Somaly and Panita

Somaly and Panita, born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Virak Phong Lach and Var Hong, both developed very successful careers. Somaly graduated in medicine and became a doctor. Panita graduated in law and became a project manager. They then went on to combine their careers with motherhood — each raising two lovely children. However, their success stories had difficult beginnings.

Born in 1969 and 1973 respectively, they lived in constant danger until 1979. There was first the civil war from 1970 to 1975 between the Lon Nol regime and the Khmer Rouge when each side committed atrocities against the other, and then there the four year reign of terror from 1975 to 1979 when the Khmer Rouge took Cambodia back to “Year Zero”. Along with millions of others, Somaly and Panita were forced out of the cities with their mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles, and lived in the countryside helping to grow rice. Subsisting on minimal rations and with no access to any education, they survived until Viet Nam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, which eventually opened the way for their escape across the border into Thailand in March 1979. Their father was not so fortunate. Studying in France in 1975, he eventually accepted an offer from the Khmer Rouge to return so that he could find his family in Cambodia but, upon arrival, he was imprisoned and executed.

The story of their lives in Cambodia is well documented in their mother’s book, From Phnom Penh to Paradise. Less well documented is their short time in Thailand and their onward journey to England where, through their own hard work, they became the successful women that they are today.

Their escape from Cambodia was recorded in a short newspaper article, 232 Khmers flee to Thailand, dated 12 March 1979. Arriving in Ta Phraya, they were soon transported to a camp called Wat Koh on the southern outskirts of Aranya Prathet. Due to their mother being treated in hospital for anthrax, which she had contracted in Cambodia just before they fled, Somaly and Panita were allowed to live in the more well-established refugee camp to the north of Aranya Prathet. Everyone in Wat Koh were later boarded on buses and pushed back over the border into the jungles of Cambodia. When the guards came to the camp hospital to get Somaly, Panita, and their mother, they were somewhere else in the camp, and so escaped the horrors of living once more under the Khmer Rouge. However, they had no legal status in the camp as refugees, and were considered as illegal migrants, and lived in fear of being arrested and sent back to Cambodia. Even so, the girls managed to enjoy their limited freedom, as seen in a series of photos taken in the camp in Thailand.

Then came the visit of Kurt Waldheim, Secretary General of the United Nations. In her usual friendly manner, Panita ran up to the Secretary General to give him a hug, presenting the accompanying journalists with a wonderful photo opportunity:

Refugees Plight Moves Waldheim
Refugees a Human Tragedy – Waldheim
Thai Newspapers
A Stroll with Uncle Kurt
Smiling on the outside, Crying on the inside

Then came the difficult task of finding a new country for them and getting them out of Thailand. The story is told in the document:

Saving Four Lives

Some mementos remain of their journey from Thailand to England:

Plane Tickets
Travel Documents

Once safely in England, the journalists continued to be very interested in the family as attested by the following articles:

Vicar comes home with refugees
Cambodians fly in to freedom
Christian Outreach Newsletter
Var’s story
Family tell of escape from terror
Four who prayed got away
Freed from the masters of terror
Cash pours in for Cambodia

And once they had settled in, there were official documents issued in 1983 — some leading to British Citizenship and some to a change of name — and a letter to the Daily Mail in 1987:

Certificate of Registration as a British Citizen
Deed Poll
Immaterial Girl

However, what never changed were the wonderful smiles that Somaly and Panita have retained all their lives as seen in a series of photos taken during their early years in England, as well as in Thailand, where their brother Peter was born. For several years, I was privileged to be their father, and it is my hope that the children of Somaly and Panita will come to realise how privileged they are to have such wonderful women as their mothers.