It was a great honor to be invited to the meeting of the minds by the ladies of the Cambodian Women’s Network. I especially would like to thank Khemarey Khoeun for hosting us at her lovely home and for providing us with scrumptious food and wine.
I learned a lot from the ladies. We laughed, we cried, and we inspired each other to be better and to do better. The outcome was fantastic.
Again, thank you to all the ladies!
Here is my speech from the event:
My name is Sambath Meas. My friends call me Sammi and my parents and relatives call me Sros. I was born in 1973 in Pailin of Battambang, Cambodia. By that time the Khmer Republic and the Khmer Rouge were already three years into their brutal fighting. After five years, the Khmer Rouge emerged as the victors. Looking back, they had something the Khmer Republic did not have: focus, organization, and determination.
For my parents, relatives, and other people of the village of O Ta Prang, they were happy to see the war finally came to an end. They thought they could get back to their normal lives. As they cheered, the storming sounds of tanks, trucks, cars, and carriages on the ground and helicopters whirling through the sky reverberated through our village. My father saw Republican soldiers fleeing the country with their families in tow. They told him and others who stood to watch the scene to escape west to Thailand. They said the Khmer Rouge represented communism. They were vicious and barbaric. They would do away with money and other things. However, due to their attachment to their homeland—the place they knew all their lives—and fear of taking risks and of venturing into the unknown, they decided to stay behind. Besides, they didn’t think the Khmer Rouge regime would be any worse than previous regimes they had lived through. They learned the hard way.
Unfortunately, the Khmer Rouge could not maintain what made them successful. Fear, paranoia, hatred, jealousy, and revenge started to tear them apart. Night after night, my parents could not sleep. They held onto each other and me, shivering and shaking like rabbits. They could hear the Khmer Rouge chasing after each other to chop each other with long-bladed knives, axes, and whatever weapon they had. They heard them struggling, crying and screaming in agony. Sometimes they heard gunshots from a distance. Systematic killing and purging had become so common that my parents became fearful and traumatized. They had a hard time sleeping, as they had to stay vigilant, for they did not know when these communists would come after them with trumped-up charges. My father hid his long-bladed knife under his pillow, just in case.
Like the rest of the Khmer people, my parents lived in fear and exhaustion from intensive labor with little food for almost four years before the Khmer Rouge’s conflict with Vietnam. Having survived the death and destruction of our homeland, my father thought long and hard about our family’s future. He wanted peace, stability, a job to provide for his family and an education for my sister and me. My father had a purpose and he had to act on it. Staying in a war-torn country like Cambodia was not conducive to his purpose. He heard about people trading at the Thai-Cambodian border from a relative. He and other men, young and old, set out with their valuables to trade with the Thais at the border. There, he found out about the refugee camps where people got sponsored to countries that were accepting refugees from Southeast Asia.
When we lived in the camps my father worked hard to find odd jobs and food to feed us. Because he was educated, he was able to write letters to request sponsorship to First World countries. And he used that writing skill to get paid to write letters and fill out applications for others who could not read or write. We were displaced in the refugee camps for about two years before we received sponsorship to Chicago, Illinois in 1981. I was eight years old when we arrived. My parents put aside their education to focus on working to provide for the family.
Both my father and mother had paved the road for my sister and me to do better than they did. Now that I am armed with their guidance and education from wonderful schools in Chicago, I want to pursue my own sense of purpose, to become a well-respected, successful and bestselling author and to help people we left behind in Cambodia. I want them to have a sense of purpose and to pursue it, if it does not infringe on other people’s rights. What better way to teach them than through encouraging them to read and to write?
I chose to become a writer partly because of the lack of a Khmer voice in literature. I feel that my voice is unique. I wrote my first book, called The Immortal Seeds: Life Goes on for a Khmer Family, documenting my family’s flight from communism to freedom. However, I wrote it during a time when I lacked literary experience. Therefore, I took it off the market with the intention of rewriting it.
I have just published my debut novella, a murder mystery called The Governor’s Daughter: The Scribes of Brahmadhan. It is set in colonial Cambodia. My intention was also to finish and publish my full science-fiction novel called Rise of the Eugenicists. However, I became distracted while writing this book and started to write the novella instead and I finished it in five months. The protagonist, Anjali Chinak, kept on nudging me to put her in a murder mystery adventure, so I did it. I would like to introduce you to Anjali Chinak and an unlikely woman she befriended, the governor’s daughter, Esmè Laurent.