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“When Broken Glass Floats” Definition Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2021

What specific factors explain Him’s survival when so many others died? Consider her personal characteristics, accidental events, and the repeated theme in When Broken Glass Float of the resilience of basic elements of Cambodian culture.

When Broken Glass Floats” is a Cambodian proverb. This proverb refers to the time when “evil” conquers “good”. The events that took place in Cambodia starting from 1975 represented evil overcoming good. Him family had to move searching for safety. Death became a close companion for Him family and all the other people who were in the camps. There was no guarantee that anyone will make it alive. The life that everyone had become used to before suddenly came to an end (Him, pg 126).

People of Cambodia could no longer travel in cars or have electricity in their homes. Most parts of the capital city and around the countryside had been severely destroyed by the US bombing. Despite the terror, suffering, and demand of loyalty by Khmer Rouge regime from the people of Cambodia; Him’s family remained royal to each other. At the risk of their own lives, they brought the only little food that they could get to feed others in the camp. When the broken glass finally sinks in 1979, only five out of the twelve children of Him’s family survive (Him 145). Him’s children, who survived the massacre, are assisted by their uncle in Oregon as they start their life a flesh in a land that welcomes them. The love and honor in Him’s family enabled Chanrithy Him to survive (Him, pg 134).

“Chea, how come good doesn’t win over evil?” Chanrithy asks her sister after Khmer Rouge clutch Cambodia. Her sister Chea assured her that good always emerges the ultimate winner. She (Chea) says that when good and evil (broken glass) are thrown into the river of life, good first sinks and evil floats, but the broken glass does not float for long (Him, pg 114). Before this was fulfilled, her strong willed family of 12 had been torn apart.

Both her parents had been murdered, and five of her siblings died from starvation and/or diseases. As there was no food, people abandoned the spirit of community; every one started fighting for survival. Despite these challenges, the Hims family members who still remained alive remained loyal to one another. They made risky trips to different camps in search for food. They shared whatever little they had with other families in camps (Him, pg 68).

Chanrithy’s father was forced to dig his own grave by Khmer Rouge before being executed. Khmer Rouge considered anyone who was educated as a threat to the regime. Since Chanrithy’s father was an educated man, he was captured and killed with a hoe, after being forced to dig his own grave. After her father was murdered, her mother became the only person that Chanrithy and her siblings could look up to for support. All the children in the camps were forcefully sent to work far away in camps. They were not given enough food to eat. They suffered from various diseases due to lack of proper nutrition.

Chanrithy’s mother was later murdered as she (Chanrithy) watched. Her ailing mother was thrown into a well by the Khmer Rouge troops while still screaming mercy. After her mother’s death, Chanrithy had no one to rely on.

She hoped that her parents were alive to comfort her. “…I call out to Pa. To ease this pain. To stop my tears.To be my doctor. Or just to be here with me” (Him, pg 155). Due to the experience she underwent, Chanrithy learnt to rely only on herself and not trust anyone. When the other children are sent to search for food, Chanrithy’s youngest siblings, though too young to realize what the war was about, is left alone to feed himself. Chanrithy is surprised to find out that there are still remnants of humanity in people when their uncle helped them (the remaining Him family) settle in Oregon.

Chanrithy now studies medicine so as to honor the pledge she made to her late sister. “Chea, if I survive I will study medicine. I want to help I want to help people because I couldn’t help you. If I die I will learn medicine in my next life” (Him, 24). Chanrithy’s and her siblings were determined to survive. This acts as an inspiration to many. The experience they went through is an evidence of the human spirit strength and endurance. Chanrithy survived and triumphed some of the extremely atrocious violence imaginable. She symbolizes the quote in her book, “When good appears to lose, it is an opportunity to be patient and become like God” (Him, pg 226).

The title of the book, When Broken Glass Floats, is taken from a Cambodian proverb to mean when evil triumphs over good. Yet, there appears to be passive acceptance of the new political regime, especially in the early phases. What various tactics and forms of psychological allure did the government use and why were they successful (at least initially)?

When Lon Nol troops killed many Vietnamese in the country side, people felt that Lon Nol was their main enemy; the Cambodian people were determined to support any one they felt would save them from the atrocities they were going through. This led to people’s support in Khmer Rouge’s regime. This was because they (people of Cambodia) felt this might be their only rescue. This support contributed a lot in Khmer Rouge rise to power.

