"The legacy for my role is to prove that as a woman, and as a young person, we can do the work, and we can do it even better"
Sopheap on a field mission for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) in August 2013. As Program Director at that time, she was helping to monitor the Peace Walk organized by the Peace Working Group at the Royal Palace. In March 2014 she became the youngest Executive Director for CCHR. ©CCHR 2013
Chak Sopheap, 29, Executive Director, Cambodian Center for Human Rights
Chak Sopheap, at just 29 years old, is the youngest Executive Director for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), one of the most active human rights organizations in Cambodia. Born in Kampong Cham province, her parents moved the family to Phnom Penh to give their children better economic opportunities. As a child, she once dreamed of being a doctor, to serve the poor, but now her dream is to help create a freer, more open and just Cambodia.
In September 2014, her work was acknowledged by U.S. President, Barack Obama, in a forum with world leaders at the Clinton Global Initiative. She is determined to create a legacy beyond herself; to help improve the state of human rights in her beloved country, and to prove that a young woman can do the work--and can do it even better.
I interviewed Sopheap and asked her who was the most influential person in her life, what the state of human rights is in Cambodia, her hopes and dreams for her country, what it was like to be honored by President Obama, and whom she sees as the change maker for the country.
This is her remarkable journey from a rural village in Kampong Cham, to being at the helm of leadership in one of Cambodia’s most preimminent human rights organizations.
Q: Where did you grow up? What were some of your fondest memories as a child? What were some of the difficulties you experienced?
Sopheap: I was born in Kampong Cham province but spent only short moments there. I moved to Phnom Penh since I was four or five years old. My first memory was in kindergarten. I spent half a year there. That was then when I first remembered how life was important to earth. I was about to drown. It was during the school break. I was playing with my classmates. There was a small pond by the school. I went to go wash my hands, and suddenly I fell. My brother saved me. It was crucial in life to have someone, (in this case) my brother, to protect me. That was one of my first memories.
My parents moved to Phnom Penh when I was young so that we could have a better livelihood opportunity. My father supported our family and extended family. It was about income generation. He was a tailor in Kampong Cham. He came to Phnom Penh and continued his career. My mom was a housewife. Sometimes she supported my father to get extra tailoring assignments.
I have three siblings; my eldest sister, then an older brother and me. I am the youngest. I don’t remember too many difficulties growing up. I had the easiest life out of the family because I am the youngest. I have been very protected by my sister and my brother. I don’t know how to cook, because my mother and sister did it for me. I don’t know how to drive a moto because my brother took me to school. I often took it for granted. I could have learned to survive on my own but I’m so dependent on my family. It was the easiest, but sometimes when I was growing up, I wanted to be more independent.
Q: What was it like growing up in Phnom Penh?
Sopheap: I think I liked Phnom Penh back then, better than now. People were more honest with each other. Things are more chaotic now. Things may be more modernized, but it’s complicated. I like the simple things. I was so amazed at Phnom Penh when I first arrived, especially a child coming from the rural area. I think if you ask most people, they would want to move back to the provinces. It’s a simpler life. It’s healthier, fresher air.
Q: Who has been the most influential person in your life?
Sopheap: My parents have been the most influential. They didn’t learn much in terms of education, but they tried to give us the opportunity, regardless of gender. It’s a male dominated society, but not the case of my family. They treat us all equally in terms of opportunity. I have been given equal opportunity, like my brother. It’s up to me to continue. My father knew our talents, abilities, and limitations, but he still supported us, and gave us the chance to choose our own path. In my case, my parents supported me, but they had no ability to support me to higher education. If I didn’t pass my high school degree, going to vocational school was the alternative. I passed and continued to the university.
