Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Category: Voice on Khmer Rouge

Agony of repatriated Khmer Rouge refugees

By Chak Sopheap
Guest Commentary, Published on UPI Asia

Niigata, Japan — One of the untold tragedies of U.S. policy has been the forced repatriation of young Cambodians, mainly men, who went to the United States as refugees after escaping the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s. The United States took in 130,000 Cambodian refugees between 1985 and 1995 as tacit acknowledgement of U.S. involvement in the destabilization of Cambodia in the early 1970s, according to a report in the National Journal, “Between Two Nations,” by Bruce Stokes.

By November 2008 about 189 refugees had been deported to Cambodia under a law that mandates deportation for noncitizens who commit felonies, according to a New York Times report. Another 2,000 Cambodians are in the deportation pipeline waiting their turn.

Although these Cambodians had obtained permanent resident status, they lost the right to remain in the United States after being convicted of a felony, despite having already served sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

As a result, they are being sent back to a country where they were traumatized, with which they are unfamiliar after spending most of their life in the United States, where they have no family and little hope of escaping poverty.

Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, noncitizens who commit felonies must be deported. Previously, immediate deportation was enacted only for offences that could lead to five years or more in jail. This included crimes such as murder, terrorism or threatening the president. However, the 1996 law expanded the scope of crimes meriting deportation to include even minor crimes such as shoplifting.

In one case, a man was ordered to be deported after being convicted for urinating in public. Another example is that of a woman, whose children were born in the United States and are therefore citizens, facing deportation after serving three years in jail for disciplining her children with unlit incense sticks.

The 1996 law was applied retroactively to those convicted of deportable offenses, including some who had committed minor offences decades ago. Moreover, the act stripped judges of nearly all discretion in determining whether permanent residents should be deported. There are limits on litigation that prevent individuals or groups from suing the government or appealing decisions by the Immigration Department or lower courts.

In fact, Cambodian criminals were not deported until an extradition agreement was reached between Washington and Phnom Penh in 2002; after that, Cambodians convicted of felonies were subject to deportation after finishing their prison terms in the United States.

Cambodians who had not applied for U.S. citizenship suddenly found themselves liable to be deported even for committing misdemeanors. This included those with green cards or married to U.S. citizens. It seems that many missed the opportunity to apply for citizenship either because they didn’t think it necessary, or they didn’t understand the process due to lack of information in the Cambodian Language.

Most U.S. immigration laws enacted in the past 20 years were introduced during periodic episodes of anti-immigrant hysteria. Immigration has been a major political issue during presidential election campaigns as well. The 1996 law was signed under Clinton administration in September, shortly before the election in November that year. Also, the 2002 extradition agreement between the United States and Cambodia was signed after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.

In his book “Deporting Our Souls,” Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and Asian American studies at the University of California in Davis, offers explanations by criminologists, social scientists, parents and criminals themselves as to why there has been a relatively high level of criminality in the Cambodian refugee community in the United States.

First, he cites the refugee camp experience, with few activities or opportunities to be productive. The crowded camp life easily led to violence and crime. Many parents who survived the Khmer Rouge’s inhuman genocide suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and their mental health was affected by long periods of malnutrition.

In addition, once they arrived in the United States the difficulties of language and cultural assimilation strained the relationship between parents and children. Many were resettled in low income neighborhoods where poverty and poor academic performance were common. Young men tended to band together in gangs, which they viewed as family.

Those who ended up committing crimes and serving jail time are now being doubly punished by being deported to their home country. Older refugees are still traumatized by the inhuman acts of the Khmer Rouge and may be terrified of returning. As for those who came to the United States as children, they have adapted to American life and culture. Most cannot speak, read or write Khmer, the Cambodian language.

It is a tough challenge for such returnees to communicate and make a living in Cambodia, where they carry the added burden of their criminal deportee status. It is even tougher for those who are separated from their parents, wives or children. They surely never expected to face this deportation nightmare after setting foot in the United States, the “land of opportunity.”

As young refugees these people were legally accepted into the United States and are essentially the product of that country. Thus it would seem the U.S. government should take responsibility for them, rather than sending them back to a land they hardly know. The deportation of convicted refugees should be reexamined and their right to appeal should be granted.

Most of all, U.S. policymakers should not take advantage of the plight of immigrants for their own political benefit at the expense of the refugees’ lives and their families’ happiness.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog,, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

Khmer Rouge trials will not bring justice

By Chak Sopheap
Guest Commentary
Published on UPI Asia: April 15, 2009

Niigata, Japan — It is not surprising that many foreigners know the details of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979, while the young generation of Cambodians may not even know that this inhuman regime ever existed. Cambodian schoolchildren are taught almost nothing about this dark period of their country’s history. Even 30 years after the Khmer Rouge committed its atrocities against the Cambodian people the subject is still sensitive among political groups.

