Author’s note: Shorter versions of this story appeared in the Fresno Bee and Community Alliance newspapers.
July 4, 2014:
Most Fresnans have no idea that an internationally renowned human rights activist spent many years among us as a classmate, colleague and neighbor. I certainly did not until I attended a lecture at Stanford University by the Cambodian human rights activist, Virak Ou. In fact, that day I still did not know he had previously lived in Fresno for ten years. But I had trekked from Sacramento to San Jose partly because growing up in the Central Valley I had made friends from Southeast Asia, prompting an interest in the region.
Since I found Virak’s talk informative and engaging, I began following him on Twitter and Facebook. It was there that I was surprised to discover that he got his B.A. in Economics from Fresno State and graduated from Roosevelt High School, which is my alma mater, as well. Although I have also spent most of my adulthood away from my hometown, I keep up with Fresno news. Why had I never heard about him before? Clearly, we did not know each other in high school, not surprising since the year he graduated Roosevelt had ballooned to 4,500 students and I was a lowly sophomore.
Virak now lives in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where for over a decade he has been tirelessly fighting for human rights in leadership positions with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and the Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia, the latter of which he founded. In 2007 he won the Reebok Award for Human Rights for his 2005-06 work coordinating a campaign for freedom of expression that put pressure on the Cambodian government to set free human rights activists (like then CCHR president Kem Sokha) incarcerated for criticizing the government. Fortunately, this yellow ribbon campaign was successful.
Virak and other activists have been working to create a Cambodian National Human Rights Commission and an ASEAN Human Rights Body. In that effort, he has collaborated with other humanitarian groups struggling to achieve greater rights and freedoms for the Cambodian people, prompting praise from the American Ambassador to Cambodia, William E. Todd, and winning invitations to speak with policymakers like Hillary Clinton and members of the United Nations. It is important to have steadfast advocates like Virak in Cambodia as the current state of affairs there continues to be worrisome in terms of human rights abuses by government forces and escalating tensions among political factions.
Virak’s work is certainly good for Cambodia and well worth the people of Fresno knowing about, but none of it inspired any confidence that he would be willing to speak to me, a former high school history teacher turned upstart journalist who had never published for any news organization. I was only outfitted with a passion for writing, a couple of experiences doing Google Hangout interviews, and the chutzpah it took to ask if I could interview him.
Stunningly, he agreed. Although we ended up playing Facebook message tag (Phnom Penh is fourteen hours ahead of us here on the West Coast) and had technical difficulties (for future reference Google Hangout does not usually work in that part of the world) he very graciously let me keep trying to tell his story to an audience who should already have known about him and his work. We did finally manage to speak via Skype for about thirty minutes.
In that time I met a man eager to discuss his early life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, his difficulties escaping the regime, and the challenges he faced as a young refugee thrust into a new life in the unfamiliar world of the Central Valley of California. While attending RHS I got to know many immigrant students, some of whose parents had brought them to the United States from Southeast Asia in the years immediately following the Vietnam War. Most of my friends were babies when they came with little to no firsthand memories of their homeland. Virak, on the other hand, was thirteen when he finally reached American soil in 1989.
In that era of permed hair and neon leggings when I was preoccupied with trying to get perfectly scrunched hair and socks, Virak tried to wrap his head around the concept of the book report his English teacher had assigned him after spending four years in refugee camps struggling to get enough to eat so his ribs wouldn’t show through his clothes. He was “the skinniest and youngest of four brothers” with the least concept that life hiding from government forces and squatting in refugee camps was abnormal. As an innocent to the nefarious motivations behind the chaos, those parts that did not involve starvation sometimes felt like an adventure to him, especially because there was often little adult supervision.
Virak was only four or five when the Khmer Rouge (French for ‘Red Khmers’ or the Communist Party of Cambodia) lost its official government power in 1979 when Vietnamese forces captured Phnom Penh. In the early-mid 1980’s it was common in Virak’s village to stumble on one of the 20,000 mass graves in the country-remnants of the Killing Fields-or to find skulls in the trash. The Khmer Rouge had instituted agricultural programs that forced all citizens, regardless of lack of experience and skill, to farm for their food or starve. Middle-class professionals and those accused of political dissent were forced into labor concentration camps, tortured and/or murdered under the rule of the dictator Pol Pot.
650,000 Cambodians starved to death between 1979 and 1980 and between one and two million people died under the regime, an estimated half of them from mass executions. As a child, Virak knew people who found jewelry cast off after it had been confiscated or left on the dead by the physically brutal regime. What would normally be considered precious commodities in most societies were worthless in this extreme Communist system. Those desperate Cambodians who had survived massacre and starvation would exchange the gems for rice since food was harder to come by in Virak’s memory. None of this was alien to a small boy who had to flee soldiers across a creek before learning how to swim.
