Youk Chhang, renowned researcher and executive director of Documentation Centre of Cambodia, refused to languish in self-pity after surviving the Khmer Rouge and instead devoted his life to documenting the suffering he and others, especially his mother, endured. In recognition of his painstaking efforts, Mr Chhang has been named one of this year’s recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, widely regarded as Asia’s Nobel Prize.
As a child, Youk Chhang enjoyed a life of luxury as the youngest son of a wealthy gems merchant in Phnom Penh.
But in April 1975, Mr Chhang’s world came crashing down when he was 14 years old after the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital and forced millions of families into compulsory communes. He was separated, at gunpoint, from his family.
“When I was separated from my family, I felt numb and I kept thinking of my mother,” he says. “I did not have any food, only two novels, a pair of shoes, some T-shirts, jeans and a bicycle.”
After four months of separation, Mr Chhang found his family in one of the compulsory communes, where people worked as slaves and death became as common as life.
He remembers the suffering his mother went through at the commune well.
“She holds too much sorrow in her heart,” he says. “I tried to ease her sadness, but she never wanted anything from me and this depresses me. I really want her to cry.”
“I don’t want any mother in Cambodia to have to live such a sad life as my mother’s,” he adds.
Mr Chhang, 57, lost his father and most of his siblings under the Khmer Rouge.
After surviving with his mother, he devoted his life to researching crimes against humanity during the Khmer Rouge era, when about two million people died of forced labour, disease, starvation and by execution.
He bitterly recalls how years under Khmer Rouge rule and the chaos of the civil war created a barrier between him and his mother, noting they never really shared a close relationship.
As the head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Mr Chhang has been working to heal the barrier between him and his mother, and bring closures to millions of other victims. His work has been recognised this year with the Ramon Magsaysay Award, widely regarded as Asia’s Nobel Prize.
“The chaos in the country separated us. Having been apart from her for so long, I don’t know to recreate a bond between us,” says Mr Chhang, who has devoted the award to his mother. “It’s just like after having thrown a glass on the floor, we are unable to fix the shattered pieces.”
Currently, his 92-year-old mother is living with him in Phnom Penh.
“Even though she is getting old, she still worries about me,” Mr Chhang says. “Every day she only asks me about what I have eaten and is concerned about my safety while I am out. But she never asks me about the work I am doing.”
Mr Chhang says the suffering that his mother and other Cambodian women went through inspired him to devote his life to trying to find closure for them.
He adds that he is dedicating his Ramon Magsaysay Award from the Philippines as a symbol of hope to his mother and all these other Cambodian women.
“Our country was left devastated after the Khmer Rouge regime fell,” Mr Chhang says. “It was mostly women who helped to rebuild this country.”
“All we have achieved in the country today is because of the efforts these women made to rebuild the country, literally with their bare hands, and I want the world to acknowledge their great work,” he adds.
Mr Chhang is one of six winners of this year’s award. The others are from India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Timor Leste. The awards will be presented during a ceremony in Manila on August 31.
“This award is really different from others I have received in the past because I regard Philippines as a friend,” Mr Chhang says. “I lived there as a refugee for a year and they provided me with a new life from that under the Khmer Rouge.”
In a statement last month, the commission in the Philippines which picks the winners said Mr Chhang was selected for preserving historical memory and for his efforts in promoting healing and justice.
“In electing Youk Chhang to receive the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his great, unstinting labour in preserving the memory of the Cambodian genocide, and his leadership and vision in transforming the memory of horror into a process of attaining and preserving justice in his nation and the world,” the statement said.
US Ambassador to Cambodia William A. Heidt commented on Mr Chhang’s win on the embassy’s website recently.
“This recognition of Mr Youk Chhang is a fitting tribute to his many years of leadership and hard work at the Documentation Centre,” he said, noting that Mr Chhang has played an important role in Cambodia’s understanding of its past.
The Embassy of Sweden in Phnom Penh also expressed its delight over the recognition accorded to Mr Chhang, saying that it wishes him all the best in continuing his tireless work.
Mi Pech, 60, a Khmer Rouge survivor, says her mother died of starvation under the regime.
“My mother was starved to death. I can’t describe my feeling of loss when I see others with their mothers,” she says. “But Mr Chhang has said that he will keep working to find me and others some closure until the day he is unable to.”