In a country where people with disabilities have long been ushered out of sight, Khut Sokun has spent years becoming one of the most visible journalists in the country, standing in front of a camera and delivering the news.
Sokun, a live-video reporter for Voice of Democracy (VOD), lost his left leg to a snakebite in 2007 while he was still in high school. But despite being told from the outset that he had little to hope for from life – even his family urged him to quit school and stay on the farm to feed the chickens – Sokun had other ideas.
“I wanted to study ever since I was a child,” Sokun said in a recent interview. “My siblings didn’t go to school, and my parents are poor farmers who just wanted us to help work at the farm.”
Indeed, Sokun had been under pressure to quit school many years before he lost his leg. His determination to get his education caused so much friction that in 2001 he decided to leave home. He spent years staying with various relatives until he finished Grade 12, though he often returned for visits.
It was during one such trip in 2007 that, while he and his brother were in a rice field looking after his parents’ cattle, Sokun stepped on a snake. To this day he doesn’t know what type of snake it was, only that it bit him on the leg and disappeared into the night.
His mother decided to treat him with home remedies, applying battery acid to his leg, feeding him tobacco, and making him swallow a tincture of local plants.
It didn’t work. A fortnight later – with the flesh rotting off his leg – his mother sought professional care. But the family was poor, and Sokun was turned away from Phnom Penh’s Preah Kossamak Hospital because they were unable to pay.
Finally, a doctor in Kampong Chhnang told Sokun he would need to amputate, warning him that even such a drastic measure might not work. Sokun, understandably, was wracked with anxiety.
“The doctor decided to cut off my leg, but I was still not guaranteed to live,” he recalled. “At the time I thought I would die.”
Though the amputation was successful, Sokun felt he had lost everything. He believed his life was hopeless, a situation further compounded by hearing his relatives redoubling their naysaying, telling him to abandon his dream of an education.
“I felt discouraged and tried to isolate myself,” he said.
In that respect, Sokun’s situation was not unique, according to Ngin Saoroth, executive director of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, who says Cambodian society often seeks to exclude disabled people.
For years, that exclusion was even institutional. At the time of Sokun’s incident, for example, the Ministry of Education forbade people with disabilities from becoming teachers. A new law to promote and protect the rights of disabled people was passed in 2009, but the law lacks regulatory teeth, and government agencies and the private sector alike have dragged their feet in implementing it.
In fact, earlier this week, government officials were still meeting to discuss standardised disabled accessibility in public buildings as mandated under the law, some seven years after its passage.
Meanwhile, according to Ngin, the social stigma remains widespread.
“It is not easy to change the mindset of people,” he said, adding that many Cambodians view disabled people as “burdens on society” that should be removed from the public sphere.
Ngin said he also worried that Buddhism, the dominant religion of Cambodia, is partially responsible for society’s general lack of empathy.
“Many people believe disabilities are a result of bad karma – that they did something in the past life to deserve their disability,” he said.
Despite this pervasive discrimination, Sokun’s friends rallied behind him after his amputation, bringing him to school each day. A year after the accident, Sokun graduated from high school and won a scholarship from the NGO World Vision to live and study in Phnom Penh.
More important than the scholarship, though, the organisation helped show Sokun that a life with a disability was still a life, he said, while seeing other people with disabilities forge full lives helped him cope.
In 2012, Sokun landed an internship at Voice of Democracy (VOD) radio. Two years later, he graduated university and became a live-video reporter, but his difficulties didn’t end there.
Despite his sunny disposition, Sokun admitted that his disability does restrict him – “I cannot walk or run as fast as others,” he noted.
But the problem goes beyond the difficulties of hustling from one press event to another, he said, recalling one protest in Phnom Penh in 2015 when he was assaulted by Daun Penh’s notoriously violent security guards.
They knocked him to the ground – some kicked him, while others tried to grab his video gear.
Because of his hampered mobility, Sokun couldn’t get up. Fortunately, some of the nearby protesters came to his aid, helped him to stand and protected his camera. But the experience didn’t deter him.
“I love this job,” he says. “That is the kind of news that I want to cover. I want to show it to the public.”
Pa Nguon Teang, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, which owns VOD, says he is impressed by the commitment Sokun has shown in the face of adversity, and regards him as a role model for people with disabilities.
Sokun, for his part, says he sees his VOD colleagues as an extension of his family.
Sokun says he’s proud of what he’s achieved in his career – one he never dreamed he could have as he prepared to lose his leg to surgery nearly a decade ago. He hopes his experience can serve as inspiration for other disabled people, just as he was inspired by others during his darkest days.
“Disabled people should not give up hope,” he said, before again stressing the importance of education.
“If you want a good profession and a better future, then don’t drop out of school.”