Linked with Center for Social Development CSD.
She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.
Chea Vannath (born 1948) is President of the Center for Social Development CSD, which promotes school curricula on transparency, monitors the courts and parliament and organizes public debates on the Khmer Rouge tribunal, corruption and other issues. After the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Chea was forced to work in labor camps before escaping to Thailand and on to the US. After living as a refugee in America for more than ten years, she returned to Cambodia in 1992 to participate in rebuilding her country.
She says: “Not anymore will I allow only one party to lead my country”.
She says also: ““He (my father) was committed, had tremendous energy and effort, and possessed a progressive vision. He did not blame others. When he talked, he made me think. Once he was asked by other villagers while we were forced to work in the field by the Khmer Rouge, how it feels to not be rich anymore, and he replied that he still felt very fortunate. He did not pay attention to money but to human beings”.
Chea Vannath – Cambodia
She works for the Center for Social Development CSD.
A daughter of a jeweler, Vannath grew up in a secure and elegant environment. As a girl, she went to school in a chauffer-driven car. Vannath speaks three languages fluently: Khmer, English and French. After getting her diploma in public financial management, she worked as a fiscal officer in the treasury department. She married a physician, a major in the Cambodian army. They have one son.
Then came the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Vannath’s life would never be the same again.
From “year zero”, as the Khmer Rouge regime called their reign of terror, Vannath along with her parents and her husband and son were forced to leave home and made to work the fields in several provinces along with millions other Cambodians. In three years and eight months, together with many other people, she moved to different places, wherever the Khmer Rouge needed forced labor. She got up at four in the morning to pick tobacco, and saw men being taken away never to be seen again.
Vannath witnessed, for the first time, death, torture, and misery. In short, human suffering. From these experiences, she learned to understand life and suffering, life as ever changing and not permanent.
Under the regime’s reign of terror, two million Cambodians were reported killed. In 1980, facing the threat to her family, Vannath, her husband, and their son escaped to Thailand. They stayed in a refugee camp in Chon Buri province for three months then left for the Philippines for another six months. After finding a sponsor in America in 1981, Vannath’s family set off for San Francisco, then settled in Oregon.
Buddhism has helped her through difficult times. Many Cambodians traumatized by the war react differently. Some of them lost their identities. Vannath clung to Buddhism and kept her balance.
“Some Buddhist Cambodians said they were Christian in order to get assistance while in America. But I don’t want to say that just to get assistance,” says Vannath, recalling her experience as a refugee in America from 1981 to 1990.
Vannath was introduced to Buddhism since when she was young. As a child living with her parents in Pursat province, Vannath developed a strong and loving relationship with her grandmother, Touch Ky. So when her parents moved to Phnom Penh in the 1950s, she did not want to leave her grandmother.“My first thought was always with my grandma. I remember very well helping her carry the betel nuts basket to the pagodas (temple) and several Buddhist religious ceremonies. I always observed these ceremonies.” Vannath learned to pray twice a day.
Before the Khmer Rouge, she avoided political activity. But the regime changed her from a gentle woman unconcerned about the state or the administration, to an activist. “It changed me,” she says, with no hint of resentment. It led her to ask the question: “Why did the Khmer Rouge happen?” The answer, she says, is that she was not an active member of society. She decided to change herself, to be engaged in political affairs. Not anymore will I allow one party to lead my country,” she said.
She got involved, first, as coordinator for all organizations assisting refugees in America. She worked as a board member of the Cambodian Network Council to preserve the homeland’s traditions and culture. From 1981 to 1990, she became program monitor for the International Refugee Center of Oregon and the Southeast Asian Refugee Federation in Oregon, and later the program coordinator for the Early Employment Project of the Metropolitan Community Action in Portland.
Later, she became program specialist for the Oregon State Refugee Program, Department of Human Resources. She also continued her studies and obtained a master’s degree in Public Administration (with awards for achievement) from the Portland State University in Oregon in 1991.
In 1992, she was back in Cambodia working as a translator for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to prepare for the UN-sponsored general election in 1993. Later, she worked for The Asia Foundation – Cambodia, funded by the US Agency for International Development, as head of the Financial Review and Compliance Unit. In 1996, she was vice president of the Center for Social Development (CSD) before becoming its president in 1998.
Established in 1995, the CSD is a nationwide institution focusing mainly on the elimination of corruption, development of accountability and the implementation of transparency especially in the public sector, as well as the promotion of human rights, good governance and democracy. These issues are pertinent to Cambodia (a country where the average monthly income of civil servants ranges from US$20-40 and where some 36 per cent of the population live below the poverty line), where the availability of funds and international aid are fertile ground for abuse. In addition, a research study conducted by CSD in 1998 on the Cambodians’ attitude towards corruption showed that a majority of the people accept corruption as part of the normal way of life in Cambodia.
