I initially dismissed the TV ad from New Faces GOP that showed Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s face consumed by flames, graphic images of the Cambodian genocide and a comparison of AOC’s policies to those of the Khmer Rouge government. I didn’t want to give voice to a PAC and former Republican candidate who was willing to sell our painful history to benefit her political party.
But as the Cambodian genocide has shot into the national spotlight and discussion, it is difficult for me to remain quiet. I am the first Cambodian-American woman to be elected to any public office in this country. In addition to my public service as a park district commissioner in Skokie, Illinois, I am president of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago. What I have to say is my personal viewpoint, but I know that I’m not alone in asking that we not use our community’s painful history as a tool for personal gain.
This is not the first advertisement to depict graphic and sensationalized images of the Cambodian genocide and the atrocities that followed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The same woman who narrates the current spot used similarly disturbing images during her recent run for public office and had the audacity to challenge Facebook for blocking her sensationalized images, claiming it was a platform to tell her story.
Well, let me tell you our story. I am the daughter of Cambodian refugees, and I was born in the refugee camps in the aftermath of war and genocide. I am a living testament to the impact that war has on multiple generations, long after the survivors leave their home country. The journey of the refugee is never over; we are constantly navigating the dynamics of being accepted in our adopted home and understanding our relationship with our homeland.
We have lost loved ones; survivors recount the number of family members they have lost on their fingers when we meet one another. Our people have witnessed executions, endured starvation and forced labor. Some gave birth on dirt roads without medical care. Others lost children during childbirth or from malnutrition. An estimated 1.7 to 2 million people died—that’s nearly a quarter of the country’s population. And all of this happened within the last 44 years. The memories are alive and the wounds are still fresh. We are still haunted by nightmares of what we have seen and heard. And as the child of Cambodian survivors, I have witnessed how it has broken our spirits.
When the museum was founded, an interdisciplinary team came together to carefully curate the story of the Cambodian genocide. They wanted to be mindful of how the images would be received by the Cambodian community, and they took into consideration the fact that these images could trigger survivors of genocide and their descendants.
In contrast, the last week has seen images of the Cambodian genocide blasted all over TV news outlets and social media without regard for how they might impact those who have suffered PTSD, depression, and other mental illnesses as a result of war or other trauma. Would we depict images of rape so frankly and so freely?
The creators of the ad traded on pain to advance the political aims of the GOP via a superficial attempt to add color to the party. They joined hands with a woman of color to attack another woman of color, hoping to hide the misogyny and racism that fueled their vitriol. We need to think critically and engage in civil discourse. Not give voice to extremism. And this ad is extremism, deliberately crafted to evoke anger directed at AOC and the fear of socialism. It is an irrevocable and irresponsible message in an already hostile political climate, and a call for attention by a misguided woman trying to position herself to be the new non-White voice of the Republican Party.
No politician, regardless of ideology, should use the suffering of the Cambodian people for personal gain. Our people have suffered enough. Nearly 2 million people died in a period of four years, with little outcry from the international community. We have not forgotten and we will not be silenced.
Khemarey Khoeun is a first-generation immigrant, born in the refugee camps in the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide. She grew up in the United States, and her background is a driving force behind her work as an organizer. She formerly served on the board of directors for the Cambodian Association of Illinois and is currently president of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. In 2017, she became the first Cambodian American woman to be elected to any public office position in the U.S. She earned her BS in social work at Loyola University Chicago.
In response to recent events, a coalition of Cambodian American leaders have come together to push for a progressive Cambodian American platform. Follow the Khmer Leadership Alliance on Twitter @Khmer_KLA.