The End of the World
There is a crying in the world
As if the good God were dead,
And the descending, leaden shadow
Like a tomb, oppressing.
—Else Lasker-Schüler (translated by Charlotte Kahn)
What do socialists and feminists have in common when it comes to childrearing? Both theorize about the abolition of family and both believe that children, starting at the age of five or six, should be taken away from their families, either to be raised by the state communally or sent to the wilderness. In practice, this theory proves dystopic rather than utopic.
In The Last One, Marin R. Yann, who is one of the children of the killing fields of Cambodia, finds himself thrust into the cruelty of the wilderness, communist groups, and various adopted families, after the state has killed and worked his own family members to death. He is the only surviving member of his family; hence, he is “The Last One.”
Marin is barely five years old when the Cambodian communists, known as the Khmer Rouge, storm into the cities in their trucks and by foot on that scalding month of April 17, 1975, with their fatal countenances and deadly rifles in tow. His family, from the hometown of Ta Khmao, consists of his father, mother, older sister, younger brother, and him. During the early stage when the communists empty the population into the countryside to work, live, and build an agrarian society, his baby brother dies in his mother’s arms due to lack of breast milk and food. At their next shabby hut in another village, Angkar (The Organization) sends his older sister to live and work in a group consisting of teenage girls and his parents to work the land. Not long thereafter, while resting one evening at home, a few communist men, with their rifles, come to call upon his father to help dig a canal far away. While his parents realize this as an arrest and ultimately an execution, Marin does not know it. Heartbreak, overexertion from work, and lack of water, food, and cleanliness take a toll on his mother’s health. She decides to check herself into the infirmary. Before they get there, they have to cross the flooded rice paddies. She does not have the strength to carry Marin, so she encourages him to cross on his own. The water is waist-deep and its strong current knocks him down. He nearly drowns and cries for her to help him. She musters every ounce of her strength to save him. After several days in the infirmary, she dies.
Now having no mother or father, and not knowing where his sister is, he is left to survive by the life skills his father taught him, before the communist soldiers come to take him away. In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone writes, “The family structure is the source of psychological, economic, and political oppression.” However, such oppression is exactly what happens when children, like Marin, are taken away from their family structure to be brainwashed and to serve the state to their own detriment. They are not educated but trained by force to work. They are constantly instilled with the fear of bodily harm, if they don’t do what they are told. They suffer all kinds of abuses and oppression, mentally and physically. Moreover, they are deprived of sufficient food to keep up with the ruthless and demanding labor required of them. This is what happens when you have a society ruled by the uneducated who are pressured to meet the insane demands of the higher-ups. Their unrestrained aggression goes unchecked and as a result, they enforce sadistic oppression against their countrymen.
After his mother’s death, Marin is on his own until he briefly meets his sister, and soon thereafter, is put into different groups where he suffers mental and physical tortures from the hard-core enforcers of Angkar. He befriends members of the Khmer Rouge: one is nice and two are cruel to him. He almost gets killed because of the latter. In fact, he is almost on the brink of death many times due to starvation and the belligerent nature of the many people who are trapped in this brutal social order. Socialists criticize capitalist society for deceiving people by false choices to believe they are exercising autonomy when in fact, things have already been decided for them via the “delusional consumer choice of marketing and advertising.” In this book socialism and communism, however, commit worse atrocities, instilling fear and propaganda, and enforcing grueling hard work to serve Angkar, day and night, with little rest, food, or water, no matter how sick and starved the people are. People are not even allowed to think for themselves. If they do, they are considered enemies of the state.
At the tender age of five and six, Marin witnesses brutal treatment and execution of regular people and prisoners. The communists viciously beat and choke him near death, too. Marin’s life goes from one atrocity to another, until the communist Vietnamese invade the country in 1979. He then witnesses their brutality against the Khmers and he too, suffers brutality living with his adoptive families. When he escapes to the refugee camps in Thailand, he witnesses rapes of young girls, robbing, and beating of the refugees by barbaric Thai soldiers. One of the Thai soldiers, well known for his brutality against the refugees, viciously beats Marin, too. At this young age, he sees that the Thai soldiers are no different from the Khmer Rouge. It is heart-wrenching to read about children who are affected by war, ideological revolution, forced relocation, torture, and harassment. Marin lives through all of these things. Disappointed in the adults as well as gods or a higher being, Marin wants to kill himself many times, but his will to live is just as strong.
Though this book lacks the literary prose to compete with conventional books, it stands on its own as the raw footage of Khmer history, where a young child witnesses the brutal crimes of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese invasions, and the criminal impunity of Thai soldiers who are equally brutal, vicious, and barbaric against the refugees.
Thankfully, the Filipino people and authorities prove more tolerant of Khmer refugees, a sentiment shared by many people who were temporarily placed in the Philippines in transit to the United States of America.