He was only 8 years old when his father, a clerk at Cambodia’s Supreme Court, was killed by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
Thirty-five years after that murder, some of the leaders of the murderous regime are on trial for war crimes while the boy has become a fighter for democracy—one of this year’s winners of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, dubbed Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize.
Though decades have passed since his father was killed, Koul Panha has not forgotten. He was on the verge of tears when he spoke of those dark times in his country during an interview with the Inquirer at the weekened.
Koul’s father was picked up by soldiers of the Khmer Rouge in 1976 and ordered to gather beans.
“My father knew that he would be faced with great danger. After a few days, I received information from the villagers that he was killed,” Koul said.
“The senior villagers told me that my father did not let the Khmer Rouge guards and soldiers kill him easily as he fought back.”
The image of how his father must have died has remained indelible in Koul’s mind. It taught him the value of democracy.
Fight for democracy
The Ramon Magsaysay Foundation cited Koul for his efforts at promoting fair and honest elections in Cambodia.
Five other recipients of this year’s awards for outstanding work in their respective fields come from India, Indonesia and the Philippines. The awarding ceremony will be held on Aug. 31 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
The awardees will each receive a certificate, a medallion and a cash prize.
It was the death of his father that pushed Koul to decide to be at the forefront of Cambodia’s struggle for democratization.
Koul believes the brutalities and the human rights abuses that he, his family and other Cambodians experienced while living under the thumb of the communist regime could be prevented in a stable, democratic country.
For this, he said, the advancement of a free electoral system was crucial.
“In a fragile democracy like Cambodia … a sustained work to aggressively campaign and advocate free, fair and meaningful elections is necessary in order to promote democracy,” Koul said.
In its citation, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation praised Koul for “his determined and courageous leadership of the sustained campaign to build an enlightened, organized and vigilant citizenry who will ensure fair and free elections—as well as demand accountable governance by their elected officials—in Cambodia’s nascent democracy.”
Images of how dangerous it was to live under the Khmer Rouge were still clear in Koul’s mind as he recalled a time in 1975 when his family hid in a trench amid rumors that Phnom Penh, the capital, was going to be bombed.
When the Khmer Rouge took over the city that year, his family was forced to leave their house without being given a chance to take their possessions with them.
“My mother complained and protested when the Khmer Rouge ordered us to leave our house,” he said. “My father stopped her, telling her that if she protested she could be shot.”
The following year, the Khmer Rouge took away his father and shot him.
Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. It is said to have caused the death of 2 million people—or as much as one-fourth of country’s population—from starvation, overwork, torture or execution.
The Khmer Rouge were driven from power in January 1979 by a Vietnamese invasion.
After graduating with a BS Chemical Industry Engineering degree in Phnom Penh in 1991, Koul joined the nonpartisan Task Force on Cambodian Elections. This eventually became the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel).
In 1998, Koul became its executive director.
“A main motivation for joining (this) came from my own experience. When I was a child, Phnom Penh was bombed many times. I did not want this to happen again,” Koul said.
After earning his master’s degree in Politics of Alternative Development, Koul committed himself full time to Comfrel’s mission.
Under his leadership, the organization became the country’s leading independent center on electoral matters, now with a nationwide network of partners and more than 50,000 election volunteers.
In the 2008 elections, more than 10,000 of the center’s volunteers were deployed to cover 60 percent of the electoral precincts.
Cambodia’s democratic progress has been slow and turbulent since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. It was only in 1993 when it held its first national elections. Since then, it has held five other national and local polls.
These elections were characterized by fraud, violence and factionalism.
“Cambodia’s democracy can be referred to as a young democracy,” Koul said. “This democracy began recently, a short period after the genocide, post-conflicts, human rights abuses and oppression.”
Owing to the country’s lack of democratic tradition, Koul had had to contend with harassment from parties who deemed political and electoral reforms acceptable only if they served their own interests.
Koul said that Comfrel began lobbying for the restoration of political stability and for a government commitment to violence-free polls.
In 2000, it took its campaign to the grassroots by conducting electoral activities calling, among others, for gender equality in electoral representation.
Long way to go
Koul is happy to see his efforts have not been in vain.
“The major political players in Cambodia have accepted that peaceful regular elections are the proper legitimate mechanism for installing or removing a government,” he said.
He said, however, that the country still had a long way to go.
“Although there are legal frameworks and procedures for electoral democracy in Cambodia, the country still lacks strong democratic institutions … and is threatened by the return of an authoritarian rule,” Koul said.
To prevent this from happening again, Koul stressed the role of the youth and of education.
“The youth have the power to enforce democracy for a better society. They have to get involved in politics so they can be trained to become leaders,” he said.
Koul said the youth was the “hope” of every nation.
If they are informed, he said, then democracy can fully develop and the human rights violations that characterized the Khmer Rouge regime can be prevented.
Koul said winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award would be a “source of energy” for him which he could use to “work harder.”
“This will further encourage the organizations that I work for,” he said.