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The Khmer Rouge: The Cambodian Genocide Behind First They Killed My Father

Basic Info

From a privileged child to an orphan trained to be a soldier, this movie follows the life of a 7-year-old girl named Loung Ung under the oppressive Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. At the center of the movie is a close family, torn apart by the depths of human evil.


Story Chapters


Summary (No Spoilers)

This movie takes place shortly after the American invasion of Vietnam in 1975. Cambodia is a country bordering Vietnam, and the violence caused by the nearby Vietnam War has resulted in the communist rebel Khmer Rouge army overthrowing the government.

loung from first they killed my father looking up into the night

The film is seen through the eyes of a 7-year-old named Loung. Her father is a soldier in the current government and is immediately threatened when Khmer Rouge rebels take the capital city, Phnom Penh.

cambodians evacuating the capital of phnom penh in first they killed my father

Shortly after taking the city, the rebels force the city to be evacuated because of an incoming American bombing. This forces Loung’s family to walk miles with other evacuees down the roads leading out of the city. Loung’s father knows they will never be going back and destroys anything identifying him as a former soldier. And Loung’s father is right, they never do return to their home. Loung and her family are forced into a work camp, are yelled at for being corrupted by Western vanity, and are told to dye all their clothes to be like everyone else. Soon the family is separated, and Loung’s mother makes her remaining 3 children flee in different directions. Loung winds up being trained to be a child soldier, learning how to plant mines, set traps, and shoot guns.

loung trains as a khmer rouge soldier in first they killed my father

The Background of First They Killed My Father

a map of the vietnam war

Cambodia, a neutral country bordering Vietnam, had been allowing North Vietnam to supply forces in the south by entering their country in the Vietnam War. This led to tension between Cambodia, Vietnam, and the United States.

Earlier in the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge began their rebel movement in the countryside of Cambodia. Despite making territory gains, the Khmer Rouge was still unpopular with the city people. Until the Prince of Cambodia was overthrown and replaced by a right-wing government. The left-wing, communist Khmer Rouge allied with the overthrown prince to gain the support of the city people.

Falling support for the right-wing government of Marshall Lon Nol and years of fighting the Khmer Rouge, led to the Khmer Rouge finally capturing the capital city of Phnom Penh. That’s when the beginning of the movie takes place.

The Khmer Rouge never gave power back to the Prince, and power was passed to the now-infamous Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge would go on to upend Cambodia, renaming it Kampuchea. They believed that wealth, property, and religion ruin society, and needed to be destroyed. So, they attempted to turn Cambodia into a farming society.

The Khmer Rouge deported people from the cities to the country and targeted intellectuals, teachers, people who could speak another language, and people who just wore glasses. Middle-class people were also targeted. Pol Pot’s new model of tribal farms caused many to starve, adding more bodies to the already executed.

a wall of skulls made out of the people who died during the khmer rouge

The Khmer Rouge regime would only end four years later in 1979. Pol Pot feared an invasion by Vietnam, which had recently united after the Vietnam War. So, he sent soldiers to raid the border villages, which obviously provoked a war with Vietnam. After years of bloody, pointless oppression, the Khmer Rouge was finally ousted from power when Vietnam successfully invaded and captured Phnom Penh.

Vietnamese soldiers and tanks march into phnom pehn

HEADS UP: There are spoilers past this point!


5 Takeaways From First They Killed My Father

1. There Are Forgotten Genocides

So many people know about Hitler and the Holocaust, but how many remember the Armenian Genocide or, in this case, the Khmer Rouge?

Around 2 million Cambodians were killed through execution, starvation, or war brought about by the Khmer Rouge. Despite this, the Khmer Rouge is almost forgotten by most people.

2. Don’t Believe Everything You Hear<