According to the government, people living with disabilities make up two percent of the Kingdom’s workforce. Army veteran Hin Bunthen, who lost both his legs during a battle with the Khmer Rouge, is a mechanic leading the charge to aid those with disabilities to transport themselves to work.
Hin Bunthen is working on a special motorbike in his garage along National Road 6 in Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva district.
Among a cacophony of clanking metals and welding torches, Mr Bunthen is creating a contraption for people just like him.
Mr Bunthean is a disabled person and he has been modifying motorbikes for more than a decade to aid disabled people in their travels to work.
“I have been working as a mechanic for more than 10 years,” he says. “I am a mechanic who works for those who are old or disabled.”
Born in 1962 in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district, Mr Bunthen was fresh out of school when he made his way to the capital in 1984.
In 1985, he joined the military in order to serve his country. He lost his legs during an armed clash between government and Khmer Rouge forces 27 years ago.
“I lost my legs after stepping on a mine during a fight against the Khmer Rouge in 1991,” Mr Bunthen says. “I was a soldier and I took part in a battle in Kampot province’s Phnom Vor area.”
The damage done to his legs rendered them useless and doctors had to amputate. He says the damage to his left leg was too severe, making only his right leg compatible with artificial limbs.
After losing his legs, Mr Bunthen battled depression, but was able to pull himself out with help from a local NGO.
“We fought against Khmer Rouge forces to prevent them from returning to power in Cambodia,” he adds.
In 1994, as Mr Bunthen was sitting in hospital, representatives of the Kien Khleang National Rehabilitation Centre approached him and asked whether he would like to work with other veterans.
He also received vocational training from a Japanese organisation helping disabled people in the Kingdom. He learned leatherwork and handicraft. Most importantly, he learned to produce wheelchairs. This was the turning point in his life.
“I was training to carve leather and sew,” Mr Bunthen says. “In 1994, I was working in the Kien Khleang National Rehabilitation Centre to produce wheelchairs for the disabled.”
At first, work was hard, but sheer determination defined his identity and made him more than just a disabled veteran.
His first test as a mechanic came when a man who was living with polio asked him for an improvised motorbike. Upon hearing the request, Mr Bunthen says he was eager to prove his mantle.
“My mentor and I soon worked together to design and produce an improvised motorbike for a man with polio,” he says. “After creating a working prototype, other people who were disabled came to us to for the same modification.”
Day-by-day, Mr Bunthen worked with his mentor on designs suitable for those who are not able to drive conventional motorbikes. Eventually, Mr Bunthen developed a three-wheeled motorbike to accommodate those who cannot stand in traffic for a long time.
“Hundreds of modified motorbikes were produced for those who are disabled, have polio or are elderly,” he says.
“I now have time to work on modifying motorbikes on Saturdays and Sundays,” he says, adding that his work gives him a sense of purpose in life. “I think all jobs are important, but especially work involving those who are disabled like me. It is very important for society.”
Mr Bunthen says that because of his work, he is able to send his children to college.
“Additional work allowed me to support my two sons until they’re able to finish their Bachelor’s degrees,” he says, adding that others should be inspired to follow his example. “I think some people have no options and that causes them to beg in the streets and pick up a drinking habit in order to cope with their predicament. They do not have knowledge or skill.”
He says that people who are disabled should be encouraged to learn new skills in order to live independently.
“There’s a saying that a disabled body does not mean a disabled heart,” Mr Bunthen says. “If we follow this proverb, we will have a good future.”
“We are disabled, but we can still make innovations,” he says. “We have to be determined to make our lives better.”
Not far from where Mr Bunthen is talking stands 47-year-old Nhep Von from Takhmao city. Mr Von is a polio patient and he is here to get his motorbike modified.
“I think that it can help a lot because I work as a tailor and I can use this motorbike for long travels,” he says, adding that Mr Bunthen does a good job. “I spent $330 for the modification.”
According to Em Chanmakara, secretary-general of the Social Affairs Ministry’s Disability Action Council, there are more than 50,000 people living with disabilities in the Kingdom, which makes up for four percent of the whole population.
“We see that the number of disabled people being employed in state and private sectors is increasing from previous years,” Mr Chanmakara says. “We are reaching the government’s target of having them make up at least two percent of the total workforce.”
The initiative to get disabled people employed is part of the government’s efforts in reducing discrimination and prejudice against them.
Prime Minister Hun Sen says the strategy to break down barriers and create opportunities will run until 2023.
In a speech earlier this year, Mr Hun Sen said 40 ministries and state institutes recruited 2,839 disabled people, or 1.93 percent of their workforce, and all ministries and state institutes will recruit more to reach a two percent target next year.
“Please all ministries, state institutions and the private sector continue to encourage people with disabilities who have the qualifications and abilities to perform their duties in positions of responsibility, to have the right to work without discrimination, including serving as civil servants, workers and trainees,” said Mr Hun Sen.