The faces of the proud students and parents at a recent university graduation ceremony turned somber as an aging couple took to the stage. The parents were accepting a degree on behalf of their son, who tragically passed away before he could graduate.

As the diploma was handed to the grieving parents, tears welled up in the eyes of the assembled dignitaries and guests.

“Son! I have come to receive your degree! We will keep you in our memories,” cried the boy’s mother, as she took to the stage .

Pictures and video clips of the parents accepting the degree – in full graduation regalia – from Tum Saravuth, rector of Svay Rieng University, have been widely shared across social media. They have attracted many comments and respectful messages and condolences from people who were moved by the story.

Chhan Sonthea, the eldest of the five children of Brok Thek and Lon Phally, a farmer and construction worker, died from an electrical shock while helping his father with some construction work.

Sonthea, who earned his degree from Svay Rieng University in mathematics in 2019, had begged his parents to allow him to pursue a master’s degree at the Royal University of Administration.

“Due to the financial pressures brought on by Covid-19, he took a year off from studying. He worked at the office of a company in Svay Rieng, to help our family,” Thek, 52, told The Post.

Thek’s second and third children are also studying at university, while his two youngest are in high school.

“My wife and I work hard to make sure that our kids have the best education and opportunities we can offer. Even though I build houses for a living, my own home has been unfinished for more than ten years, as we spend every penny we have on our children’s education,” he said.

Sonthea asked for a few days leave from work in August 2022, as he planned to return home and prepare to take the teacher’s entrance exam. He had applied to take the exam at the higher, secondary and elementary levels.

While he was home, he and one of his brothers decided to help their father on a small construction project. It was then that the tragic accident occurred.

“It happened at 3pm. He had just drilled some holes in a wall to help my father. It had just stopped raining. I don’t know exactly what happened, but when he pulled a plug from a power socket, he was killed instantly by an electrical shock,” said Sonthea’s brother.

“One of my sons was removing some formwork on the upper floor of a house I was working on, and Sonthea was laying bricks downstairs by himself. When my third son shouted that his brother had been electrocuted, my heart almost stopped beating, and I passed out,” recalled Thek.

The ashes of Chhan Sonthea in an urn opposite his diploma. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Upon hearing the terrible news, both parents fainted from shock. After Sonthea’s body was brought home by the couple’s neighbours, Thek squared his shoulders and began to arrange a traditional funeral ceremony.

When they learned that the university planned to hold a January 30 graduation ceremony for the students of Sonthea’s year, Thek and his wife visited the school with a very special request.

“I asked them ‘My son is dead, may I take his place?’ and Sam Thavy, who knew my son, arranged for us to attend the ceremony and honour him,” said Thek.

Thek only found out that his son was one of the best students at the university when he and his wife applied to take part in the graduation on his behalf.

“When we went up to receive his degree, the principal said Sathea was the number one student in his school year. When he announced that, everyone broke down, including the university rector Saravuth, who arranged graduation robes for us to wear,” he explained.

The grieving parents are planning to place Sonthea’s Bachelor’s degree in a stupa for their son, and have received a 500,000 riel grant for its construction.

The ashes of their son will be kept in a small mausoleum in front of their house.

“We will decorate it with his qualification and photographs of our loving son, who everyone agreed was a kind and thoughtful person,” said Thek, who is still wracked by guilt for letting his son work that fateful day.

“When my wife and I ascended the stage, we shouted for Sonthea to come and accept his degree. The fact that we never got to see our oldest son graduate will haunt us for the rest of our lives,” he added.

Srun Channareth, a professor at the Faculty of Electronics at the National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia (NPIC), said wiring and repairing electrical systems – especially near standing water – should only be carried out by qualified experts, a fact which many Cambodians are unaware of.

“They should employ protective equipment and wear the appropriate shoes. Amateurs should not risk their lives as electricity can be extremely dangerous if a person doesn’t know what they are doing,” he added.

He explained that occupational safety is an important subject at the institute, and all students are taught first aid.

“People should not do electrical work on their own. Should an accident occur, a second person can switch off a circuit breaker, or even pull the person away from the source of the electrocution, as long as they are careful not to make direct contact with the victim,” he told The Post.

Channareth said that in many homes, especially in rural areas, electrical systems were not wired correctly, and safety features are rarely incorporated.

“Using 3 or 5 amperes fuses while an appliance is drawing the same power can easily cause an electrical explosion or arcing,” he warned.