Thet Sambath on Cambodia’s Killing Fields
"I am honored to be here to accept this award from the International Center for Journalists. I would like to thank the Awards judges and Knight Foundation for giving me this honor. It is beyond my dreams or hopes.
For more than 15 years, I have worked for English-language newspapers in Cambodia. My first job was to translate an interview for a story. At that time I did not even understand what a journalist really is.
I soon learned how important journalists are for society: They inform people about their rights. They fight corruption. They help weak people who are victims of the rich and powerful.
After I understood this, I decided to look into the history of the Khmer Rouge, the regime that turned the whole Cambodian population into victims.
I am a victim, too. My father, mother, brother and uncles were killed. Nearly two million Cambodians died from 1975 to 1979.
Like many other Cambodians, my life at that time was full of suffering. For 2 years, I had nothing to eat but porridge and anything else I could find – poisonous fruits, small lizards, cockroaches, centipedes, even scorpions.
In 2001, I finally had the chance to interview Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s Brother Number Two. We talked for more than four years. One day in 2004 he started to tell me why he and Pol Pot decided to kill people.
Cambodians knew many people had died. Most people didn’t – and still don’t – understand why. At that moment, I understood that this was the most important thing I could do as a journalist and as a Cambodian. This became my life’s work for the next ten years. I knew I had to act fast. The victims and the Khmer Rouge were getting old and dying. Only these people could tell us the truth.
Getting Nuon Chea to tell the truth was very hard. I think it happened because I also lived with secrets. For ten years, I didn’t tell anyone I was a victim. I was worried that the Khmer Rouge people would stop talking to me if they knew.
I also could not tell my wife and children how my father, mother and brother died. I did not want to tell them the full truth – that until the mid 1990s, I cried before I went to sleep every night for 16 years.
I have paid in other ways for trying to learn the truth. Colleagues, friends and family helped pay for my travel to Khmer Rouge areas to report. I would like to thank the friends and colleagues who have supported my work over the years, especially Korean-American reporter Gina Chon who is now at The Wall Street Journal, Voice of America correspondent Pin Sisovan, Chris Decherd who is head of Voice Of America in Khmer, Dave Bloss who was my colleague at the Cambodian Daily, and most of all Rob Lemkin, co-producer of “Enemies of the People.”
For me, the film has brought new problems. Former Khmer Rouge officials and military officers who are now in the Cambodian government fear I will reveal their crimes. Recently, there have been five attempts to harm me.
I worry about my safety. But I will continue my research. I am returning to Cambodia soon to work on a new film. It will explain the conflict inside the Khmer Rouge leadership that led to the killing fields.
As I accept this award, I would like to thank the American organizations that are helping Cambodia to develop. I also am grateful to the International Center for Journalists for helping me make this dream come true.
Finally I would like to thank my wife, Yeang Neary. She is with me tonight. Without her help, I never could have done this work. I would like to say we share this award.
Thank you very much."