At some point my father was angry with me, as I did not try hard enough to pursue further study after my bachelor degree graduation. It was when I tried to hide from my family that I had been applying for a scholarship to Japan (the country I have been dreaming of) because I was afraid to disappoint them if I failed the exam. I committed to get it and would make them proud at the end with positive result. Finally, I passed after a year of the application process and I remembered quite well how excited my father was when I called him to tell him about the result. He was so surprised. It was the day I felt much relief, as I would not need to hide information from them anymore.
My parents valued education. They tried as much as possible to support us. We are not that rich, we are from a poor background. They never made us feel we didn’t have anything. They didn’t let us do without. For example, during durian and lychee season, they would buy it for us. They didn’t deprive us of those things, though I understood we were poor. They have always been our biggest supporter.
Q: When did you become interested in fighting for human rights in Cambodia? What was the turning point when you decided this was what you wanted to do with your life?
Sopheap: Everyone as a young person wants to experience many things. At first, I did my internship for a civil society organization named Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP)—an independent research institute aimed at promoting both domestic and regional dialogue between government, national and international organizations, scholars, and the private sector on issues of peace, democracy, civil society, security, foreign policy, conflict resolution, economics and national development.
Before that, I passed the exam to go to nursing school. It was my dream to be a doctor when I was young to help cure patients, especially the poor. But I only passed the nursing exam. I had to decide whether to continue my dream to become a doctor. To study a medical degree in Cambodia requires a long time and it is expensive. I took the doctor exam. I didn’t get it, as I was not well equipped with French at that time. I passed the nursing exam instead. I had to decide which path to take. To be a nurse (then it would take me a long time to be a doctor, maybe 10 years) and then there’s the cost. I discussed with my parents and we decided that I would not become a nurse. So I decided to continue with the internship and then got promoted to be full time-staff for CICP.
I was inspired to work in human rights because I had worked with the think tank. I moved to a private university which was more business oriented. I felt the difference, between public and the private sector. I started looking for a career again. I saw an announcement from the Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR) in 2005. One month after I started, there was a problem. Kem Sokha (then CCHR President) was arrested. I was doing extra work over the weekend, then suddenly the police came and locked us in the building. It was an unfortunate situation but it was fortunate for me because I saw up close.
When I was outside of the field (as a student), I would read the newspaper and it only quoted the CSO actor. I had questioned whether this was really happening. You have the doubt, but when you are in, you are really see it happening. At that time there were a series of arrests of activists. I was inspired from that point on. At that time I just knew. It was just one month. I could’ve walked away, but it was so eye opening that I had to continue, I couldn’t walk out. I don’t regret my decision. I dropped my dream, but now I think working in human rights fits with me more. I like the work.
Q: What is the state of the human rights situation in Cambodia? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Sopheap: If you work in the field you can feel negative. You can feel distressed. However, I’m generally a positive thinker, I’m optimistic. There are human rights violations happening, but if you look at the point where we started, you can see the improvement; the freedom of expression has been improved. Compared to other countries in the region; Internet access, criticism against the government/the King, we are better (for example, Thailand is quite restricted).
We all shall be proud of our efforts and the work of CSOs; with training of the community and with empowerment. Right now there’s a rising movement of different communities (land, labor unions) they can exercise their own rights. I look at it as a democratization process. You can say the human rights situation is good if there’s no violence, if there’s no crackdown, but that’s because there are no people willing or brave enough to do so. But people are now brave, standing up for their rights. There has been a harsh crackdown on them but they are speaking up.
Q: What do you think changed? Why is it different now? Why aren’t people afraid anymore? What was the turning point?
Sopheap: In the past they didn’t dare, especially during the election period. First, it is more access to information, and more advocacy from CSOs. When people are more aware they want to improve. Secondly, increased access to social media. We have restricted access to information on the radio and TV, but social media is unlimited.
I’m optimistic because we have to look at year by year. In the past, for example, in 2005, you saw a series of arrests of activists, there was more advocacy, more campaigns. You didn’t witness that before. Even now, during an election campaign, people could rally. That hasn’t happen for a while since 1997 and 1998. That hasn’t been seen for years, up until the recent elections in 2013.
