Cambodian Refugees Who Never Leave the Past Behind

Peter Gutter

It is surprising how little has been published by Cambodian scholars about the effects of the Cold War on Cambodia. Until the publication of this book, there were only five other scholars from Cambodia or of Cambodian descent who had written about this, namely Boreth Ly, Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Eric Tang, Krisna Uk, and Khatharya Um. Refugee Lifeworlds by Y-Dang Troeung is therefore a welcome addition.

Refugee archive

With this book, the author has compiled an impressive refugee archive depicting the politics of refusal of state violence. Refugee lives have all too often been viewed as little more than collateral damage caused by imperialist warfare and global capitalism. Y-Dang Troeung—a child of Cambodian refugees herself, her name even being derived from that of the refugee camp where she was born in 1980—is not comfortable with scholarly approaches that describe refugees as persons who come into being only upon entering the asylum state. That is why she has chosen in this book to leave the path of conventional scholarly writing, which she considers too “distanced” and “objective” to do justice to the unspeakable suffering of many refugees. Instead, she experiments with a method of autotheory, interfusing autobiography, textual analysis and critical theory. She skillfully connects the autobiographical self with both theory and experiences of gender, race, colonialism, refuge-seeking, survival and family inheritance as sources of knowledge. The result is a highly readable and interesting book.



The book has a clear and logical structure, and consists of an introduction followed by four chapters and a coda. A chronological structure unfolds throughout the book as it gives an account of the Cold War in Cambodia. Troeung first describes the U.S. bombing of Cambodia (1965-1975), followed by an account of the Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979) and the history of Cambodian refugee settlement (1979 until today). Intertwined through this structure is a spatial movement which tracks the transpacific migration of Cambodian refugees.

In the Introduction, Troeung describes the devastating influence of Cold War transpacific militarism and its horrendous impact, that is to say, the damage the United States inflicted on Cambodia through air warfare, carpet bombing, injury, proxy war, killing and maiming. In the chapters that follow, Troeung develops her theory of refugee lifeworlds from different perspectives by highlighting specific aspects of critical disability studies in the analysis of the Cambodian refugee archive, namely through the concepts of cripistemology, debility and aphasia.

Chapter 1 examines the various racial fantasies of Cambodia that have existed from French colonial times to the present day. Chapter 2 describes the relationship between disability and refugee life resulting from the U.S. secret war in Cambodia. Chapter 3 explores the Khmer proverb of dam-doeun-kor (“to plant a kapok tree”) as a Cambodian theory of knowledge pertaining to disability and emotional resistance. The kapok tree has a lot of meaning for Khmer people, both literally and figuratively. Kapok trees are strong and silent, providing shade around Cambodian homes. Symbolically, the Khmer kapok tree proverb means “see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing”, which was actually the only way to survive the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Troeung reconceptualizes the kapok tree to symbolize the Cambodian people’s quiet forms of rebellion during the genocide, i.e. resistance through silence. In the end, silence seemed the only place people could retreat to, and many Cambodians experienced such horrible things that they eventually fell into a state of aphasia. In Chapter 4, Troeung elaborates on this by considering the aphasic inflection of Cambodian refugees, but she also recognizes that it is not easy to see how the cripistemologies of the kapok tree and aphasia differ or where they overlap.


Cambodia’s trauma

The author describes in great detail how the problems for many Cambodian refugees were not over once they arrived in their asylum country. On the contrary, for many, the mental problems really started then. The atrocities they had endured in Cambodia were so gruesome that they were either impossible to talk about or not believed or understood. Troeung explains how the role of the refugees also silenced them in a way. Gratitude was expected from them, leaving no room for trauma. After all, weren’t they the “lucky ones” who had made it out of Cambodia alive?

Yet the new climate, the language barrier, the painful memories of dead relatives and friends, the feelings of isolation and loneliness, the prejudice in Canada and the United States against people of Asian descent, the constant threat of deportation, and the not-so-pleasant work they were essentially forced to do, made many refugees feel more helpless and uprooted than ever before. Sadly, the afterlife of the Cold War was all too often like that for the refugees who had survived the tragedy of the “Killing Fields”. Hence the afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia turns out to be no afterlife at all. Even more painful is that, according to Troeung, the United States was the direct cause of all that misery. In this book she does away with the myth that Cambodia’s trauma was culturally endemic, anomalous, and foreseeable. She repositions Cambodia within the broader context of the Cold War, reassessing issues of international responsibility and complicity that involve everyone.


A touching book

I find the many passages in which the author lovingly talks about her parents, who are themselves refugees, very touching. In my opinion, that also makes the book extra valuable, as it gives the reader an insight into the lives and thoughts of Cambodian refugees (see for example p. 108). Overall, I must say that this book is beautifully written.

Although Refugee Lifeworlds has a handy index and 36 pages with carefully composed endnotes, the book does not contain an alphabetical bibliography, which can make it difficult to find literature afterwards. The publisher has categorized this book under Asian Studies / Asian American Studies / Immigration / History / Disability Studies, but it is equally useful for those interested in Refugee Studies, Trauma Psychology and Memory Studies.

I would have liked to further discuss this book with the author. But when I tried to get her contact information through the University of British Columbia where she worked, I was saddened to learn that she passed away in 2022. This is a great loss. Y-Dang Troeung could so beautifully describe complex aspects from Cambodian culture, that I would have loved to read more from her. In any case, with this book she has bequeathed to us a wealth of information about the afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia.