Cambodian activist to visit Mercer Island | The might of the many

The man in the handcrafted wheelchair does not have legs to speak of. They were blown off when he stepped on a land mine in 1982 when he was a young soldier on patrol searching for signs of the Khmer Rouge.

  • Thursday, June 9, 2011 6:26pm
  • News

Tun Channareth

The man in the handcrafted wheelchair does not have legs to speak of. They were blown off when he stepped on a land mine in 1982 when he was a young soldier on patrol searching for signs of the Khmer Rouge.

But he is not visiting Seattle University or Mercer Island Presbyterian Church to talk of himself, or his long painful journey from that day. No. He is here to talk about Cambodia and how the stifling presence of perhaps millions of land mines, most set more than 30 years ago, still haunt his country and hold it back.

Channareth is in Seattle to accept a honorary doctorate degree this weekend from Seattle University for his 14 years as a volunteer at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). ICBL won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Channareth was chosen to accept the award in Oslo on behalf of the organization along with the ICBL founder, Jody Williams.

The Cambodian man, 50, has a grade school education. He is thrilled by the honorary degree, he said, but wants the attention to be focused on the on-going effort by the ICBL to collect more signatures by individuals world wide to pressure world leaders including President Obama, who have yet to sign the treaty to do so.

“When you see the new buildings and big construction in the cities of my country, do not be confused,” he told students on campus last Friday. “To know what real life is in my country, go to Cambodia outside cities to see the real life of now,” he told them. “There you will see poor, poor people, people living day to day. Look at them to find out, he continued, or look at me,” he said, pointing to his legs.

The Cambodian’s long journey to Seattle started in 2007, when he met professor Le Xuan Hy of Seattle University who is an Island resident. Hy, a native of Vietnam, who held the Pigott-McCone endowed chair at that time, has championed the Cambodian and his mission.

He met Channareth in the workshop where he works when he is not campaigning or gathering signatures for the ICBL.

There he saw a man who was able to straddle both worlds — that of his simple beginnings and the complexities of bringing global pressure to bear on the practice of war that involved land mines, he said.

Hy came back to Seattle University to tell Channareth’s story. As a part of its commitment to promoting and championing of social justice, the university later sent students to see the Jesuit Refugee Center where Channareth worked in Siem Reap on a service learning trip.

Channareth has spoken to kings, presidents and prime ministers all over the world for ICBL. The organization has gotten more than 150 countries to sign the agreement to ban land mines; and to end manufacture and ensure their disposal. But there is so much more to do.

Neither the United States nor China have yet to sign the treaty.

His mission here is to obtain signatures of as many people as possible to demonstrate the depth of opposition to land mines to convince world leaders to sign the land mine treaty. He asks each and everyone he meets to show support.

“Mr. Channareth has reached out with compassion in service to other land mine victims, while working tirelessly to rid the world of these insidious weapons,” said Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, S.J.

“He is an inspiring example to our students of our mission as a university that empowers leaders for a just and humane world.”

Channareth greets each visitor with a humble greeting, pressing his palms together with a bow of his head. His gaze is serene but unblinking. What remains of his wrecked legs are uncovered. He does not have prosthetics. He speaks quietly yet is quite animated. Despite his many years in a wheelchair, his spine is straight, his body lean.

His English is remarkably good, despite learning the language by standing outside an open classroom window to listen to a teacher.

Channareth did not have a baht (a few cents) to pay to attend class each day. A friend who did would open the window for him to hear.

Channareth’s personal story mirrors the story of thousands if not millions of Cambodian people whose lives coincided with the Vietnam conflict and the civil wars in Cambodia  that followed.

He was perhaps 20 years old when his parents were murdered by the Pol Pot regime. His father burned to death. His mother, Chinese, simply disappeared. His remaining family struggled.

Feeling there was not other choice, he left his home and walked for a week to find work at what turned out to be refugee camps at the Thai-Cambodia border. He found that there was no aid for men, only women. Men could only join the military to live, he explained. They would be fed but not paid.

After his injury, Channareth received training in engine repair, typing and welding. After years in the camps, he and the family he had begun there, left to return to Cambodia and what he hoped was a brighter future.

They made their way to capitol city of Phnom Penh where there was no work for a disabled man, only begging.

He was devastated. “How will I be responsible for my family,” he said.

Instead of rebuilding their country after the Vietnam war, opposing regimes fought with each other. The result was the slaughter and suffering imposed on millions. Left behind are an equal number of hidden explosives everywhere, he said.

After the fighting stopped, people left the rural areas and went to the city, he explained. The rural lands were all but abandoned because of the land mines. The cities were full of their victims.

After many months in Phnom Penh, Channareth found work through the Jesuit Refugee Mission. There he applied the training he had obtained in the camps to building wheelchairs. A religious sister at the camp noticed his English and he found himself interpreting for the visitors that came to the mission. That lead to his work with the ICBL.

At one point he personally delivered a paper bundle of 400,000 signatures neatly balanced on his wheelchair to government officials.

“‘They said thank you, we will keep them for you,’” he remembered with a smile. “I took them back with me.”

Channareth will speak at the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church on Sunday, June 12, at 9:15 a.m. in the “Pressing Issues” class. The public is welcome to attend.

To learn more and to sign the electronic petition visit the Seattle University commencement ceremony Web site at

See more photos by photographer Chad Coleman on his Focus Northwest blog.

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