It signaled to us a degree of tolerance. The government tried to restrain from violence, we have to give credit to that. It was unfortunate however that such a toleration culture could not last long as the government turned to react against protesters harshly in early January 2014 when six people died. Yet, I’ve seen the evolution; the young, the rising public, and the degree of tolerance from the government.
Q: What changes would you like to see happen in the field of human rights? And what will it take for it to make it happen?
Sopheap: I want (and others also want), political parties to put the interest of the public before political interest. In the past, we waited to make that dream to happen. But this time, the public participates to make the dream to happen. I believe it will be achieved if we participate to make that happen. But we have to work with politicians to make it happen. There are a few cases, the price of gasoline for example. In the past, if there is no opposition, the government did not react, but now they do it, they believe they can get people’s support, like the reform of the government. Would they start to do that reform if they didn’t almost lose the election, and if there’s no reaction from the public like that?
In 2013 the fifth election mandate, it’s a remarkable history in Cambodia where political parties are starting to a small degree debate on policy, which I want to see more. If parties debate more on policy than personal attacks, then that’s where we can see they are putting the public interests first. Not to use that time for simple personal attacks on each other. The name-calling, that’s useless. Cambodia should achieve more and be more prosperous in the region if we stop barking at each other.
There hasn’t been a history of debate, not in our culture, but the youth, the public can influence them. In 2013 they are starting to pick some policies to debate. We have to show to the government or any political parties that we are no longer interested in the old politics.
Q: If we are to create an environment of open debate, are there any specific steps to create a more enabling environment?
Sopheap: Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should constructively work with all the parties, without bias of position. Our role is to enlighten the policy of reform agenda that is necessary to the government, to the political parties, not just the opposition. We have to work along with all the parties, that any recommendation should be concrete enough. Sometimes when we want a change in a particular problem, we quote the problem without the recommendation.
Secondly our role is to support the community, to help them lead their campaign themselves, without us to undermine their role, to empower them through capacity building, necessary support, financial support for courses, so their network can rise. For example, Politikoffee (a youth organized political discussion group), we provided them the space and other small support to launch their website, and work with youth. This is necessary. When we provide the support to the grassroots network, it cost less and is more effective, than if we, CSOs, do it ourselves. That should be the direction of CSOs.
Q: You are the youngest Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). What is your vision for CCHR and what legacy would you like to leave behind?
Sopheap: It was a privilege to be nominated as Executive Director. It was a privilege, in this male dominated society that a woman is appointed, and as a young person, we often look at the seniority for any role. But, it is also a challenge for me to ensure the operations of the organization, to ensure the modality we want to take, that promoting the younger generation in, and promoting woman can be successful model. To me it’s great pressure not to only to better, but you must to better.
The vision ahead is to promote and respect human rights in this country. I want to ensure that we really reflect on our impact, whether our work really impacts human rights. That’s why one of the first things I want to do is an organizational assessment; what have we been doing, whether we are achieving, responding to the needs of human rights promotion so we can set the strategy better. We never did that in the past, we did financial audits, but it’s important to learn from what we did, to reflect, and from there, to set a new strategy.
The legacy for my role is to prove that as a woman, and as a young person, we can do the work, we can do it even better. Not in terms of competition, but that we can really impact the respect for human rights.
Q: The fight for human rights is often dangerous. Do you ever get scared or threatened? What keeps you going to fight for this cause another day?
Sopheap: Of course, there is risk involved, but no risk, no change. Compared to the grassroots activists, they are more at risk than me. For me, there’s no reason I should be scared more than them. In 2006, I used to blog and write controversial letters to the Cambodian Daily. My friends would say it’s been published, don’t you feel scared? I would say “Its our right to freedom of expression.”
