later the Khmer Rouge bases. The bombing increased animosity toward the US-supported Lon Nol government. The Khmer Rouge saw this opportunity and moved to increase control over more and more of Cambodia. In 1975, Lon Nol fled the country and the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge's goals were to establish Khmer economic and political independence. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge wanted to free Cambodia from the controls of foreign countries such as China, Vietnam, and the U.S. They rejected traditional hierarchical Cambodian society and sought to establish a classless, agrarian society. Hearkening back to the greatness of Angkor, they believed that dedicating all human resources to the production of rice was an important first step to this independence. The Khmer Rouge emptied the capital, Phnom Penh, in April 1975 and forced three million urban dwellers into the Cambodian countryside.

The results of the 4-year Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia were devastating. Out of a population of 8 million, 1.5 - 2 million died from starvation, disease, and execution. Many Cambodians tried, often unsuccessfully, to hide their identities because the Khmer Rouge targeted groups of people such as non-ethnic Khmers, civil servants, and the educated. Khmer Rouge broke down other authority structures as well. They outlawed Buddhism and other religious practices and separated families. In late 1978, the Khmer Rouge's experiment in radical agrarian collectivism failed, ending with the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese army.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians became refugees, and Cambodia continued to suffer from intermittent civil war from 1979-1991. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, the U.S. alone admitted approximately 150,000 Cambodian refuges between 1975 - 1988. Many, many more spent years in refugee camps. In 1993, the refugee camps were closed and 370,000 Cambodians were repatriated.



All of the primary and secondary sources used in this unit of study are part of the body of survival literature created by the Cambodian diaspora. The pieces reflect both the endurance of Khmer individuals and Khmer culture under a long period of conflict. In Peter Kiang's work, he found that refugee stories of resilience were a focal point for "motivating forces for persistence" (234, Kiang) for Southeast Asian students facing the challenge of university studies. However, many of the adolescent Cambodian American students in Lowell's classrooms today do not know this story. Understandably, many of their parents or elders are not able to or choose not to share with their children the traumatic stories that caused their forced departure from Cambodia.

Students need to know where they come from, to know who they are and who they want to be. Approximately 40% of the students in the Lowell Public Schools are Cambodian; they are children of the waves of refuges dating back two decades. This unit of study is organized around the concept of survival. Adolescent students are not typically inspired by dates, timelines, and places; they want to know the human story. Luong Ung's memoir acts as a catalyst for student questioning and motivation. Questions generated from the literature serve as the focus for the exploration of Cambodian history.

This unit of study is the collaborative work of a literacy specialist and an 8th grade teacher of history. It incorporates lessons from the domains of language arts and history. This unit is appropriate for the English language arts classroom, the history classroom, or collaborative work between the professionals in these two settings. The lessons detailed here do not reflect every learning experience that students had during this unit of study. They do, however, reflect essential content or skills that the students need to apply during their independent reading to making meaning from the variety of primary and secondary sources that they will encounter.

Critical to this unit of study is explicit modeling of reading strategies including questioning, inferring, and synthesizing information from a variety of sources. Lessons plans in both the ELA and history domains follow the guided release of responsibility model (explicit modeling, guided practice, and release for independent practice). This model provides scaffolding to students as they as they learn how to be strategic readers of literature, informational text, and primary sources.


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