Reach Sambath, Tribunal Spokesman in Cambodia, Dies at 47

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Published: May 13, 2011 NEW YORK TIMES

Reach Sambath, who survived the Khmer Rougekilling fields as an orphan and rose through journalism and teaching to become the spokesman for a tribunal in Cambodia that is trying the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, died on Wednesday. He was 47.

Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Reach Sambath in 2010 as he speaks to high school students in Phnom Penh about the court’s efforts to try former Khmer Rouge leaders in court.

The cause was a stroke brought on by high blood pressure, his family said.

Mr. Reach Sambath often said that as the spokesman for the United Nations-backed tribunal, he was helping to represent the 1.7 million who died during Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979. Among them were his parents and all but one sibling. He called himself “a spokesperson for ghosts.”

Mr. Reach Sambath entered journalism in 1991 as a reporter for Agence France-Presse, the French news agency. He was one of the first Cambodians to work for a foreign news agency, and he covered the nation’s first democratic election, a coup, a lingering civil war and finally the collapse of the Khmer Rouge insurgency and the death of its leader, Pol Pot. During these years he also worked as a reporter and translator for The New York Times, whose global edition is The International Herald Tribune.

He was present in 1998 when two of the last Khmer Rouge holdouts, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, both of whom are now on trial, surrendered to the government.

“When I see them, it is difficult to forgive — very difficult,” he said at the time. “But we have to forgive and move on.”

Mr. Reach Sambath sold ice and ferried passengers on a bicycle to support himself after the fall of the Khmer Rouge while he attended elementary and high school and learned English. He graduated in 1987 and became an English teacher. He then won a place as one of the first post-Khmer Rouge students to be sent abroad, to study agriculture in India, before returning to join Agence France-Presse. On leave from that job, he earned a master’s degree in 2001 from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

He left the news agency in 2003 to become a professor of journalism and communications at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, a job he continued to hold after he joined the tribunal staff in 2006.

He is survived by his wife, Chhoy Chanthy, as well as a daughter, Reach Champaradh, and two sons, Reach Rithivong and Reach Samborakh.

Mr. Reach Sambath often returned to his home village in Svay Rieng Province, where he became a patron to his former neighbors and helped many of their children find work in Phnom Penh. One of his greatest moments of pride, he said, was to have earned enough money to conduct an elaborate Buddhist ceremony at his village for the souls of his parents.

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