In a country where corruption is rife, female rights are often oppressed and human rights regularly violated, attempting to advocate change comes with great courage. Here are 10 inspirational Cambodians who have in their own way contributed to changing their country for the better.
Chut Wutty was an environmental activist, who devoted his life to patrolling and protecting the country’s forests, which are being pillaged by illegal loggers and deforestation. As a firm defender of the last remaining trees, Wutty worked with isolated communities living in the heart of the jungle to help patrol the areas, photographing and seizing equipment and illegal hauls. On April 26, 2012, he was shot dead under suspicious circumstances as he escorted two female journalists to a protected forest in Koh Rong, where he was trying to expose illegal logging gangs that allegedly involved military officials. A moving documentary, I Am Chut Wutty, follows his brave campaigning.
Having survived the Khmer Rouge regime, under which almost a third of the population died between 1975 and 1979, Rithy Panh has made it his life mission to ensure the world never forgets the atrocities that happened, and they are never repeated. After the regime fell, Panh was sent to live in France, where he picked up his passion for film. Since then, he has directed a swathe of films and documentaries, with his 2013 documentary, The Missing Picture, scooping top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival as well as being Cambodia’s entry for best foreign film at the Oscars.
Music saved Arn Chorn-Pond’s life growing up under the Khmer Rouge. Separated from his family, he was sent to Wat Ek Phnom, a Buddhist temple converted into a prison camp where thousands of children lived and died. It was here that he was chosen to play propaganda music to soldiers — something that saved him from being killed, unlike many of his peers. After escaping the camp and making his way to the Thai border, Chorn-Pond was sent to America. Several years later, he returned to Cambodia where he was reunited with his flute teacher. With 90 percent of the country’s artists killed by the Pol Pot-led regime, he set about finding the survivors to rekindle Cambodia’s traditional music scene. Cambodian Living Arts was born, an organisation that continues to tirelessly work to push the country’s arts.
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was eight-years-old when the Khmer Rouge took over her country. Growing up under the regime, her only escape was to close her eyes and transport herself into another world — a world where Apsara dancers enchanted audiences with their graceful movements. After the Khmer Rouge were ousted, she moved back to the capital with surviving relatives and attended the Royal University of Fine Arts, studying dance. She graduated in 1988 and in 1991, she married American John Shapiro, moving to California, where she taught dance. The couple went on to found Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, working to promote and preserve Cambodian arts and culture. She returned to Cambodia and set up Sophiline Arts Ensemble in 2006, and since then, she has created a new form of Cambodian contemporary dance, fusing classical movements with modern forms. Her troupe has travelled the globe, scooping a clutch of awards along the way.
Fashion designer Vannary San is one woman on a mission to revive and promote Cambodia’s silk heritage across the world. With the country once famous for its golden silk, the tradition was teetering on the brink of extinction after the Khmer Rouge reign killed the majority of artisans. However, San has spent the last decade tirelessly working to revive the ancient art to create an ethical form of the fabric, employing those in impoverished communities to create the delicate fabric. As well as breathing new life into silk through Lotus Silk, at the forefront of San’s plan is providing a sustainable form of income, paying fair wages and offering fair working conditions to her fellow countrymen and women. On top of this, San is one of the country’s leading female entrepreneurs, and she works to encourage other women to follow their dreams.
As Cambodia’s most successful female film director, Kulikar Sotho has collected a clutch of awards during her career. She is the mastermind behind the 2014 award-winning film, The Last Reel, which scooped several awards at international film festivals, and she is also the producer of Ruin, which won the special Orizzonti prize at Venice Film Festival. Sotho has also worked on a series of feature films, including Tomb Raider and Wish You Were Here and documentaries for the BBC and Discovery.
Kounila Keo was one of Cambodia’s first bloggers and digital pioneers, launching Blue Lady Blog in 2007 as a platform to openly talk about issues in her country. Since then, the 29-year-old has worked as a correspondent for a swathe of international media, including LA Times and The Independent in UK, spearheaded BBC multimedia project, Loy9, which aimed at encouraging Cambodia’s youth to engage in public life, has taken to the TEDx stage several times and was last year crowned one of Forbes Under 30s. On top of that, she champions female rights in Cambodia, encouraging her peers to shine, and she has launched her own successful company, RedHill, offering PR, communication strategies and digital marketing.
Outspoken DJ Nana, whose real name is Sovathana Neang, has managed to capture the imagination of young Cambodians with her agony aunt-style radio show and firm Facebook following. Her radio shows give young Cambodians the chance to talk about issues that are often still seen as taboo, such as advice on relationships, sex before marriage and family troubles, as well as more serious issues such as domestic violence and sexual abuse. She also runs her DJ Nana Tips Facebook page, where she posts tips and comments, and engages with her strong audience.
Standing as a symbol of peace activism in Cambodia, Tep Vanny is currently serving a jail sentence for daring to defend her community. Across a decade, Vanny spearheaded many peaceful protests against the government and private companies when they announced they were to fill in the capital’s Boeung Kak Lake to pave the way for luxury development, evicting the communities who had called it home for generations. Rallying the community together, Vanny headed several demonstrations, which ended up with her receiving a two-and-half year jail sentence in February 2017 for “international violence with aggravating circumstances”.
This investigative reporter and environmental activist scooped the 2016 Goldman Environmental prize after spending several months undercover, working to expose the illegal logging that is rife in Cambodia’s forests. The former colleague of Chut Wutty has remained undeterred by the murder of his friend and continues to campaign to save the national parks and surrounding areas. With great risk involved with his work, he and his family are constantly on the move to preserve their safety.