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Courageous activist slain in Rwanda

Courageous activist slain in Rwanda

AFTER escaping the Khmer Rouge regime and surviving its aftermath of turmoil and

war, Cambodian Chim Chan Sastra met his end this month in another, faraway Killing

Fields.

Sastra, 34, a veteran of war who became an advocate of peace, was one of four United

Nations human rights observers gunned down in Rwanda Feb 4.

He is believed to be the first Cambodian killed while trying to keep the peace in

another country of conflict.

A sense of indebtedness to the UN for its efforts in Cambodia - as well as disillusionment

over the subsequent pace of democracy here - saw Sastra volunteer for the Rwanda

duty a year ago. The fact that both countries had suffered genocide was a factor,

friends say.

"He felt that the international community and the UN had done a lot for Cambodia,

had poured a lot of resources in here...he really felt that Cambodians should reciprocate,"

said Brad Adams of the UN Center for Human Rights (UNCHR) in Phnom Penh, where Sastra

formerly worked.

"He specifically said genocide - 'We had genocide here, they had genocide there'."

Noted for his idealism, passion and, most of all, fearlessness, Sastra's passing

was mourned as a major loss for the Cambodian human rights cause.

He was shot dead, along with a Briton and two Rwandans, after their UN marked vehicles

were stopped by Hutus near the Zairean border in south-west Rwanda.

His death came a month before he was due to return home from the African nation,

where, as in Cambodia, his natural enthusiasm and dedication had been sorely tested.

In his last letters to friends at home, he expressed dismay at the endless violence

in Rwanda and eagerness to return home.

He is survived by his wife - who had not known he was in Rwanda - and three children,

aged 10, 8 and 6.

Sastra's life story is one of a transformation from violence to peace. A former Khmer

People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) resistance fighter on the Thai border,

he laid down his gun to go to the United States, where he earned himself two university

degrees. Rather than settle there permanently, he returned to Cambodia, where he

won recognition as a courageous human rights worker.

"I just can't get over the irony," said Brad Adams. "After the Khmer

Rouge regime, he was a battalion chief on the border with 500 men under his charge.

"Then he steps away from all that, gets himself an education in the US, comes

back and preaches non-violence. Then he goes to another country and gets killed -

it's sick."

Sastra came to know war young. In late 1978, at the age of 16 - after he had earlier

fled the Pol Pot regime to go to Vietnam - he took part in the Vietnamese invasion

of Cambodia to evict the KR.

He served as a government soldier under the Vietnamese occupation for several years

before joining his refugee family on the Thai border, according to his father, Chim

Saing. He later joined the anti-Vietnamese resistance, becoming a KPNLF officer.

In 1989 he was chosen to attend a human rights course at Columbia University in New

York. He stayed in the US until late 1994, earning himself a Bachelor's and a Master's

degree from a Massachusetts university.

Turning down the chance to work in the US - "It's not my home," he later

told Adams - he returned to Cambodia and found work with the UNCHR.

"He was absolutely fearless," said Adams, recalling the time that villagers

from Kraingyov, a commune sponsored by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, came to Phnom

Penh to attack an opposition newspaper's offices.

"The day after...he went to Kraingyov by himself. He knew if he went there straight

away, the villagers would still be talking about it. He was right and got some of

the best information before anyone else."

But it was land disputes - arguably the biggest, most contentious human rights issue

in the Kingdom - which Sastra spent most time on.

"He would go and speak to the police chief or the governor - he would get in

their face," Adams recalled. "At times he would talk them out of evicting

whole villages off their land.

"I said to him once 'Aren't you worried about going up to these guys who own

this land, who are also the police chief or are local militia, and you're getting

in their way?' He said 'No, they won't harm me, I work for the UN.'"

Sastra had a profound respect for the UN, Adams said, but became disheartened with

post-UNTAC democratic progress.

"He wasn't a dreamer, but he thought things were going to change after the elections,

that there was going to be real democracy and human rights. He believed the UN really

had that power."

Sastra, in his spare time, began working for Sam Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party, where

he held three positions, according to Secretary General Khieu Rada, who said he "worked

very hard, day and night".

But Sastra became increasingly depressed with the state of democracy and human rights.

Adams remembers him coming into the office crying, saying: "I feel sad for my

country. It's never going to improve."

In early 1996 he responded to a UN circular seeking volunteers for Rwanda. "He

said it would be to the credit of Cambodia...that he go to serve human rights somewhere

else in the world," Khieu Rada recalled.

For whatever reason, Sastra didn't tell his wife where he was going.

"He told me he was going to work in Paris. Only when he died did I know he was

in Rwanda," Chimm Chantha said tearfully at his funeral last week.

In Rwanda, it seems, Sastra remained his usual self. After his death, Adams received

a call from a close friend of Sastra's in Rwanda, who said that "he would go

anyway, he was fearless."

But, ever the crusader impatient for change, Sastra again faced disillusionment.

He decided it was time to go home.

"He wrote to me three or four times when he was over there," Adams said.

"In the first letters, he was very excited and wanted to get on with the job.

His last letter was 'This country is hopeless, they fundamentally want to kill each

other. I want to come home.'"

Sastra asked, and the UNCHR agreed, for his old job back. He was due to return in

December but the UN asked him to stick out another three months in Rwanda.

With a month of his term left to go, he finally came home in a coffin draped in the

blue and white of the UN, his debt to the world more than repaid. His body was cremated

in a ceremony attended by hundreds at Wat Botum.

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