In 1984, when he was either eight or nine, Virak’s family had to leave all their possessions behind and take flight from resistance camps (where the people were under strict military watch) to refugee camps (where Virak says what little food could be had was terrible). His father had been part of the army for Lon Nol’s American-backed, capitalist-friendly Khmer Republic that overthrew Prince Sihanouk in 1970, but was ousted by the Communist, Viet Cong supported Khmer Rouge in 1975, less than a year before Virak was born. As part of the Khmer Republic army, his father was on the shortlist of first to be executed by the Khmer Rouge. Sadly, this meant Virak would never know his father. Lon Nol himself successfully gained refuge in California ten years before Virak, his brothers, and his mother would make it safely to Fresno.
Virak says he lost track of how many different camps they stayed in over those years and at that time he never really knew where they were, but they would have been on or near the Thai border. In 1980, the Democratic Kampuchea government — overseen by the U.S. — China, and ASEAN officially divided up power in Cambodia between the Khmer Rouge, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (made up of republican, Lon Nol supporters) and the ANS (made up from the former army of Prince Sihanouk).
Pol Pot remained the head of the Khmer Rouge, however, through 1985 and was not arrested for crimes against humanity until 1997. The Vietnamese military would not pull out of Phnom Penh until 1989; memories of that occupying force still stir up tensions between the neighboring countries today. According to the Christian Science Monitor, in 1988, 300,000 Cambodians were living in refugee camps along the border with Thailand. Virak would have been one of them.
When Virak’s family finally attained refugee status and settled in the U.S. he was placed in a standard, non-ESL (English as a Second Language) seventh-grade class. He had learned some English in the refugee camps but had not learned to write any of this language with a very different alphabet than his native Khmer. Without extra support and guidance, he was completely lost in his American classes at a time when adolescence makes life tough enough. Unfortunately, many immigrants during these years had similar experiences, partly due to the system being overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees from around the world fleeing treacherous conflicts and severe poverty to come to places like Fresno.
The resemblance to the migrant children attempting to escape violence in Central America today by coming into the United States alone is striking. Conditions for this new wave of young migrants remind us that America’s response has too often fallen short of welcoming the world’s most vulnerable and innocent. On this Independence Day, it does us well to remember how much American society is enriched by the lives of those like Virak who come here from various backgrounds and experiences.
Despite his early difficulties, Virak was able to not only survive American schools but to thrive in them. He went on to do graduate work at San Jose State, attaining his MA in Economics there. That was when he decided to return to his family’s homeland and put his education and experience to use serving the community in Cambodia with his knowledge of the law. While most Americans have largely forgotten the people of Cambodia in the years since the end of the Vietnam War and fall of the Khmer Rouge, the years since then have had their own political turmoil.
Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector who came to power when the Vietnamese forces left in 1989, the same year Virak’s family finally made it to the United States, is still the leader of Cambodia. While fortunately, the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are no longer in power, those who replaced them have become increasingly oppressive in their own right. The Hun Sen government controls most of the press and has recently been accused of election fraud and corruption while his military has routinely used violence to put down Cambodian garment workers striking for living wages and those protesting for greater political rights.
Virak himself was called to court in 2012 for “incitement” charges from 2009 after consulting villagers locked in a land dispute with the government. More recently, he has been caught in the crossfire between increasingly angry protesters and the often harsh officials, even receiving threats. One reason for this is that Virak has expressed concern about growing anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia, stoked by some of those anti-government protesters who view Hun Sen as a pawn of the Vietnamese government. In February an ethnically Vietnamese man was beaten to death in Phnom Penh by an enraged crowd that chanted, “yuon” a regional term with racist overtones.
Unlike some more divisive figures in the political scene in Cambodia, focused on retribution for recent or past injustices, Virak has made it his mission to be optimistic, open-minded, and non-partisan in his approach to activism. He has challenged others in positions of power to use the Cambodian parliamentary and legal system to attain greater rights, rather than resorting to the violence that has had such tragic consequences in his nation’s history and Virak’s own personal experience.
At a TED Talk in 2011, he spoke about the “image problem” of human rights activism where most people wait for heroes to emerge, instead of hunkering down and getting the hard work done. Most likely many of his former Fresno neighbors would welcome his leadership style in a gridlocked Washington D.C. and here in California where drought is fomenting renewed water wars. As he says, “the public will not listen to a leader who is not principled or anyone who is not willing to compromise.” Fortunately, much of the Cambodian public is listening to him.