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Activist’s long road to find peace

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Koul Panha, the winner of a Ramon Magsaysay 2011 award for his courageous work in fighting for democracy in Cambodia. Photo by: OU MOM

Cambodian Koul Panha has been awarded one of six prestigious Ramon Magsaysay 2011 awards for his unremitting work in fighting for a free and fair democratic system in the Kingdom. The awards,
often referred to as the

“Nobel peace prizes of Asia”, are “given to persons – regardless of race, nationality, creed or gender – who address issues of human development in Asia with courage and creativity, and in doing so have made contributions which have transformed their societies for the better”, according to the foundation’s website.

Koul Panha’s journey to reach this point in his work and career has been a long and often traumatic, albeit history changing one.

Now an engineer, he was only eight years old when his father and relatives were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Remembering his childhood, Koul Panha said he used to live in Sangkat number six in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge took over.

“At that time, I just knew that there was going to be bombing in the city and for a long time, we hid in a trench. That was until April 1975 when black uniformed soldiers forced us to leave home.”

Although he was so young, Koul Panha seems to remember clearly the scenes and feelings he was confronted with when the regime continued to grow in strength.

“I was horrified but I remember my mother was so brave. She wanted to protest when the Khmer Rouge ordered us to leave the city unreasonably without taking our belongings,” said Koul Panha. “As I recall, however, my father stopped her, telling her it would be dangerous and that she could be shot. My mother understood what went on after that and agreed that we would go along [when the soldiers told us to leave].”

Less than a year passed before the family’s life would be rocked even further, and with even more horrific results.

“In 1976, we started hearing word that the Khmer Rouge had requested my father in order to pick beans. My father knew himself that he would be faced with a big problem,” said Koul Panha. “Then I got information from villagers about the killing of my father. The villagers told me that he did not let Khmer Rouge soldiers kill him – he fought them back. However, we did not see that activity with our own eyes; it was just a picture in my mind.”

Koul Panha’s family was among the 1.7 million Cambodians who perished at the hands of the brutal regime and the repercussions of the period have been myriad.

It doesn’t take focused investigation into how the country has fared since that era to realise that one of the biggest problems to have lingered since then is the disjointed adherence to a free and fair political system.

Cambodia has been in a constant state of struggle to democratise its society since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, yet took the first steps in establishing a multi-party liberal democracy when it embarked on its first democratic elections in 1993.

And Koul Panha made certain he was a part of it.

Education, then and now, is a passion of Koul Panha’s. He studied at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia with chemical engineering as his major, and also went on to learn about teaching.

His clear passion for passing on knowledge and raising awareness among others again came to the fore when he became one of 15 founding members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) in the hope of gradually bringing peace to the Kingdom.

Kuol Panha’s interest in this kind of work spurned him on to then volunteer with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in order to assist and prepare the 1993 elections.

After completing his engineering studies in Phnom Penh, Koul Panha then joined the non-partisan Task Force on Cambodian Elections and was one of the organisers when the group morphed into the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) in 1997. By 1998, Koul Panha had become the director of education voters of the committee and has been tireless in his work throughout the Kingdom’s five national and local elections that followed the first.

In 1999, with support from ADHOC, Koul Panha completed a master’s degree in the politics of alternative development from the Institute of Social Studies in The Netherlands.

According to Koul Panha, the central aim and most vital element in achieving a safe and stable democratic nation lies in the electoral system becoming the people’s own; in it becoming their main instrument in building a democratic nation.

Again, he strongly believes that the advancement of democracy and elections free of violence, corruption and factionalism lies in education – particularly the education of youth.

“I think that hopefulness is youth. Youths participate not only in the election process but also in social activities mainly involving political tasks. And youth do not think that politics is dirty work,” he added.

“Politics is a necessary area which our youths have to study and comprehend since sometimes because of wrong politics, it may make our country not develop or be stable, which in turn results in human violations.”

Koul Panha’s own father was a clerk at the Ministry of Interior and his mother was an officer within the National Library. He says that due to his mother’s job, he was “fortunate” in that he could read a number of books that weren’t freely or willingly distributed or loaned to the public, many of which were politically based.

Now, as information is more readily available and formal education is an option for some of the nation’s youth, Koul Panha aims to share his experiences with younger generations, hoping to inspire them in the continued struggle for democracy as, he claims: “Only youths are the power that can enforce democracy and better our society.”

By the year 2000 Koul Panha had been promoted to the position of executive director of COMFREL and to date, the organisation has deployed over 100,000 volunteers to cover 95 percent of Cambodia’s polling stations, while over 150,000 Khmer have participated in various COMFREL training programmes and workshops.

Yet Koul Panha remains humble about his achievements and the significant impact his work has had on Cambodia’s political landscape.

“It [being a political activist] does not mean we are skillful or we do whatever. Political work is what we have to know, and getting involved in politics can train us all to become a leader.”

The announcement of the six recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards was declared on July 27, 2011. Koul Panha will travel to Manila, the Philippines, to be presented with his award on August 31.

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