One of Siem Reap’s favourite sons, US-based Ronnie Yimsut, is in town celebrating his 49th birthday today and overseeing one of his many projects, the construction of the massive Bakong Technical College on the edge of town.
A survivor of the Khmer Rouge, his story is chilling, remarkable and inspiring. As a boy, he was captured in 1977 and taken to Tonle Sap Lake in 1978 with his family and others, and became the only survivor in his group. He lived in the forest for 17 days before heading with a group of escapees to the Thai border, where they were detained in a Thai prison then sent to a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border.
It wasn’t until Brian Ellis from CBS News turned up at the camp that Yimsut’s life began to turn around. Ellis made a documentary titled, What Happened to Cambodia, which featured Yimsut.
A cousin in the US saw the documentary and contacted him. Yimsut was then sponsored to travel to the States, where he finished high school and graduated from the University of Oregon. He
is now a landscape architect for the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.
“A psychologist once told me I look for ways to cope with what happened to my family and I during the Khmer Rouge regime, so I try to make the world a peaceful place,” he remembers. “I seek solitude, nature and mentally to be in a good environment. Landscape architecture and working with the forestry department gives me that,” says Yimsut.
Besides this passion, Yimsut’s other obsession is working with not-for-profit organisations. In 2003 he became the project coordinator for the CowBank project, where donors can purchase a cow for an underprivileged Cambodian family. He also started a micro-lending project in Siem Reap in the same year, enabling residents to borrow money for a small amount of interest.
He also serves as an advisor for the Cambodian-American Community of Oregon, and is the international projects coordinator for Project Enlighten. Now, however, most of Yimsut’s energy is invested in his Siem Reap technical college project, of which he is the founder and chair.
Speaking at the construction site of the Bakong Technical College, he said: “The local people are impressed. They are fully embracing the project.”
Being a creative architect, Yimsut enjoys pushing the boundaries with his designs and his American way of thinking is also personified by his philosophy to give women a greater chance to study and work at the college.
“The goal is to help women in remote areas because they are the ones that run the economy, the ones that run the households, and yet they are not being educated enough. We want to give them that opportunity.”
When in Siem Reap, he often revisits the lake where his KR tragedy unfolded.
“I was there only yesterday,” he said. “In front of many people, I broke down. The wounds are still raw. I may become a Buddhist monk as payback and to honour my family, but this is my hatred.”
Ronnie Yimsut has written a book called Facing the Khmer Rouge, A Cambodian Journey, which will be available to buy this spring.