Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna from Drawn+Quarterly presents an especially poignant view of the Khmer Rouge by showing it through human eyes. Rather than giving a historical synopsis on political factions, Veasna’s story is told through the people who survived the nightmare that killed nearly two million people. As a number, this is staggering, but seeing the lives being lived adds to the haunting realism of one of the greatest tragedies in human history.
Veasna drafted Year of the Rabbit through interviews with family beginning in 1975 with the Khmer Rouge seizing Phnom Penh to the regime’s overthrow by the Vietnamese in 1979 and their adoptions of new lives abroad. There is the exception of his Aunt Chenda, whom Veasna describes in the denouement as having such pain in her loss that “she doesn’t want to hear about Cambodia anymore,” instead becoming fully Canadian with Country music and TV.
Adding together the details of the other survivors and historical context, Veasna begins the story with a doctor, soon to be his father upon Tian’s birth, rummaging through hospital cupboards to what supplies he would need for a baby’s delivery. He drives through a city where some crowds cheer the military parading through the streets and impromptu checkpoints with armed men trying to maintain some sort of order.
The family, being well off and thus enemies of the regime that wishes to put everyone on the footing of small farmers, flees the city. They carry valuables, though they have to hide them. Pricey watches and jewelry become items for trade and bribes, but being caught with them by the wrong person will bring soldiers down upon them. More valuable are bags of rice, canned food, and transportation. They hope to make it to Thailand, but the road becomes more difficult as family members are caught and imprisoned in work camps. Even after the Khmer Rouge is supplanted by the Vietnamese, crossing the border amid thousands of other refugees is its own journey.
While showing the struggles of surviving, Veasna takes care to paint a thorough picture of the day-to-day tyranny. Every aspect is controlled by government policy from wearing only black clothes and a scarf, to ensuring marriage, to approved medical practices. People are constantly spying on one another to seek out rewards for snitching. Propaganda blares over loudspeakers, and agents use tricks again and again. At one point, the Khmer Rouge invites local managers, doctors, and officials back to Phnom Penh, saying they will be brought into the new government, then instead executing them en masse. In another, several leaders of the work camp leave while new people come in, claiming to be fighters for the other side, all as a test of loyalty to see who will rebel given the opportunity.
Veasna also shows the vast number of coincidences and meetings of old friends that literally save lives. Time and again, the family comes across people they knew from school or work before the revolution. They are given rice or let through checkpoints simply because of their good character in the past. At other times, it is simply kindness that keeps the oppression from crushing them utterly.
Year of the Rabbit serves as a good reminder of humanity during such turmoil. Within a few short months, a wealthy family became literal slaves of the state. Others perished as society turned to chaos and then to murderous totalitarianism. It can happen anywhere.