Support for Khmer Rouge rose even further, when US attacked Cambodia and bombed many areas in the countryside. When the US withdrew its forces after 30 days of massacre, Lon Nol forces were weakened. The Lon Nol forces were unable to participate effectively because Lon Nol himself had resigned to give a chance for peace talks. Ultimately the Lon Nol troops who were left behind were conquered by the combined forces of North Vietnam and Khmer Rouge. Cambodians were sacrificed after the withdrawal of the US troops and Lon Nol; they paid the ultimate price for this decision (Him, pg 198).

In 1973, North Vietnam focused more on their conflict with South Vietnam, this left Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge to pursue their doctrine ideologies. The Khmer Rouge ideologies were very different from the North Vietnam’s communist ideologies. The civil war in Cambodia favored the North Vietnamese because they had the support of Khmer Rouge (Kiernan, pg 27). The Chinese also supported Khmer Rouge regime by providing their military aid, in the fight against the new Republic. Through the Khmer Rouge ideologies, the ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and urban elites were able to prove their first main targets (Short, pg 98).

Khmer Rouge forces defeated Lon Nol army and took over Phnom Penh on April 1975. In this year, Khmer Rouge started their mission to seize the capital and the economy of the country. The Khmer Rouge took over the transportation systems and controlled the price of foods in the city. This situation was worsened by the fact that refugees from the countryside flooded the cities (Kiernan, pg 24). In an attempt to seek peace dialogue, Lon Nol, resigned and left the country of Cambodia. When the US troops left the city, they left without a notice to Lon Nol. The fate of the Cambodian people was left in the hands of Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge regime attacked the capital city. People were evacuated from the city and murdered. The Cambodian populace was driven from the city back to the countryside, in this process, thousands of Cambodians were killed. People were forced to work with no pay. Buddhist monks and other ethnic minorities were brutally murdered (Kiernan and Owen, pg 94).

Under the administration of the 17th president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, the US troops dropped 214 tons of bombs in Cambodian soil. The initial series of bombings were targeted on the boarders of Cambodia. “The wheel of time or change. The Khmer Rouge often used such terms to threaten us, to force us to follow their rules, …. If we didn’t follow their rules, the wheel of history would run over us” (Him, 14). This series was labeled by US commanders as Operation Menu, namely; Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Dinner, and Dessert. Pol Pot was able to seize control of the Khmer Rouge. This series of bombing stopped after the coup.

Khmer Rouge murdered all communists who were suspected of disloyalty especially those trained by North Vietnam. Pol Pot used the US bombing as an excuse to recruit his troops. These tactics led to the success of the Khmer Rouge political regime, especially in the early years. Many parts in the city and countryside had been destroyed by the US bombing. Many people were also killed. These factors made it easier for Khmer Rouge to come into power and overthrow Lon Nol. Lon Nol later resigned giving the Khmer Rouge more space to thrive (Him, pg 67).

The reason these tactics were successful is because. The people of Cambodia thought that Khmer Rouge was the regime that would end the bloodshed. This is because, initially, the Khmer Rouge was against the US bombing and Lon Nol. People thought that Khmer Rouge regime wanted peace for Cambodia. Instead, more people were murdered, and others starved to death as the Khmer Rouge took over power. Khmer Rouge troops seized the city and forced people out of the capital city into the countryside. During this process of forced evacuation, millions were murdered. About 150,000 Cambodian civilians were murdered before the US bombing was called to a halt (Cook and Chigas, pg 34).

Works Cited

Cook, Susan and Chigas, George. “Putting the Khmer Rouge on Trial.” Bangkok Post, 1999. A1. Print.

Him, Chanrithy. When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.; 2001. Print.

Kiernan, Ben.The Demography of Genocide: Cambodia and East Timor.” Critical Asian Studies, 2003. 35:4. Print.

Kiernan, Ben and Owen, Taylor. “Bombs over Cambodia.” The Walrus (Canada), 2006. pp. 62-6. Print.

Short, Philip. “Pol Pot.” Review in Times Higher Education Supplement, 2005. Print.

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