Ronnie Yimsut – American-Cambodian author, activist, NGO worker, retired senior landscape architect for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, official influential person, orphan and Khmer Rouge survivor – had a dream.
He still has the dream, though it’s battered and bruised at the edges. His dream was to set-up Bakong Technical College, a self -sufficient trade college at Rolous Village on the outskirts of Siem Reap to teach mostly rural kids.
The dream began to become reality when ground was broken on the “paid-for 10-hectare site” in 2008, with fence and gate construction nearly completed, and site work set to commence in June 2009.
“Additionally, we are working with a group of Toronto Rotarians,” Ronnie told me in May 2009. “And we look to build one of our first buildings, a mess hall and community centre, in November 2009.”
Fast-forward – or perhaps slow-forward – to November 2018, with the official holding of a grand opening ceremony of a part-finished school on “three hectares more or less.”
But in the decade between sod turning in 2008 and official opening in 2018, Ronnie’s dream turned into a nightmare that broke up families and friendships, which almost put him in jail and bankrupted him.
Visit the school and you get a sense of an almost broken spirit – the complex is a bit like a crumbling mansion, seemingly under destruction in some parts while obviously under construction in other parts.
The dusty grounds are weed ridden gardens are dead, classrooms that are in action for part time teaching of language and computer skills are bare-shell rooms and the restaurant, well, it isn’t quite a restaurant yet.
But to Ronnie, progress is being made, albeit slowly. All the school needs now is renewed energy and more capital – and therein lies the source of all the problems.
Money problems have constantly beset the beleaguered Ronnie Yimsut, who battles on indefatigably, despite the shortfalls and setbacks.
Way back in 2009, Ronnie told me funding was falling short.
“I have invested over $150,000 thus far, and will need an additional $100,000 to start phase one of a four-phase process,” he said.
“But we are a long way from getting our funding needs in this terrible global economic crisis, and so far we have raised pocket change.
“We have a five-year action plan, and Plan A is to raise enough funds through various means, any and all necessary – legally, of course.”
But on October 13, 2013 the college was closed by an order from the Minister of the Interior, and Ronnie said he only discovered the college was the subject of a “hostile takeover” when police denied him access to the campus.
On March 25 2014, he and his fiancée, Sokhym, were issued with arrest warrant, and appeared in Siem Reap Municipal Court.
Ronne said the charges he was facing then included falsifying public documents, cursing an ex-director, and defamation
Three counter-suits were then “in the works”, and what ensued was a bout of drawn-out expensive legal wrangling, until November 2016 when Ronnie took the campus back.
“It was a horrific and unfortunate and unavoidable circumstance,” Ronnie now says. “Some of the people I trusted in handling my own personal affairs, including my own local bank account, as well as BTC affairs and bank account, became morally corrupted.
“They wanted it all. My private properties and assets in Siem Reap, and also those of BTC. The way they did it was to press criminal charges – four criminal cases filed and three of my loyal people were criminally charged, including my wife Sokhym, just to keep me out of Cambodia, away from BTC and my assets or else go to jail for a long time. The charges were invented, bogus really.
“With my wife’s help, who was also in hot water along with two loyal staff, we mounted a string of robust defensive moves with as many as six lawyers working at one time to defend all four of us.
“I was stuck in Cambodia for seven months, no job, no income and on the verge of being in jail for 10 to 15 years. I was allowed to leave to secure loans and clean out my accounts in the US, which bankrupted me and broke me to the present day.
“I still owe people money, including relatives and friends who provided emergency loans to fight the four separate criminal cases and trials. It was a very heavy burden that nearly killed me, literally.”
In 2011, Rutgers University Press in the US published Ronnie’s book, ‘Facing the Khmer Rouge.’
In the book’s foreword, noted Cambodian expert, Professor Emeritus David Chandler wrote that the book, “Is as much about Yimsut’s own resilience, his keen observational skills and his personal ‘journey into light’ as it is about his sufferings and those of his family.”
Now Ronnie’s writing another book tentatively titled, ‘Greed, Jealousy, Revenge and Murder.’
“Our lives had been threatened by those crooks,” he says, noting that two of his opponents received 18 months and three year jail terms, respectively, and are now fugitives.
“The rest is history,” he says, “The long and the short of it is what didn’t kill us, just like the KR, only made us even stronger. Sokhym and I have celebrated our eighth anniversary and we are working very hard to bring BTC back from the brink of destruction, needless to say.”