When you express yourself, you are accountable. When you are accountable, you have to have the evidence. You have to be confident in what you are saying. If you feel threatened because of that, you shouldn’t be. You should be scared if you have something to hide, blaming someone without evidence, but when you are confident in what you are saying you shouldn’t be scared.
Q: Who is your role model today and why?
Sopheap: I would love to say Ann Sung Suu Kyi. She is very inspiring to me. She has been a unique and rare model. She risked her own happiness. One story that inspired me was when her husband was about to die, she chose between never being able to come back to Myanmar (if she were to visit him), or staying with her people. She stayed and that inspired me.
Q: What was it like to be honored by President Obama at the Clint Global Initiative?
Sopheap: It was exciting. If I didn’t say that I would be lying. It was exciting because you are young and from Cambodia, a less developed country. You could meet with the President of the United States. He called your name in a huge crowd of world leaders. I was shocked. I knew he was going to do it, but I didn’t expect it in that scenario.
Then he pointed to me and asked me to stand up. It was a proud moment, that at least your work was acknowledged and I am happy to witness this in my lifetime. I was happy to shine a spotlight on Cambodian CSO actors, when we haven’t been acknowledged by our government. But, I feel strongly that acknowledgment should be put forward when people are alive, not dead, like Chut Vutty (the environmental activist who was killed). He should be proud (and acknowledged) when he was alive, but he was dead already when President Obama also acknowledged him. Leaders should have appreciated his efforts when he was alive.
Q: Who do you think is a change-maker (someone who will make a big difference, who will transform Cambodia) right now?
Sopheap: It’s hard to decide now. It’s too early to tell, to judge about the “reformers”. For me, I like to observe more about their actions. Compared to them, I value the youth. I see these people who have reward (such as government ministers or other officials). They will do better, because they will be rewarded. But if you look at the youth, who act as an agent of change, they are not expected to do this job, but they do it anyway, and they don’t expect anything back. They are the true agent of change. There are many organic networks now in Cambodia, for example groups like Politkoffee. They really inspire for change.
Q: What worries you the most about Cambodia today? What are you most hopeful about?
Sopheap: I’m worried about the “painting culture” like when we are critical against government, we would be labeled as “opposition” or if you are critical against oppositions, then we are labeled as “pro-government”. You can paint the cat from black to white, white to black. I’m concerned about that and the fact that one has to be seen as pro-opposition or pro-ruling government, while the reality is we could have the third option, which is to be in the middle and being principled.
There’s a free flow of information. But people shouldn’t be rushed to judgment. We should observe and then make the right judgment. It might take time to respond, but it gives you the best results. If they are reformists, they should have the ability to judge what is wrong and right, principled enough regardless of their positions. If you are reformists, you have to be principled.
I’m still positive with the rising movement of the young, the public, and better access to information. We can hold officials and politicians more accountable.
Q: What are your hopes and dreams for Cambodia and what will it take for the country to get there?
My hope is to hold officials more accountable, and have more freedom of expression. For us it’s a matter of time, sometimes slow, but we keep hoping and doing our role. I want Cambodia to respect each other in certain roles, for CSOs to respect our work. The government has the obligation to provide services to the people. Our role is to promote respect for human rights, and checks and balances. We need to respect each other’s roles. Do your role, respect each other’s role and find a way to collaborate to improve development of this country. We have been arguing with each other. We have to look at the way of development of the country, not just economic, but in a sustainable way.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to your generation?
Sopheap: Be confident. Build your knowledge, and it does not necessarily have to be formal. Actively participate to learn more. Be confident in yourself. That’s the primary source of success. Without confidence you can’t achieve anything.
*H.E. William Todd, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, wrote an article about Sopheap's work on his blog the Ambassador's Penh. Click here to read the article.
*Read Sopheap's blog at: www.sopheapfocus.com
*Watch U.S. President Obama's address below at the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting where Chak Sopheap and Chut Vutty, was honored for their human rights work (21 min total running time. ~15 mins where Sopheap is acknowledged by President Obama).