Daily Archives: 10 June 2004

Cambodians Profiled in Rocky Mountain News

The Rocky Mountain News is running a 12-part series called The Healing Fields about a Cambodian family in Denver who are trying to help Cambodians back home. Here’s the editor’s introduction. It seems a good example of making the global local, or vice versa.

As you know, the Rocky Mountain News is a local newspaper. The motto we use on our advertisements is “Closer to home,” because we feel it expresses the core of our identity, that we cut closer to your lives and that our emphasis is what happens here, where you – and we – live.

So when Assistant Business Editor Jane Hoback approached me late in the summer of 2003, I have to admit I was somewhat dubious of the value of making a major commitment to Randa and Setan’s story. Many people from this area, after all, help others around the world, as Randa and Setan do.

But then I met them.

As Jane says, “they’re not saints,” but in a visit to my office they struck me as remarkable souls whose story could change the lives of others.

I was struck right away by how their Christian faith would play such an important role in any story we did. We in the secular press are often criticized, even rejected, for our perceived denial of the importance of religious beliefs. I believe in the value of taking seriously what motivates people, why they act and think the way they do. I believe if we can bring understanding, we have done our job well.

And so we began our journey. Jane rarely writes stories for the Rocky. She normally helps polish the work of others. But this story gripped her, and she was determined to tell it herself.

One of our challenges was that so much of this story is history. It is the retelling by Randa and Setan of their ordeal and escape from Cambodia. They were alone. This is what they remember, and the memories are painful. As Jane listened, and we learned more, the more it seemed worth traveling to their homeland, where we could witness Randa and Setan’s program to free women who had been sold or forced into prostitution and give them the chance for a new life.

Jane was joined on that journey by Ellen Jaskol, a talented photographer whose work often graces our Spotlight section.

I had come to see that although we needed to travel halfway around the world to tell it, this was a local story. Not just because Randa, Setan and their extended family live among us, but because it is just such stories that show us how connected we are to a world that is growing smaller and smaller.

This is especially the case in an open Western city such as Denver, where so many of us come from somewhere else.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy for us to cross the cultural barriers in a strange land. But try we must. Jane and Ellen traveled for two weeks with a driver and a translator, following Setan through his past and observing his struggle in the present.

When they returned, the question we faced was how to tell such a sweeping story. The way we approach big projects at the Rocky is to form a team that works together from the start. Nothing is more satisfying than working with a group of people who complement each other’s strengths.

And that’s what happened in this case.

The story starts thus:

At first, 18-year-old Setan Lee didn’t notice the trucks full of armed soldiers rumbling into the Buddhist temple square in his hometown of Battambang.

On this final day of the Cambodian New Year, music and noisy celebration filled the packed square in Cambodia’s second largest city. Children played in the warm afternoon air. Revelers sprinkled perfumed water onto the temple statues in a blessing ritual intended to bring good luck, long life and happiness.

“We were celebrating,” Setan says. “We were having fun.”

Setan didn’t understand when he saw the grim, black-uniformed soldiers pouring out of the trucks, aiming their rifles wildly and shouting “enemy” over and over.

Setan’s best friend didn’t understand, either. He approached one of the soldiers.

I’m not your enemy, he told the soldier. Why do you call me your enemy?

The soldier’s response was swift and irrevocable.

“Just like that, they shot him and killed him.”

Setan froze in disbelief and terror. He went numb.

“Right away, I know he’s not going to make it. He’s already dead.”

It was April 17, 1975, and in one terrifying moment, Setan Lee – son of a wealthy businessman, youngest student in his medical school class – lost a world of promise and possibility.

via Santepheap – The Cambodia Weblog

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Changing Names: Cambodia, Vietnam


“Cambodia” is the English-language rendering of a Sanskrit word usually transliterated as “Kambuja” and pronounced “Kampuchea” in modern Khmer. The word, which means “born of Kambu,” a mythical, semidivine forebear, was part of the name Kambujadesa (Cambodia-land), which the empire of Angkor, centered in what is now northwestern Cambodia, gave itself after the tenth century C.E. The nomenclature remained in use after the abandonment of Angkor in the sixteenth century.

Under the French colonial protectorate (1863-1954) the kingdom’s name came to be written “Cambodge” in French but was still written and pronounced in Khmer as “Kampuchea.” The transliteration “Kampuchea” reappeared briefly in documents written in French in March 1945, when Cambodia was told to declare independence by Japanese forces occupying the region, and it renamed itself the Kingdom of Kampuchea. By November 1945, when the French returned to power, the kingdom’s name in French had reverted to Cambodge (Cambodia for English speakers).

In 1970, following a coup against Norodom Sihanouk, the country named itself the Khmer Republic. When the Republican regime was defeated by local communists five years later, the Marxist-Leninist government that took power called the country Democratic Kampuchea. A Vietnamese invasion in December 1978 drove this regime from power and the newly established, pro-Vietnamese government came to office under the name of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. When the Vietnamese withdrew their forces in 1989, the ruling party remained in power, but its leaders renounced Marxism-Leninism and renamed their country the State of Cambodia. This name lasted until 1993, when Sihanouk, who had abdicated the throne in 1955, became king for a second time, and the country restored its pre-1970 name, the Kingdom of Cambodia.

The word “Khmer” refers to the major ethnic group in Cambodia, comprising perhaps 90 percent of the population, and also to the language spoken throughout the country. The etymology of the word is obscure, but it has been in use to describe the inhabitants of the region for over a thousand years. In general the terms “Khmer” and “Cambodian” are interchangeable, and in conversation most Cambodians refer to their country as sruk Khmer (Khmer-land).


“Vietnam” is a relatively recent name for the kingdom of the “Viet” people. (“Viet” is cognate with the Chinese “Yue,” a generic term for ethnic groups in what is now southern China and beyond.) Its official use began only in the nineteenth century. From the eleventh century to 1800, Vietnamese rulers usually called their country as a whole the “Great Viet” (Dai Viet) domain.

Of the other premodern names for the country, “Annam” is probably the most familiar. This Chinese colonial term emerged in the late seventh century, when the Tang empire named its colony in northern Vietnam the “Pacified South” (Chinese: Annan) protectorate. Vietnam stopped being a Chinese colony in the tenth century, but the Chinese continued to refer to their now independent southern neighbor as “Annam” until the end of the 1800s, rather as if the British were to continue to call Zimbabwe “Rhodesia” for the next nine centuries. Many Westerners picked up on this locution and referred to the country as “Annam” (and its people as “Annamites” or “Annamese”), although Vietnamese generally did not appreciate this terminology. The nomenclature was further confused when the French, in dividing Vietnam administratively into three parts, called the middle one (centered on Hue and Danang) “Annam,” as distinct from “Tonkin” to the north and “Cochinchina” to the south.

In the early 1800s the new Nguyen dynasty tried to secure international (i.e., Chinese) recognition of a new name for the country: “Nam Viet.” But to the rulers of China the term (Nan Yue in Chinese) conjured up memories of an ancient state of that name, founded by a dissident Chinese general, which had existed in modern Guangdong and Guangxi between 203 and 111 B.C.E. Chinese rulers feared that their acceptance of the term “Nam Viet” might signal approval of resurrected Vietnamese claims to south China. They therefore reversed the components of the proposed new name to detoxify it politically, and thus “Viet Nam” (Vietnam) came into existence. Nineteenth-century Vietnamese rulers, not liking it, privately preferred to refer to their country as the “Great South” (Dai Nam).

SOURCE: The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History, edited by Norman G. Owen (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2005)

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