By Gea Wijers
Special to Khmerican
Amsterdam, the Netherlands – Mme. Ton (born in 1959) left Cambodia when she was 16 years old to study in France with her sister, just two weeks before the Khmer Rouge takeover. Her family was immediately threatened by the Khmer Rouge ideology, since her father, after studying in France, worked at a railroad station as an engineer and her mother ran her own U.S.-financed charity organization.
After a short stay in France, the family was reunited with their father, who insisted on resettlement in the United States. The family lived in Houston, where Ton found a job as an English language teacher. Adhering to tradition, she did not grow up as an ambitious woman dreaming of a big career but instead followed the path of her ancestors, letting her husband lead the way.
They moved to California and away from her family. This is where she stayed and grew strong. She was inspired by strong women in her community and became more and more independent. Both her family and her husband had to find acceptance of the empowered Madam Ton.
This did not work out well in all relationships, and she went through a tragic divorce and many family struggles. Nevertheless, she became a successful social worker in the Orange County immigrant community and invested herself in helping Cambodian Americans support themselves.
Remarkably, she even returned to enter Cambodian politics in 1992 at the personal cost of leaving her two children behind in the United States. Ton returned with her second husband, and they both had their minds set on helping Cambodia through sharing their knowledge on community work and politics in the United States. She became a candidate in the 1993 national election organized by UNTAC. She did not win, but the experience opened her eyes to the political situation:
“For one thing, I noticed few women candidates. Cambodian culture didn’t encourage girls to seek higher education—marriage was supposed to be their goal—so few women had the necessary training and self-confidence to run.”
As her political party was dissolved and its leader passed away, she decided to change her objectives in helping Cambodia. With two other women involved in politics, she started the NGO that she still leads as executive director. It is an officially registered NGO that works with both national as well as provincial governmental departments. The idea of founding an organization aiming for women in government specifically came out of her experience during the elections. Ton wanted to teach more women how to be effective leaders, to build their confidence and empower them to be vocal and outspoken.
Her NGO conducts trainings where men also participate. “By training together with women, the men gain an awareness of gender concerns, and they come away with a new recognition that women have to be involved in the country’s development and decision making,” says Ton.
Her own motivation to become a leader, as Mme. Ton explains, came to her in the midst of difficulties in her marriage and trying to find her own way in California, without her family:
“I was alone and I had to tell myself that I had to be strong in what I wanted to do. After I worked at a Cambodian organization and providing counseling to so many people, I started to study psychology. Then I started to learn and understand how people feel and how to express themselves openly. That’s when I grew up. Then I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had to give people choices on what they could do. I didn’t tell them what they should do.”
The reception back in Cambodia left her with mixed feelings. She describes feelings of estrangement and having to relearn a Khmer language that had changed a lot since she left.
“People were very mixed. Some people, they really welcomed us, and some people resent us. So we have mixed feelings. UNTAC really paved the way for us by providing security during campaigns and organizing forums where we could talk to the public.”
Ton also emphasizes the importance of remaining nonpartisan after her short career in politics. “Being neutral is very important. It’s the key to working with the government, it’s the only way you can work here.”
She explains there is still a lot of contact with the United States; however, she feels happy that she did decide to come to Cambodia and contribute from here.
“For us, we felt that to be effective you should be in Cambodia. You should understand the grounds and the issues and see how the government is trying to work. On the Internet they only talk about the negative, and the media coverage is like that also, but you don’t see what good is happening also,” says Ton. “When I look back I feel very fulfilled. I want to make a difference. What we have established, we have taken it off the ground. More and more women are taking a leadership role. There have been a lot of personal sacrifices. But we have really been able to change things.”