Fortunately, “A History of Democratic Kampuchea,” written by Cambodian author Khamboly Dy and published in 2007, helps to fill in the gap and educate the nation about the murderous regime. The Education Ministry has approved the book as a “core reference” for history classes, but not as part of the core curriculum.

Still, the scope of the textbook is limited and it is controversial in its naming of only certain individuals involved in the regime, its characterization of the massive movement against the Khmer Rouge, and its unclear interpretation of a long-standing political debate in Cambodia over whether Vietnam “liberated” or “invaded” the country when it ousted the Khmer Rouge. Therefore, the young generation is still skeptical about the truth concerning the Khmer Rouge.

When the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, popularly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, was established, many Cambodians hoped it would bring justice, truth and reconciliation for the victims and survivors of the regime. This new hybrid, national-international tribunal was expected to accomplish three things:
First, it should bring justice to those who died and help those who survived to release their suffering.
Second, it should strengthen the rule of law by judging and punishing the criminals in fair and open trials. It should be a model marking the end of impunity and the beginning of law enforcement in Cambodia, and serve as a deterrent to all who contemplate such inhuman behavior in Cambodia or in the world.
Third, it should educate the people of Cambodia and raise awareness about this darkest chapter in the country’s history, especially among the young generation. Ultimately, this would lead to the reconstruction of the society as a whole.

However, it is questionable whether these expectations will be met. The claim that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal will benefit Cambodians could turn out to be merely a myth – such a tribunal may not be the best option for national reconciliation.

For one thing, the scope of the tribunal is limited to senior regime leaders who planned its actions or gave orders, as well as those most responsible for committing serious crimes. The foreign countries that supported the Khmer Rouge, or acted as the main catalyst for the emergence of this cruel regime, will not be brought to court. The tribunal’s regulations indicate clearly that only individuals who committed crimes will be tried. This court is not mandated to sentence countries or organizations.

Therefore, only local leaders and a few high-level leaders that were directly involved in the genocide will be sentenced, while many others will go unpunished. It is doubtful if justice and the rule of law will prevail.
Those who support the tribunal may say it is better than nothing, that it is better to accept justice in a narrow sense than to have none at all. But real justice would only be achieved if all who are accused are treated fairly by the court. If the trial procedures do not reveal the root cause of the problem, it is unacceptable.
It is also unclear to what extent these trials can serve as a model for an independent court system in Cambodia, as corruption and nepotism are so widespread, even within this court. Moreover, it is unlikely that the whole truth about the Khmer Rouge regime will emerge through the proceedings of the tribunal. If this tribunal is to be the final page in the Khmer Rouge history, it will be unjust and misleading for future generations.

There are better alternatives to this court setup if justice and national reconciliation are the goals. The funds allocated for the court, which have already exceeded the original budget, should have been used for restorative justice – a healing process – rather than this imperfect retributive justice. For Cambodian society, real reconciliation will be found only when trust returns between individuals; when they can smile at and trust each other again. Thus, a national dialogue or truth commission should be set up so that people, especially the victims, can fully participate to address their suffering and their needs.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog,, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

Khmer Rough Tribunal Will End with Unjust History

It was not surprising if foreigners could give detail of the Khmer Rough Regime while the young generation of Cambodia could not even know if this inhuman regime ever exists, so that the news of Noun Chea’s arrest is not gain much popularity among them (“Arrest Prompts Int’l News Frenzy, Shrugs at Home”, Cambodia Daily, Friday page 1). This is due to the fact that Cambodian school children are taught almost nothing about its own country’s dark period history after almost thirty years of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge as the subject is sensitive among political groups.

Fortunately, A History of Democratic Kampuchea, written by Khamboly Dy, a Cambodian writer, provides a step toward educating the nation about the murderous regime as the Education Ministry approved the book as a “core reference” material for history textbooks but not as part of the core curriculum. Though, the scope of the textbook is limited and controversial in naming individuals involving in the regime, characterization of the massive movement against Khmer Rough, and unclear interpretation of a long-standing political debate in Cambodia over whether Vietnam liberated or invaded the country when it ousted the Khmer Rouge. Therefore, it is still skeptical for the young generation to the truth about Khmer Rouge.

At the same time, the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC, popularly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) was hoped to bring justice, the truth, and reconciliation for the victims and survivors of the Khmer Rough. Though, it is questionable how this expectation will be met as the scope of the trial its self is limited. Only the local and few high-level leaders committed the genocide will be brought to sentence while there were other international countries and other potential criminals had involved. To what extend that the trial served as the model for independent court system as corruption and nepotism have gradually occurred almost everywhere.

Then it is still doubtful about the truth of the Khmer Rough Regime even after the Khmer Rough Tribunal has been conducted. At the same time, if the history page is ended by this tribunal, the national history will be unjust and mislead the next young generation.

It is my personal point of view as a young generation who was born far after the KR period. How is about you? What do u think?

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