Latest Stories

‘Youth can enforce democracy’



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.

Courageous leadership

“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.

Free elections

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.

Comfrel network

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.

Young democracy

“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.

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Tags: Cambodia , Cultural Center of the Philippines , Khmer Rouge regime , Koul Panha , Ramon Magsaysay Awards

  • Anonymous

    “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.” I рurchased а iPhоnе 4 for $33.13 аnd mу friеnd аdores hеr Sоnу Еriсsson Хрeria Х10 рhone thаt shе рayed sаme рrice аnd will bе shiрped nеxt dаy. Wе’ll nеver pаy such a hugе pricеs in stоres аgain. Particularly because I аlsо sоld a 41’’ LCD set tо one of my bosses fоr $741 whiсh соst mе $83.13. Got those things at http://alturl.com/wcf3z

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Reynaldo-Quijada/100000740291153 Reynaldo Quijada

    This man deserves our admiration. He did not use the loss of his Father to be bitter and get back at his killers. He instead used his bitter experience to help provide a peaceful solution to the injustices many of his countrymen suffered where 2 millions killed  which is to strengthen democracy in their body politic. We in the Philippines are still fortunate as we have not lost that number of lives in our struggle for democracy. We should not be complacent however as we still have a long way to go in enjoying the real fruits of democracy with graft and corruption taking place everywhere and culture of impunity in our midst.

Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94
  1. Estrada: Gigi Reyes won’t testify vs JPE
  2. Cagayan mayor shot dead after flag-raising ceremony
  3. Obama, family cause a small stir at Easter service
  4. Santiago sees Palace hand in Gigi’s return
  5. ‘Malang’ next crocodile attraction after ‘Lolong’
  6. Gigi Reyes’ only option: tell all
  7. Malaysia Airlines jet turns back after tire burst
  8. Ancient enigmatic carvings in danger of disappearing
  9. New plant to boost supply of clean energy
  10. More bodies from ship; transcript reveals wavering
  1. Kim Henares needs a reprimand, says Cayetano
  2. Suspect in Vhong Navarro mauling tries to leave PH
  3. More legal woes for Cedric Lee
  4. Enrile chief aide back in PH ‘to face charges’
  5. ‘No real progress in PH if dynasties not dismantled’
  6. Henares on Pacquiao bashing: I did not start this
  7. ‘Mom, I love you,’ says text from student on sinking ferry
  8. Massive infra spending set
  9. Fr. Suarez says last Mass on Easter before returning donated land to San Miguel
  10. I’ll follow my conscience on Estrada, says JV Ejercito
  1. KL confirms Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 ended in Indian Ocean
  2. MRT passengers pass the hat for 6-year-old Ashley
  3. Rookie, lady cops lauded for quick response to MOA heist
  4. Malaysia averts another air tragedy; pilot lands troubled plane safely
  5. Revilla says he was joking; Lacson stands by his story
  6. Revilla ‘consulted’ Lacson on how he evaded arrest
  7. Cudia, dismissed for lying, got 99% in conduct
  8. Police rule out foul play in Helena Belmonte’s death as boyfriend is ‘traumatized’
  9. Kim Henares needs a reprimand, says Cayetano
  10. Hammer-wielding robbers cause chaos at Philippines’ Mall of Asia


  • 22 houses destroyed, 3 hurt as violent wind storm hits village
  • 242 out of 438 pass board tests for chemical engineers
  • Reckless driver endangered lives of Aquino, entourage–report
  • 5 OFWs from Negros quarantined for MERS-CoV tests
  • Release of village chief’s truck caught carrying illegal logs slammed
  • Sports

  • Alaska takes quarterfinals opener over San Mig Coffee
  • Jackson finds second wind to push Meralco past Rain or Shine
  • NLEX fights off Derulo Accelero to remain unbeaten
  • Mayweather diehard Bieber eats pride, poses with Pacquiao for photo op
  • Power Pinays rip Singapore to enter quarters in Asian volley tilt
  • Lifestyle

  • Miss America: Don’t suspend teen over prom invite
  • Transitions and resurrection in the performing arts
  • ‘Archaeology tour’ of Cebu’s heritage of faith
  • Historic Fort Bonifacio tunnel converted into a septic tank
  • ‘Imports’ from London, and play of the year
  • Entertainment

  • Arrest warrants out vs. Deniece Cornejo, Cedric Lee, et al over serious illegal detention
  • Lindsay Lohan says she had a miscarriage
  • Discovery network cancels Everest jump
  • ‘Captain America’ stays strong atop US box office
  • Easter musings
  • Business

  • Oil prices to go up on supply concerns, optimism on US rebound
  • Century Pacific Food sets IPO price at P13.75 per share
  • Oil prices down in quiet Asian trade
  • Asian shares mixed in holiday-thinned trade
  • BDO seen keen on bidding for Cocobank
  • Technology

  • PH has slowest internet in Southeast Asia
  • Nintendo’s trailblazing Game Boy marks 25th anniversary
  • Nasa’s moon-orbiting robot crashes down
  • Netizens pay respects to Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Nokia recalls 30,000 chargers for Lumia 2520 tablet
  • Opinion

  • Gigi’s home
  • Palace stonewalls on MRT inquiry
  • Couple of things too
  • There is plenty of water behind Wawa Dam
  • Triduum thoughts of a young boy
  • Global Nation

  • QC woman who flew in from Middle East tests negative for MERS-CoV
  • DFA, DOH urge OFWs not to panic over MERS-Cov
  • Balikatan could spoil peace talks, says militant group
  • DFA officers hold workshop on aiding human traffic victims
  • Canada in communication with PH on toxic wastes
  • Marketplace