An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

CAMBODIA: “A Khmer’s ‘one kilo of brain’ that is as good as any other brain”

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

My Sep. 22 column, “Effect of teachers is long lasting,” brought an anonymous blogger’s comments, signed “kaun khmer” (Khmer child), who thanked all educators for helping shape lives, and thanked me for sharing my life story in that article. The blogger wrote about having had no schooling under Pol Pot or in refugee camps, until resettlement in Minnesota in 1982. All the blogger knew was to “carry young rice on my head and care for water buffaloes.” I was intrigued with the blogger’s good English — but one could learn good English in 28 years, from 1982 to today, I thought.

A week later I referenced “kaun khmer” in another column. Within days, an e-mail was in my box: The anonymous blogger, Ms. Sovathana Sokhom, was a ‘girl’ who picked up her life in Minnesota at age 14, and is currently a candidate for a Ph.D. degree in politics and economics in California, having earned a Master’s degree in Business Administration in International Trade (MBA-IT) in 1993 from Texas A&M International University. Besides, she has been a lecturer at Loyola Marymount University in principles of macroeconomics and has a substantial record of publications.

My communications with “kaun khmer” brought forth an incredible life history.

Ms. Sokhom describes herself as just “one girl” who has been making her way from among the fifth of the world’s population who live below the poverty level, fighting “to find her way in the world.” After I asked her to share her personal history to inspire and incentivize other Khmers, she agreed: “If I can give, I give; if I can share, I share; if I can help, I help.”

Life pre-Pol Pot 

Sovathana was born in Kompong Cham, a third child in a family of four children, to a father who was a painter and a builder, and a mother who taught elementary school and became a housewife after marriage.

She couldn’t go to school then because she could not put her hand over her head to touch her ear at the other side — a determination of school age at the time.

Events turned her young life asunder: United States B-52 bombings were regular occurrences, and the Khmer Rouge were moving on Kompong Cham. At age 6, her uncle threw her down from the window into her father’s arms, and off they scrambled into a foxhole. Then the family evacuated to Phnom Penh, and on to Battambang and Poipet.

In April 1975, she was 7, living in Battambang. Khmer Rouge Angkar extended the Khmer New Year another three days. A friend of her father’s told him “something wasn’t right” in Cambodia, and failed to convince him to take the family to Thailand.

Her mother was happy then: the price of pork had dropped from 1,000 riels per kilo before the New Year to 300 after the New Year. Her father was also happy: King Sihanouk was returning to Phnom Penh “to take care of the country again!”

Yet, Angkar ordered citizens to move 10 kilometers outside of the city for “three days” because American planes were coming to drop bombs. Angkar pushed the people deeper into the forests.

Then one day, Angkar’s train took her family to Nikum, in Battambang.

Under the Khmer Rouge

First, Angkar took away her older sister to build the infamous dam at Phnom Komping Puoy. Then it took away her brother. She was the third. Her younger sister was able to stay with her parents. Her father told his children: “Conditions will change, you’ll return to Nikum where your mother and I will be waiting!”

She was taken to a labor camp. The mean group leader told her to stop crying: her parents could no longer care for her, only Angkar could. She was given black clothes to wear; no shoes. Her group was tasked to carry young rice on their heads for planting at a larger rice field. Wake-up time was 5 a.m. Three lines of 10 children each walked to the rice field, swearing: “I promise to grow three tons of rice per hectare of land, three times a year,” and shouted, “chay yo, chay yo, chay yo!” (victory, victory, victory!), with right fists raised high in the air.

There never was breakfast, and lunch consisted of porridge with watercress, sometimes baby shrimps fetched in the rice field. No one returned to camp before sunset, not without bringing two armloads of watercress for the communal kitchen. Before dinner, kids watered sugar cane plants.

They slept in two rows in a hut with feet pointed toward one another. She was too tired to care whether there was a mosquito net. Angkar gave the group a square soap that was cut into 30 pieces, each the size smaller than a finger. She kept hers to smell at night as a remembrance of her mother.

She was one of the children tasked to carry food for the whole group. Very small, she tripped in the rice field spilling porridge from the two baskets on her shoulders, destined for the group to eat. Angry, the Khmer Rouge group leader punished her by ordering each child to hit her hard with their porridge baskets. She bled and was taken to the commune clinic.

Conditions changed

In the clinic, she heard on the nurse’s radio that the Vietnamese were moving in on Phnom Penh — she was 10. She recalled her father’s words: Conditions would change and her parents would be waiting at Nikum. She asked and obtained a three-day permission from the clinic to “return to camp.”

