As a teenager, Mam Sambath lived in a “jail without walls’’ under Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
The Communist Party of Kampuchea, more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, took control of Cambodia on April 17, 1975.
The CPK created the state of Democratic Kampuchea in 1976 and ruled the country until January 1979. Those were difficult years for Sambath and millions of his fellow countrymen.
While in power, the Khmer Rouge set up policies that disregarded human life and produced repression and massacres on a massive scale.
Two million people died during the regime’s rule of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979: a murderous movement currently being investigated by the United Nations-backed tribunal.
For Sambath, the four-year period was one of extreme hardship. He was separated from his family and forced to work in a boys’ camp where he dug canals and was fed small bowls of porridge.
“It was such a difficult time,’’ he said.
“I was working very hard...we were living without freedom: jail without walls.’’
Sambath has made the most of his return to freedom at the age of 16.
He picked rice to pay for English classes.
He studied in Mongolia on a scholarship, becoming a veterinarian surgeon.
He went on to work for the ministry of agriculture in Cambodia in the Department of Animal Health and Husbandry. He also lectured on agricultural issues.
In 1995, he made the transition to working for NGOs, the first being an organization called Concern Worldwide, an international charity fighting world poverty.
He then joined CIDSE Cambodia, quickly climbing the ranks in his roles to assist in promoting development in areas ranging from health to education as well as promoting commodity fishing and forestry for indigenous people.
“Indigenous people understand the forest is the bank,’’ he said.
Today, Sambath is director general of the organization Development and Partnership in Action (DPA) in Cambodia. He is on Prince Edward Island this week as part of a trip through the Maritimes visiting dioceses while participating in various public events and speaking engagements.
DPA works in the poorest provinces of Cambodia. The organization is particularly concerned with the environmental and social impacts of mining activities and oil extraction.
Because of concessions granted by their governments for forestry and mining, some countries have been evicted from traditional lands, leading to food insecurities.
DPA receives support from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, a Canada-wide movement composed of people who work in solidarity with the poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America to help them improve living and working conditions.
It was created in 1967 by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops with the mandate of educating the public to the needs of developing countries and of providing financial support to socio-economic development projects and programs throughout the Third World.