Cambodian psychiatrist wins Asia’s Nobel Prize for helping Khmer Rouge victims
Sotheara Chhim, 54, himself a survivor of the Maoist regime’s genocide, has been treating people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for years. Other recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award include a Philippine doctor, a French environmentalist, and a Japanese ophthalmologist.
Milan (AsiaNews) – A Cambodian psychiatrist who treats the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime is among the winners of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award.
Also known as Asia’s Nobel Prize, the award was established in 1957 and named after a president of the Philippines who died in a plane crash.
Chhim Sotheara, 54, is himself a survivor of the Maoist regime, and his Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO), focuses on treating what in Cambodia is called "baksbat", post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Award organisers praised the psychiatrist for “his calm courage in surmounting deep trauma to become his people's healer.”
In the 1970s the Khmer Rouge killed almost a quarter of the Cambodian population through mass executions, forced labour, and starvation.
“I’m... traumatised myself as a victim under the Khmer Rouge, but working to help survivors of the Khmer Rouge helped me heal myself too,” Sotheara said in a 2017 interview.
Founded in 1995, TPO Cambodia has provided psychological assistance to at least 200,000 Cambodians over the years.
Evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975, at the age of 7, Sotheara was separated from his family and enlisted by the Khmer Rouge along with other children to carry out the excavation of a canal in Kandal Stoeung district.
Following the fall of the regime in 1979, his mother urged him to undertake medical studies after he returned to the capital.
“My mother wanted me to study medical science as she saw that many people who survived the Khmer Rouge regime were sick, physically and mentally,” Sotheara explained in 2019.
“Many doctors were killed during that time,” he added, and “as far as I know, in 1979, there were about 40 doctors in the country.”
Since then, the young survivor began a brilliant career that led him to obtain a PhD at Monash University in Melbourne while simultaneously developing the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) in Cambodia.
In addition to Chhim Sotheara, other figures received the award. They include:
Gary Bencheghib, 27, a French-born environmental activist and movie maker. Together with his brother, he built kayaks made of plastic and bamboo bottles to collect waste in Indonesia’s Citarum River, one of the most polluted in the world.
Dr Bernadette Madrid, 64, from the Philippines, received the award for setting up facilities to help children victims of domestic abuse.
Ophthalmologist Tadashi Hattori, 58, from Japan, was honoured for providing free surgeries in Vietnam, where ophthalmologists and specialised facilities are limited.
The award ceremony is scheduled for late November, in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.