“...a society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history.”
For many, Reach Sambath was the public face and voice of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. However, no one will hear his voice or see him on television again. Sambath died on May 11 at the age of 47 after suffering a severe stroke.
Sambath was many things, among them a professor at the department of Media and Communication at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the chief of public affairs at the ECCC and a journalist who worked all his life to help improve the media in a country ravaged by war and genocide. He was also a Khmer Rouge survivor who sought justice for millions.
He is survived by his wife, three children and hundreds of media students who were so happy to be learning from him.
For Sambath, his whole life was a struggle to survive and find justice. Born in 1964, he was 11 when the Khmer Rouge took power in his home province of Svay Rieng on April 17, 1975. On that same day his father, a government official, was taken away to be killed. Soon after, he and his brother were sent to Battambang, but without his mother and other siblings, who were sent to another place. He and his brother survived the Khmer Rouge regime, but his mother and other siblings did not.
After the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, Sambath, by then an orphan, moved from one place to another to earn a living before coming to Phnom Penh where he then attended Phnom Don Penh High School, now Sisowath High School.
Sambath was smart and had an advantage because he could speak English, according to Puy Kea, who also attended Phnom Don Penh School. Kea knew Sambath since 1985 when Sambath taught English in a small house behind the Royal Palace. At that time, learning English was not popular. Kea recalled that he and Sambath were very close and Sambath did not charge him for the class. “He [Sambath] asked me to collect fees from students and he did not let me pay the fee,” said Kea.
In 1988, Sambath won a scholarship to study agriculture in India, although he did not have much interest in that field. In 1992, he returned home and started working with Agence France-Presse when the country was in turmoil. He started his career as a journalist at a time when the country’s civil war was still raging.
He reported for AFP during the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission, the first general election and the post-election era, in particular the 1997 political fighting between the then co-prime ministers.
Kea, who is now a journalist and was Sambath’s colleague, has many vivid memories of Sambath. Kea recalled their experiences traveling to Malai and Anlong Veng together when the two regions were still controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
Luke Hunt, who joined AFP in Phnom Penh nearly a decade after Sambath, wrote “as a war correspondent, he [Sambath] was among the bravest”. According to Kea, because Sambath had courage, he was regarded as one of the “Four Aces”, which also included Ker Munthit.
Munthit and Sambath met in 1992 and they were roommates at Columbia University from 2000 to 2001. Upon their return to Cambodia in 2002, Munthit worked for the Associated Press, while Sambath resumed his career with AFP.
One year later, Sambath left AFP to teach at the department of Media and Communications at RUPP, where he served as a part-time professor. In early 2006, Sambath started work as a spokesperson for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. In June 2009 he was appointed Chief of Public Affairs, the position he held until his death.