Earlier this year, Pung Chhiv Kek – Cambodia’s first female doctor – was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration, for services to peace-building and human rights. In the 1980s, Madame Kek and her late husband brought together Prime Minister Hun Sen and then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk for talks that eventually led to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. In 1992, she returned permanently to Cambodia and founded the rights group Licadho. She spoke to Robert Carmichael about the places in Phnom Penh that mean the most to her
The Faculty of Medicine, Phnom Penh
I spent four years [1960-64] here in a class of 32 – two Cambodian women and three Frenchwomen. The boys in class didn’t discriminate against us. When I came back to Cambodia for two weeks in 1989, the first thing I did was run to see what was going on there. We were really all of us [students] close friends; we were happy; there was no violence, and our aim was to study, to pass our exams and to be a good medical doctors. And we knew that when we finished, we could have a very good job in any hospital and have a decent salary for our family without thinking about bribery. At that time – in 1960 – Cambodians could have very good medical care. Nobody had to pay bribes, only the official fees. So it was good, and we were proud of our faculty. It had a very good reputation. When I decided to go to France in 1964, I had the same diploma as other French students – [the French university] tested me for the first year to see if I had the academic level, and it was no problem. After four more years in France, I became a medical doctor with a French diploma.
The old National Assembly building
My mother [the country’s first female MP] was also the first woman to be elected as acting president of the National Assembly [in 1958]. Why? Because the men were always fighting. So they asked Madame Pung to become acting president. After a year, my mother asked them: Now are you finished fighting among yourselves? I was only 16 years old when she was first elected [in 1958], and I liked to follow her and see what was going on. I liked to stay at the back – in the place for the public – and follow all the debates. She was not very tall at all, just 1 metre 46, very tiny. How among all those men she managed to make them obey with her gavel saying: You speak only now! After the election, they would all be sworn in, and so I always see in my memory my mother alone, very tiny, on the steps of the National Assembly, surrounded by all the men. [Editor’s note: the image, from the mid-1960s, shows Madame Pung (with white handbag) next to Sihanouk.]
When I was at the Lycée Descartes for Grade 6 [in 1953] and Grade 7, my parents were working in Kampong Cham [in the education sector]. I wanted to continue going to French school, but there weren’t any in Kampong Cham, so I wanted to stay in this boarding school, the College Norodom, with my cousin, whose family was in Prey Veng. It was set up by Sihanouk to promote education for women – it was a boarding school for girls, and was free. It was very good, and selection was hard. I still remember I would ride my bicycle with my hat in the morning to go to study [at Lycée Descartes], then after school I came back to College Norodom to study – they were very strict – and eat and sleep. At night, I had my bed close to my cousin; it was very nice. And at College Norodom, you had security and I was the only one allowed to go out – to go to Lycée Descartes. The girls would ask me to get a lot of things, especially letters to post to their boyfriends, because all the letters that would come to them were controlled by the teachers – they opened all the letters – woah, woah, woah. So a lot of women said: “Can you go to the Post Office?” I said: Maybe one time a week only, so, that day, if you want, I go to the Post Office for you. That is secret! And they tried to bribe me by giving me cake, candy.
Boeung Kak Lake Restaurants
It’s gone now, but when I came back to Phnom Penh in 1989 some of my friends – the survivors [of the Khmer Rouge period] – brought me to a restaurant at Boeung Kak lake. It was built in wood over the water, and I remember I was very cautious – I didn’t want to fall in. I came the first time in 1989 [after leaving Cambodia in 1971] for just two weeks, and then after that – ’90, ’91, ’92 – I came maybe two or three times a year. And after I set up Licadho I had no time to go to the restaurant. I liked everything about it – it reminded me of some lake in Europe. For me, having a restaurant on the water is my dream. It was quiet, a peaceful place. I had a dream for that lake, to have something like [Lake Geneva], smaller of course. And that’s why when they started to fill the lake, my dream was gone – and besides, they evicted people, and people suffered. And I was very affected by that. And my dream was gone forever. It’s sad.
Institut Français du Cambodge
My father died in 2001. But ever since the Alliance française set it up in 1992, he used to go to the library, because he wanted to borrow books. He also liked to stay in the library [and read]. And I used to take books home to him. So it reminds me of my father. He was always in education, and always read. And the only place after 1991 – when the UN came – to have some French books was that place. I went there with him many times. Also why I like this place: if you go inside, there are a lot of trees and there is Le Bistro restaurant. It’s not so much about the food, but very much about the ambience. A peaceful ambience, close to the street but lots of trees. After dinner in that place, you want to stay longer and talk about everything with your friends. It’s so peaceful.