Sophal: her personal story telling to illustrate Cambodia politics

Posted by: | Posted on: September 12, 2014

Dear Dr.:

 In my humble opinion:  may I thank you for giving me all these credits. I am certain that every body has a story…wether it is told or not, every body has one or even more than one stories….
And I am very greatful for having you telling mine.
Best Regards,


Written by
Gaffar Peang-Meth
My last column, in the May 31 Pacific Daily News, “Sophal is a rare voice of calm,” brought a slew of e-mails from readers who expressed admiration for Chan Sophal’s life struggle and how her story has inspired them. Readers’ emails inspired today’s follow-up on Sophal: A lesson to learn.

Sophal’s parents’ cultural clashes (a passive, compassionate, tolerant Khmer Buddhist father in discord with a fiercely authoritarian, industrious, determined Chinese Confucian mother) made Sophal’s childhood less than happy. But she transformed her challenges into strength.

Through socialization, children learn values and attitudes and how to fit them into their new adult roles. Children watch, listen, imitate. In Sophal’s childhood socialization, she picked up the manners, behavior, attitudes and values from her parents — values and attitudes that were always being adapted and reinforced as she grew and passed through new experiences.

Socialization is a continuous, lifelong process.

Helped her survive

Thus what the 17-year-old 11th grader in Cambodia’s northwestern Battambang province learned, adapted and readapted helped her survive the Khmer Rouge Otaki youth camp in 1975-1979. Sophal endured hardships in the ricefields for Angkar (the Khmer Rouge Organization’s all-encompassing designation for its leader) and was “investigated” for having demonstrated an ability to write, having agreed to record for Angkar the names and personal data of her campmates, and for refusing to complain.

She politely declined offers of extra food. She upheld her Chinese mother’s teaching of the Confucian Constants, and her Khmer Buddhist father’s teaching of a person’s ability to improve.

Incredibly, Sophal and a Khmer Rouge chieftain, Mit (Comrade) Bang Rin, a thirty-something woman who left her family at age 10 to serve Angkar, developed a bond — so close and so special that Mit Bang Rin became Sophal’s protector. When Angkar ordered its troops to evacuate Otaki after Vietnam’s invasion in 1979, Sophal pleaded with Mit Bang Rin to go with her. Mit Bang Rin said she couldn’t even assure her own survival, so ordered Sophal to take care of herself. They parted in tears.

Had no illusions

Sophal had no illusions. She knew the Khmer Rouge were killers. At Maung Russey, she walked through mass graves, bones, skeletons, blood-stained clothes, monks’ yellow robes, metal chains. At Otaki she was taken by executioners to be killed, but an unexpected order reached them to carry out another task “immediately” and “saved” her life.

Also at Otaki, a ranking Khmer Rouge male awakened a frightened Sophal from her sleep — she expected rape — took her to the communal kitchen, handed her a wet bag, ordered her to “cut it and fry it with ginger.” He told her, “This is your comrade’s liver, a traitor whose body you will see tomorrow.”

As she made a fire to cook, she observed the Khmer Rouge “was no saint for one bit; his eyes were blood red, so was his face.” Sophal froze. She could hear only the sizzling sound as the oil hit the hot frying pan.

The next day she woke up to realize she was still alive.

And she still thinks of Mit Bang Rin. She likes Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde’s observation: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

In 1983, at age 25, Sophal and her 3-year-old daughter arrived in North America as refugees. Imaginative, creative and resourceful, she made herself a life many envied. In 1989 she was hired as a medical laboratory technician at a major hospital. In 1993, Sophal, 35, owned a condominium and a convenience store while raising a daughter who later became a medical doctor.

Sophal may have successfully combined her acquired Confucian-Buddhist values with Western thought, as she surprised me when answering questions for my articles by quoting Albert Einstein’s “Once you stop learning, you are dying.” Without mentioning her father’s Buddhist teaching, she attributed the idea of man’s ability to realize almost anything to 19th century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

Loves Cambodia

Sophal, now 56, loves Cambodia. She doesn’t hide her political preference for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party over the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. She regrets that Cambodian democrats have not done well to advance the struggle for change. She wishes CNRP national leaders better present themselves as a credible alternative to the current regime. Yet she believes political change is inevitable.

She brushes off the thought of being a “politician,” saying she will always be a “citizen” cognizant of rights, duties and responsibilities. She speaks her mind. She is proud to be practicing her Lord Buddha’s “Do not find fault with others. Do not worry about what others do or not do. Rather, look within yourself to find out what you yourself have done or left undone. Stop doing evil; do good.”

We can learn a lot from Sophal.

Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He now lives in the mainland United States and can be reached

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