Mrs. Lea: from Pursat to Phnom Penh, to Oregon and back

Sunrise over the Mekong river. Joel Burslem, © 2005.

By Gea Wijers
Special to Khmerican

Amsterdam, the Netherlands – Mrs. Lea was born in 1943 in Pursat to a Sino-Khmer father, who was a jeweller and a businessman, and a mother of a more aristocratic background. She has earned international recognition for her leadership in the advocacy of good governance through the institutionalization of democratic values and principles. Lea explains that her rise to this prominent position was nothing but the ‘law of nature’:

“My actions are different. Before becoming an activist, I used to be a submissive and traditional Cambodian woman. I did not get involved with external affairs. This was before the Khmer Rouge. I left politics to the politicians. When I went through the Khmer Rouge it is like something did not go together. I realized something. Also because the Khmer Rouge time allowed me to witness the misery and the suffering of the people.”

Like so many others, she was in Phnom Penh in April 1975 with her parents and family when the Khmer Rouge suddenly took over and forced residents to leave. By then she was married, and her son had been born. The shock of a change from a relatively privileged middle class existence to the labor camps had a big impact and, as she explains, fundamentally changed her: “So that was the beginning of my real contact with life, the suffering and the misery of the people.”  Her father especially was an example in his acceptance of a new life and adherence to the principles of Buddhism. She still recalls his actions and shows her respect for his expressions of justice and equanimity.

Nevertheless, she was out of her “golden cocoon” as she explains it.  Her family, and many others, had believed that the Khmer Rouge might actually be the liberator of Cambodia.

“I feel so ignorant to have not believed my colleague when she told me that the Khmer Rouge will evacuate everybody from the city. Most of us feel that Cambodia, as one of the members of the United Nations, would behave as a civilized nation” says Lea. “Furthermore, we believed that ‘peace’ would prevail when Prince Norodom Sihanouk came back. Therefore we raised the white flag in front of our houses that day, symbolizing peace and our submission to the winner.”

A second moment of awakening is described by Mrs. Lea upon her making a new life in the United States, where she was accepted as a refugee with her husband and son in May of 1981.

“The U.S. somehow is a very hospitable world for oppressed people that allowed us to see another side of the world, of reality, of the story. That freedom of thinking, of expression, of ideas helped to generate my thinking and also, for me, for maybe like 10 or 20 years that I just ‘did.’ I had to hang in there and ‘just do it.’ It’s the Nike slogan, but I used it always. It came from me. That’s how I wake up. Just do it. From the gut.”

Even though this might be how things are reconstructed in her memory, even before, in the refugee camps, she describes how people would trust her leadership in organizing events and mobilizing groups. This kind of work seemed to come naturally and continues throughout her residency in Oregon. There is a strength and conviction in her expression that adds to her capacities.

“I feel that I am an asset for any society. And I feel that who are the most vulnerable and the least fortunate might benefit from me. I did not think about how. I just did it. I did not have a plan or expect things to go this or that way. My plan is not to have a plan.”

Mrs. Lea visited several refugee camps at the border and traveled to find her mother in Phnom Penh in 1992. During that trip she was encouraged to apply for a job with UNTAC.  Even though it meant leaving behind her job, her husband and her son, she decided to return to Cambodia: “I am an active American citizen, but I also want to try to build my birthplace back up with help from other Cambodians. It is a simple need.”

She worked for UNTAC until the end of 1993 and continued her work at an international foundation as a true broker between cultures, Cambodian and American, but also, between the social strata in Cambodian society. The country was changing.

“I vividly remember in the early and mid 1990s, that when we went to restaurants, people used to show their social status by displaying guns, rifles and hand grenades on the tables,” says Lea. “Later on, people became more civilized and then they displayed their expensive hand phones. Now, they have become more cautious and do not display their wealth because of theft.”

The foundation provided her with a grant to establish a public forum, and Lea started to look for a place she could work and best realize this goal. That is how she found her place at the NGO she helped to grow and how she built it up to international renown.  With this, she says, her activities in the United States helped her. Still, she does not feel she achieved anything really, remaining humble:

“There’s no direct sense of feeling pride or guilty over my achievements. I don’t know how people can learn from me. I don’t know how to learn it myself. I don’t do it for the money. I don’t do it for my name or my fame. There’s no goal. There’s no plan. I just do it. It’s from the heart. It’s good to have the feeling my life has had some use.”

Even when it comes to her leadership abilities she is not without doubt.

“I am not a leader.  I try and maintain the equilibrium. It’s not to win or lose but to maintain the equilibrium. I try to tell people we should share. I don’t want to challenge anybody. I just want to prove the things I want to believe.”

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