Instead of returning to the camp, she went looking for direction to Nikum. Two truckers pitied her and let her ride in the back, where she shivered to see so many guns. They dropped her off at a crossroad and told her to walk straight to Nikum. There, villagers directed her to her parents’ hut; she also found her older sister. Missing was her brother, whom she and her sister located in another clinic in another village in bad shape: He couldn’t talk but could hear.

Since it was believed that “Cambodia was going to be broken” as the Vietnamese were taking over, the two sisters were allowed to take their brother to be reunited with the family at Nikum.

From refugee camps to Minnesota

The story about the family’s flight to Thailand after the Vietnamese takeover in January 1979 is long. They first fled to Siemreap. Later, they found two guides, paid them gold to take them across the border. The journey took them through Kauk Khyoung, Camp 007, and Khao I Dang, among other camps. They were also at a refugee camp in Indonesia.

Finally, on Nov. 14, 1981, under the sponsorship of the Khmer Community in Minnesota via World Lutheran Services, the family was resettled in the cold and freezing Minnesota.

A Khmer’s brain is as good as another

In early 1982, Sovathana, the unschooled kid who carried rice on her head and cared for water buffaloes, first attended school in Saint Paul. Classes and cultural clashes made her life extremely hard.  In high school, she simply followed her brother’s footsteps, taking any courses he was taking, and she thought she would never finish high school.

In 1986 she graduated from high school and was accepted to Saint Olaf College, where her brother had attended since 1984. She studied economics and maths like her brother.  In her sophomore year, she met a classmate who majored in political science, so she took her first international relations course. That class changed her interest from maths to economics and political science.

She gave herself 15 minutes each day to cry, and then she did her homework. She studied until the library closed at midnight, and never spent more than 20 minutes for lunch or dinner. “For a while I couldn’t even afford to self-pity,” she wrote, “Just do what needs to be done.”

She got a D in her first economics exam and cried. A faculty member suggested she change her major, but she stuck to economics, “determined to prove that I can do it.” She slept four hours per night, and sought help from her teaching assistant, classmates, and professor.

In 1990, she graduated from Olaf with a double major in economics and political science. Watching her brother going to Thunderbird Graduate School in Arizona, gave her the idea she could, too, go to graduate school. She applied and was accepted to Texas A&M International University in the Master’s degree program in Business Administration in International Trade (MBA-IT). In 1993, she received her MBA-IT degree.

Her father encouraged his children to see the world. So, while at Olaf, she enrolled in a six-week “Latin American Social/Political Problems” program in Mexico in 1987; and a six-week “Economic and Political Transition of Brazil in the 1980s” program in Brazil in 1989. And while she studied at Texas A&M she studied five weeks of “European Integration: the French Perspective,” at the French Ecole Superieure de Commerce at Chambery, and five weeks in the “German Business and Cultural Exchange” program at Fachhochschule Nurtingen, Germany.

Experiences in Cambodia

She said she felt burnt out after her MBA-IT in 1993, and the thought of her native Cambodia was never far from her mind. She had visited developing areas, including Egypt, and what she saw in the poor everywhere was a mirror of her own experience. “I was one of them” — everyone wants food, everyone wants clothes, everyone wants a roof over their heads.

So, in 1994 Ms. Sokhom joined the CANDO program (Cambodian American National Development Organization), volunteered to go to Cambodia, and left for the land of her birth in May of that year. There, she taught business, marketing, and management at Cambodia’s Faculty of Business — now National Institute for Management. In 1996, she returned to Cambodia again, and experienced the July 5-6 coup d’etat of 1997 and had to be evacuated.

In 2000, she returned to the United States and decided to stay in California, where she worked for the Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, learning how U.S. federal programs help the poor to become self-sufficient. She taught non-English speaking immigrants and high school drop-outs self-esteem and self-motivation, which she also taught herself.

In 2004 she was enrolled at the Claremont Graduate University, a private, graduate-only institution. She had her eyes set on a Ph.D. degree. In 2008, she received a Master’s degree in International Economy (IPE) and was admitted to candidacy to the Ph.D. degree in the Interfield of Politics and Economics.

And that’s where Ms. Sokhom is today — a long journey for an unschooled girl who endured Pol Pot’s child labor camp at ages 7-10, and endured the cultural changes and clashes in the U.S., and is competing in a world that doesn’t stand still.

The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-032-2010
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 15-10-2010