Ever since the Khmer Rouge tribunal started operations, Reach Sambath, who died Wednesday night at 47, was its face and its voice to millions of Cambodians.
As a spokesman since 2006, Sambath told the country and the world about the arrest and prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for the deaths of his parents and siblings. The jovial former journalist made scores of appearances on Khmer-language television and radio stations to explain court procedure to Cambodians, using jokes and colloquialisms to get his message across.
But as he saw it, he also spoke on behalf of the millions of Cambodians who did not survive the regime, including his parents.
“I am a spokesperson for ghosts,” he told Asia Sentinel in 2006. “I am surrounded by ghosts and if I do not do good they will know.”
Perhaps because of this sense of obligation, Sambath spearheaded an ambitious outreach program that bussed thousands of impoverished villagers–some from remote areas, others from former Khmer Rouge strongholds–to Phnom Penh to observe the workings of the court.
“He opened up the court for Cambodian people and made sure Cambodians had a chance to come to the court and see the work for themselves,” said Lars Olsen, another tribunal spokesman. “That was basically his vision.”
Mr Olsen said Sambath was famous in nearly every corner of Cambodia for his work on behalf of the tribunal.
“I’ve been with him so many different places in Cambodia where they recognize his face from television, or when he starts speaking they recognize his voice, because they have heard it on the radio. Since the beginning he has been the face of the court for Cambodians.”
Still, Sambath might be nearly as well known for the journalism career that preceded his tenure at the court. As one of the leading Cambodian journalists of his generation, he spent over a decade reporting for the Agence France-Presse news agency. Later, he became a beloved journalism trainer and lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, where he taught classes in the department of media and communications up to the time of his death.
Sambath grew up in a small village about 15 km outside of Svay Rieng City. His father was killed on April 17, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge seized power. His family was forcibly transferred to an area that is now in Battambang province, where his mother was later killed in a work collective. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Sambath walked all the way back to Svay Rieng, a journey that took him a month.
Having lost all his siblings but one, he made his way to Phnom Penh, where he sold cigarettes and ice on the street and fought to get educated, eventually graduating from high school in 1987, becoming an English teacher and winning a scholarship to study in India.
Sheridan Prasso, who came to Cambodia in 1992 to reestablish an AFP bureau, recalled in a message posted on Facebook the process of hiring Sambath for his first journalism job. He had just returned from studying agriculture in India, where he obtained a degree in horticultural science but “he found plants boring,” she wrote. Although he had no experience in journalism, he learned the ropes fast and was quickly zooming from press conference to press conferences on a red motorcycle and protecting the petite Ms Prasso from aggressive crowds and media scrums.
“On one occasion he could not save me from a devastating punch in the solar plexus by the North Korean bodyguards surrounding King Sihanouk, which knocked me unconscious on the tarmac. He gallantly picked me up afterward and drove me back to the bureau.”
In 1995, Sambath won a scholarship to spend a semester studying journalism at California State University, Fullerton. And in 2000 he moved to New York to study at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, earning a master’s in 2001.
Following his death, everyone from Prime Minister Hun Sen to hundreds of Sambath’s grieving students–who knew him as Louk Krou, or a respectful phrase for teacher–have stepped forward to pay tribute to him.
“I can’t stop my tears when thinking of him,” said Ros Sothea, who studied under Sambath before becoming a Voice of America reporter, and who now serves as spokeswoman for the Asian Development Bank.
“He was among those who secured the success of my path. I always shared my concerns with him, from personal issues to any problems at [the] workplace…. The tremendous inspiration that he aroused in my heart can never be forgotten.”
Bernard Krisher, publisher of The Cambodia Daily, called him “one of Cambodia’s outstanding journalists who contributed immensely to developing a high standard of reporting in his country and served as a role model through his ethical conduct as a reporter.”
Peter Foster, a former UN spokesman at the tribunal, said: “He loved his country and was a great public relations ambassador for Cambodia. I will miss his good humor, his endless stories of the old days and his wonderful sense of adventure.”
And in a letter to Sambath’s family sent yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, expressed “shock” and “the deepest sorrow” at Sambath’s death.
Sambath was a prolific and enthusiastic Facebook user, posting a steady stream of commentary, news on the court, and photographs from his life. One snapshot showed him as a lithe young man in the 1980s, grinning as he clambered up a coconut tree. In another, he is a krama-clad journalist covering the 2003 funeral of Khieu Ponnary, Pol Pot’s first wife. Notepad in hand, Sambath is flanked by Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s second-in-command, and Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state. Both men are now awaiting trial in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s detention facility.
“The guy in the middle looks kind of guilty,” joked a friend in a comment below the photograph.
“Oh! Lah! Lah!” Sambath replied, before getting serious, writing that he had wondered at the time why men capable of peacefully attending a funeral were not so civilized between 1975 and 1979.
“I have been angry enough in my life since the Khmer Rouge killed my parents and siblings,” he said.
In a December 2009 e-mail interview, Sambath told The Daily that, as a journalist reporting on the process of establishing the tribunal in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he never believed Khmer Rouge leaders would be successfully tried. He said he was happy to have been proven wrong.
“Today the ECCC brings the flow of discussion in the entire country what have not been talked about before…. This is something extremely good for Cambodia, and We, Cambodians, are so proud to have our own court.”
Sambath is to be cremated on Sunday afternoon at Wat Vongkut Borei in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. He is survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter and a brother.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana and Douglas Gillison)