PROFILES IN COURAGE: Vignettes from Cambodian Life

Sunday, February 28, 2010

First published in September 2008. Since mid-2009, the Center for Social Development (CSD) has been effectively non-functioning and run aground as staff who could not be absorbed by the Center for Justice & Reconciliation struggle to survive. Two years ago, CSD had some 80 local staff. Where is Madam Chea Vannath, now that she has succeeded in claiming her Board status via the court injunctive order? The last I heard, the some tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment were sold off or stored in a "laveng" on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Profiles in Courage is a tribute to the former CSD staff, wherever they are, who still believe and who still trust, despite...


Vignettes from Cambodian Life

In this Voice of Justice column, we write often of disposition and virtues which we believe to be first principles - foundational blocks for meaningful living - in the hope that these reminders will turn into clarion calls to action. We ourselves are very much aware of the precarious position we are in as a public purveyor of these messages and at the need for humility, that we ourselves should be actualizing these 'principles of first things' from empty, aspirational rhetoric into daily, growing habits. As we know, it is action which speaks louder than words.

Here, we focus on one of the virtues most needed in this culture of embedded fear: COURAGE. Courage, according to Merriam-Webster, is the ability to conquer fear or despair; valor; bravery.

It is interesting that courage is something that is simultaneously most needed and most shown often and brightly here in Cambodia.

Not despairing amidst trying circumstances

We Cambodians have an amazing ability of resilience amidst great odds, not to despair but hope in the face of hopelessness. This ability not to despair shines most brilliantly among rural Cambodians.

In my travels through the provinces - albeit for the CSD "Justice & National Reconciliation" public forums or Civil Party Orphans Class seminars, other meetings or for just pure pleasure - I am deeply moved oftentimes by the sheer determination not to despair (courage!) of Cambodians in the most trying, poverty-ridden, poverty-persisting living conditions as reflected in the smiles and laughter and warm, embracing welcome to visitors of faraway, foreign Phnom Penh.

Daily acts of bravery against abusive powers

I remember several elections ago smiling and at times being moved to tears when I see shack holding up an opposition sign when these signs were rare and potential dangerous attractions; this family was going to vote its conscience despite the odds and forgoing potential social/material benefits. Whatever is one's political persuasion, it is difficult not to admire this type of courageous convictions. During these most recent elections as well, in CSD's work of elections monitoring, we witnessed and heard firsthand acts of bravery and valor of common Cambodians, forgoing personal gains for the sake of their conscience and dignity.

I read with overwhelming pride of the two students who were the only ones who achieved all A's in their exams. What odds when one thinks of the culture of corruption in schools and the larger unfriendly environment of noise, tight living quarters, inadequate materials, for learning. But amidst these odds what great courageous accomplishments!

We see time and again the bravery of common Cambodians standing up, with only their conscience and moral compass, to abusive acts of power of authorities and the wealthy, whether relating to land or other fundamental rights. What valor!

Courage to stand up and be counted at the ECCC

One of my joys working with participants of CSD justice and reconciliation forums and with victims who'd like to become civil parties in the criminal proceedings at the Khmer Rouge tribunal is witnessing the courage and bravery of these individuals, who have already suffered so much, coming forward and sharing with each other their long-held stories and pains - with most of them, open to sharing their stories with the world, no matter how difficult it is for them to tell this story. In a culture where falsely we believe "men are diamonds and women are white cloth easily stained", imagine the courage of a woman who had been raped filing a complaint and going public with this?!

Courage of CSD Staff fighting for dignity and voice, for their present and future

During the almost three years I have been at the helm of CSD, I am repeatedly stunned anew by the people who work with me -their sheer refusal to succumb to despair and most difficult circumstances, and in the process shining like stars, balancing with great aplomb family life as father or mother (of one, two, three children), husband or wife, and the larger extended family relations who often-times depend on their financial support. And amidst it all, they produce excellent work for CSD, too regularly working overtime, unasked, with me oftentimes requesting that they go home early to their family or before it gets too dark to risk security in their long journey home. Then, there are the staff who make unimaginable sacrifices as they live and work separately from their spouse and/or newborn children in order that they may provide for their family. Given their pleasant demeanor and their valiant spirit, you'd never know of these sacrifices.

Many of them are known to you as a result of their solidarity and braved stance in response to personal acts of public destruction, speaking with one voice against abusive power, most recently when I was away for an August family wedding in California. The staff are not only advocating others to be courageous; they are living by example. It moves me to know that these are the courageous, high-quality individuals I am honored to work alongside.

Courage is the only response to fear

As with any other disposition, courage is only fixed in us through practice. As Aristotle notes in the Nicomachean Ethics almost 2.400 years ago, we become brave only by doing brave acts: "By being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them."

Moreover, when we encounter obstacles, let us be reminded that they are only invitations to courage.

Theary C. SENG, a member of the New York Bar Association, former director of Center for Social Development (March 2006—July 2009), founder and Board of the Center for Justice & Reconciliation (, founding adviser of the Association of Khmer Rouge Victims (, is currently writing her second book, under a grant, amidst her speaking engagements. For additional information, please visit Theary's website at


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