To counter this, the CSD decided to launch a project called Transparency Task Force, which aims for attitudinal and behavioral changes towards corruption among primary and secondary level students. In 2002, the Coalition for Transparency-Cambodia composed of monks, students, teachers, civil servants, non-governmental organizations, parliamentarians and members of the private sector was formed, with the CSD acting as its secretariat and its major sustaining force. The CSD was also the main moving force in the drafting of the anti-corruption law awaiting the adoption by the Parliament.
Since 1996, the CSD has organized public forums to tackle sensitive and explosive issues, thus, Vannath says, enabling the Center to act as a neutral and unbiased venue for people of varied backgrounds to debate within the framework of legal and democratic processes. The debates are broadcast through radio and television.
The most controversial debate was on the Khmer Rouge tribunal. At that time, details of the law establishing a Khmer Rouge tribunal were negotiated in utmost secrecy between the representatives of the Royal Government and the United Nations. The CSD felt the need to organize these debates so that the people’s voices would be heard. The debates were opened to the public, which included the victims of the Khmer Rouge as well as its former members.
Vannath traveled to the former Khmer Rouge leaders’ stronghold in Pailin and Phnom Malai districts of Banteay Meanchey province to invite them to participate in the forum that her Center organized in three provinces. The presence of Khmer Rouge members was controversial but Vannath believed the Khmer Rouge should have a chance to express their opinions about the tribunal. She says that from these forums, she found out that the tribunal itself is not the issue. The real issue is national reconciliation and peace. Therefore, the trial had to be looked at from the broader, more comprehensive framework of justice, national reconciliation and total healing towards the attainment of genuine peace.
Peace, Vannath says, is everything, so her work also has to deal with several issues: health, religion, gender. Once she worked to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of Cambodia, the National Olympic Stadium complex. The great obstacles to peace, however, are poverty and lack of education. Her Center signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Education to train 6,000 teachers and to integrate the concepts of transparency and accountability into the curriculum.
Other activities of the CSD are Parliamentary Watch that monitors and acts as a watchdog of the performance of the members of the Parliament, and Court Watch that monitors and records the compliance of courts with the procedures for fair trial and due process. The CSD also publishes a monthly bulletin that exposes the performance of key players in the socio-economic and political spheres of Cambodian society.The CSD is in the line of fire for its activities and positions on various issues. Consistently, it takes the dangerous position of working for the benefit of the poor, marginalized and oppressed majority.
Vannath said she can stand up to anybody since what she is trying to do go beyond her own interests. “I do it not for myself. I do not have any expectations from what I am doing.”
“She is truly brave, even much more than many Cambodian men,” says Mam Sonando, president of the Phnom Penh-based Radio Beehive. “She leads her life with transparency and honesty. She practices Buddhism in her work, activities and daily living. She contributes tremendously to the development of Cambodia and attainment of lasting peace in our divided nation.” Vannath was in the government’s black list for many years.
Vannath says she finds her strength in the footsteps of her late father.
Vannath’s comments are always sought after by the media. She is a daily commentator on the different issues in the country. She openly takes up issues specially those dealing with corruption. According to her friend, Helen Ross, an architect, Vannath seems “to have become the oracle that all journalists seek out for an answer to Cambodia’s complex political, social and economic situation.”
Vannath has been invited to Sweden and other countries to talk about the peace process she is advocating for Cambodia. The case study she wrote entitled “Reconciliation in Cambodia: Politics, Culture and Religion” has been used in the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s handbook on reconciliation. Vannath sits among policy makers on peace and national reconciliation, locally and abroad.
In 2004, Vannath was selected as one of the eight outstanding women in Cambodia by the Angkor Thom magazine for her courage, achievements and pioneering efforts in the field of transparency, accountability, human rights, democracy and peace. (1000peacewomen).
Khmer Rouge and national reconciliation, opinions from the Cambodians.
Vannath Chea on IDEA.
Second Regional Conference on Poverty Reduction Strategies.
Peace Agreements as a Means for Promoting Gender Equality and Ensuring, Participation of Women.
And she says: “It’s beyond a dream,” said Chea Vannath, a leading human rights campaigner here. “I used to live under the Khmer Rouge regime, and I could never dream that those leaders would ever be brought to trial”, (full text: Khmer Rouge Hearing Ends, Nov. 21, 2007).
Her articles on the Washingtonpost;
Her articles on zoomInfo;