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Sokchea Monn, a survivor of genocide in Cambodia, visited Willamette to talk about his work to improve his country's education system.Sokchea Monn, a survivor of genocide in Cambodia, visited Willamette to talk about his work to improve his country's education system.

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Campus community learns about Cambodia at Center for Asian Studies event

A recent event hosted by the Willamette University Center for Asian Studies gave the campus community a firsthand account of genocide in Cambodia and one man's battle against corruption in the country's education system.

Sokchea Monn told of his childhood and his recent work as director of the Supplementary Teaching Education Program (STEP), one of the only Khmer-operated non-governmental organizations in Cambodia.

He was introduced by Mika Lim '11, a sociology major who had the opportunity to work with Monn during her time studying in Cambodia. This past summer she interned with the Pari Project, located in Cambodia's capital, which consults with NGOs to help them improve their business models.

Lim observed the trials of a country still trying to recover from widespread genocide initiated in the early 1970s after the Vietnam War.

"I wanted to have Sokchea come to Willamette because I think it is key to hear about these issues from a Khmer person who has lived the experience of genocide and is now involved in the development of Cambodia," Lim says. "I also know that Sokchea is at a place in his life where he can publicly share his deeply personal and powerful story."

A veiled tragedy

"Before I explain the Cambodian situation, I want to just ask you to believe it," Monn said at the Willamette event. "The world in Cambodia — my world — is completely opposite of your world in the United States."

The Cambodian guerilla group Khmer Rouge, supporters of Communist North Vietnam, incited genocide as they attempted to model Cambodia after Maoist China. They exterminated middle class intellectuals — doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers — to create an uneducated work force, Monn said.

More than 1.7 million Cambodians were killed, about 21% of the population. Thousands more were tortured, Monn said.

"I saw people die in front of me," Monn recalled, "and all I could do was to keep going."

Rebuilding foundations

Monn was separated from his family as an infant, and made his way through three adoptive homes and slave-like labor before attending primary school and eventually a university, where he studied English.

Monn is now a warehouse manager for a Cambodian hospital and director of STEP. The organization battles corruption in the Cambodian education system, where teachers have few classroom resources, are typically paid the equivalent of $30 per month and have up to 60 students at a time, Monn said.

"Sometimes teachers have to leave in the middle of class to care for their own children," he said. "Some teachers make copies of lessons and sell them to children who can pay."

Monn hopes to teach children that dishonesty is not a fruitful way of life. STEP is working to build new classrooms and school facilities while providing resources to ensure teachers can focus on their students.

"Before, the system was training them to hate each other," Monn said. "Cambodians' biggest problem is their lack of trust in one another. We must change this, starting with the children. And it's working — the teachers are happier and the students' grades are better."

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The Center for Asian Studies integrates and develops Asian and Asian-American resources on campus by supporting interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty development, student-faculty collaboration and community outreach.

 Lim's internship in Cambodia was funded through the James S. Kemper Scholarship, a national award she earned during her freshmen year that provides annual scholarships and summer internships to students interested in business or management.

10-01-2010