Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey

Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey

Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey

Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey


As a child growing up in Cambodia, Ronnie Yimsut played among the ruins of the Angkor Wat temples, surrounded by a close-knit community. As the Khmer Rouge gained power and began its genocidal reign of terror, his life became a nightmare. In this stunning memoir, Yimsut describes how, in the wake of death and destruction, he decides to live.

Escaping the turmoil of Cambodia, he makes a perilous journey through the jungle into Thailand, only to be sent to a notorious Thai prison. Fortunately, he is able to reach a refugee camp and ultimately migrate to the United States, where he attended the University of Oregon and became an influential leader in the community of Cambodian immigrants. Facing the Khmer Rouge shows Ronnie Yimsut's personal quest to rehabilitate himself, make a new life in America, and then return to Cambodia to help rebuild the land of his birth.


Ronnie Yimsut’s absorbing and passionate memoir deals with his life before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge era (1975–1979). It fits neatly into a genre of survivor narratives that have emerged from Cambodian authors since the 1970s, but it surpasses many of them in terms of its breadth of focus, its depth of feeling, and the clarity of its prose.

Like many narratives in the genre, Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey has an almost mythic three-part structure that might be labeled Idyll, Horror, and Recovery. Yimsut tells the story of a large, relatively prosperous, and happy Cambodian family that suffered horrendous losses under the Khmer Rouge. Several of them, including Yimsut’s mother, were brutally put to death before Yimsut fled the scene, found refuge in the United States, and eventually had the time and encouragement to write this book.

Ronnie Yimsut was born in 1961 into Cambodia’s small, predominantly urban middle class. His father was a provincial official and part-time schoolteacher in the town of Siem Reap. Because people in the middle class were the major beneficiaries of prerevolutionary Khmer society, they were singled out for harsh treatment by the (recovering bourgeois) leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

Most other writers of Cambodian survival narratives were also members of the middle class. Almost all of them hailed from Phnom Penh. They were thrown off balance in April 1975 by their exile to rural areas, where they were spurned by local people and proved largely inept at agricultural tasks. Yimsut, on the other hand, was raised in Siem Reap, which in the 1960s was still a smallish town. His semirural boyhood gave him skills (such as fishing and plant recognition) that made it slightly easier for him to cope with life under the Khmer Rouge than it was for urban refugees.

Where his narrative differs from many others and what makes it in more compelling, I believe, is that by waiting until 2011 to publish it, Yimsut has been able to place the trauma of his Khmer Rouge experiences into the larger pattern of his life and also alongside patterns in Cambodian history before and since.

The chapters that deal with his family’s ordeal are the most vivid, wrenching, and passionate in the book, but they are its centerpiece rather than its raison d’être. The book you’re about to read, in other words, is as much about . . .

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