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Introductory Remarks for the Khmer Student Association event, 44 Years of Khmer Resilience, by KhSA President Ammara Touch

April 19, 2019

Tonight is a night for the Khmer community. I’m eternally grateful for the many of you who have come to stand in solidarity with the Khmer community, to learn and understand history that has been silenced. We’re here to remember April 17th, 1975–the day when the destruction of millions of lives was the price for a vision of a revolution that would fail. The day Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge communists, plunging the country into what would become four years of darkness, for a dream of returning to the golden ages of Angkor through an agrarian revolution.

For 1,460 days, our people slaved away in the fields for over 12 hours a day under all weather, given little more than a watery cup of rice gruel for fuel, forced to scavenge for sustenance whether it was roots or insects under the cover of darkness to avoid being punished, living at gunpoint every day. Families crumbled as partners, siblings, grandparents, and friends were taken away to re-education camps, never to be heard from again; children were taken to be soldiers of the revolution. It was a crime to be educated or affiliated with the old government—teachers, scholars, musicians, scientists, doctors, government officials, monks, and even individuals who wore glasses (associated with intellectuals)—were targeted and killed because of the “threat” from their knowledge (taint). Nearly two million people perished, including 90% of all Khmer artists whose craft disappeared with them. The only dancing displayed during those four years was the monotonous rite of back-breaking work, planting seedlings into the ground, or the frantic avoidance of bullets in crossfire. The only music heard was that of the revolutionary songs, meant to cover the crying and screams of the dying. It was a killing of the body, mind and soul. Despite all that, we are HERE. We are standing tall, smiling, laughing, loving, hoping, and always fighting for ourselves.

Photo by Erika Berg

As a daughter of genocide survivors, I have been fortunate to hear stories first hand. I have discovered a world replete with unimagined inhumanity, as well as a world of human resilience and compassion. And yet, as I began to understand the heavy burden that exists on the shoulders of our community, I questioned why there was no one who knew about it, no one who seemed to care. Why we were only given a mere four sentences in history textbooks, or not even taught at all. Why it wasn’t talked about. Why there was so much silence. How were there not more individuals my age who were angry about the atrocities our people went through? As I learned more, I came to realize the reasons for those silences and that there was more at stake in having this knowledge; it wasn’t just recognizing the trauma from those who survived, but the trauma of my own generation–children of survivors–who have to grasp/reconcile with the unimaginable suffering of our people and how that affects our own lives. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and to even start finding the very elusive answers we must look at history. So that then we can understand why only 14% of our youth make it into higher education, why our community suffers from disproportionate levels of poverty and unaddressed mental health in the form of PTSD, why the youth of today feel disconnected and culturally deficient. That’s why we’re gathered here—to know and remember, because there is power in knowledge, in knowing yourself, knowing history; there is power in memory, in visibility, in collective healing. And more importantly, we’re celebrating our resilience. We’re here, making space for us Khmer Americans to express our fortitude and show what we are made of. We are making space to ensure that we and the rest of the world never forget what happened to us.

To learn more about Khmer culture and support KhSA and the community, you are invited to attend UW KhSA’s 23rd annual Khmer New Year Show, held on Saturday April 27th, 2019 from 5pm-11pm in the UW Husky Union Building Ballroom (HUB 211).