Bio: Tour guide in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime
1. Tell me about the day the Khmer Rouge came to your town.
When the Khmer Rouge came—Thursday, April 17, 1975—I was living in Wat Botum Vatdei monastery in Phnom Penh. Khmer Rouge soldiers with dirty black uniforms, guns, grenades, and shooting fire rushed to force the innocent people to move out of the city. The monk who was taking care of me was sent to his camp, and I was sent to the children’s camp. I did not have any family to live with. No mother, no father, no sisters, no brothers were with me. With a few hundred other 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds, all boys, we lived like animals or slaves. Working in the rice field, hungry. Diarrhea, headache, malaria—I carried them with me.
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The worst part was when soldiers came to the camp to investigate the background of each child. I was brought to the education center and interrogated. From that day I was frightened about what was going to happen to me. I lived in the children’s camp from 1975 to 1979. I lost four brothers during that regime and hundreds of relatives.
2. Do you think it is important for people to visit the scenes of the atrocities?
Of course, it is important for people to visit the killing fields. But today, the area becomes a political area, for a political purpose. The innocent in the country of Cambodia know and learn by life’s experiences a lot about the Khmer Rouge already—but the Khmer Rouge in power today want people to forget. Otherwise we will go to war again. How can we decide? What can we do?
3. What was your reaction when the United Nations launched a war-crimes tribunal in 2009 to try the senior officers of the Khmer Rouge?
I felt good with that in the beginning, but since it was half local and half international, I never believed it could bring justice to the victims of Cambodia. I think the international community has wasted money on that. It is good to have, but it is not a good use of money. The tribunal has no independence and is not powerful.
In my opinion, most Cambodians hate this tribunal since it has not had enough power to bring more Khmer Rouge officers and soldiers to the courts. The voice from the tribunal is not heard openly in Cambodia nowadays. Unless you can bring all [the officers] to the court of justice—[outside of] Cambodia—there is no justice to be found. The Cambodian people want to see all Khmer Rouge officers brought to courts of justice—real and powerful courts.
4. What gives you hope today?
I am given hope because my children are good children. They work hard and follow the rules. I have devoted all my life to them. I am proud that they can read, write, and speak English well—and even some French, too. My entire life, I experienced no hope; I want them to receive better.
Dawn Araujo is editorial assistant at Sojourners. She met Sophoan Rath during a 2009 trip to Cambodia.