Friends, family and colleagues say Chan Soveth, the rights worker who died suddenly last week, leaves behind a lasting legacy, and though he may not have been wealthy in money, he was rich in his work.
“What we left me after his death is honor and his good deeds,” his wife, Bi Sopheap, said in a recent interview, as she wore the white dress of mourning.
Chan Soveth was the deputy chief of investigation at the rights group Adhoc. He died at 51 from an apparent heart attack. He was born in Saang district, Kandal province, south of Phnom Penh, and leaves behind three children, including two sons, the oldest of whom is 16.
During his life, he investigated some of Cambodia’s worst rights abuses, from land disputes to oppression of dissidents and the devastation of the country’s natural resources. And he did it for very little salary.
“He did not leave any money to the family,” Bi Sopheap said.
“As a rights activist, he had no resources,” Ny Chakrya, chief of investigation at Adhoc said. “The day he died, his family had not a penny to carry his body from the house to the pagoda.”
And yet he was a “pillar” of the organization, Ny Chakrya said, working on some 10,000 cases since 1995, many of them involving the abuse of power, sometimes from the rich, sometimes from senior authorities. He traveled across the country to help his colleagues in their own investigations and was attacked verbally by Prime Minister Hun Sen and at least once was summoned to court to answer for his involvement in a case. He was not intimidated, and he continued his investigations.
Other activists say he set a good example for them. “I saw for myself that he took all the money he had from his pocket and gave it to victims of a land dispute, who did not have the means to travel to Phnom Penh,” said Pen Bonnar, a senior investigator for Adhoc who had worked in Ratanakkiri province.
“His kindness and his pity regarding family members and all citizens, those things are still with me,” Bi Sopheap, who is a seamstress, said. Remaining with her family are two motor-scooters, but they do not own their own house. They live in an audition on the roof of her aunt’s house. “His dream was to buy or build a house, if we ever had the money, and he would set up a Star Mart [convenience store] for me,” she said.
That did not come to pass, for a man born into a family of farmers who became, before his death, a critical figure in Cambodia’s human rights movement. “His dream did not come true, but his reputation and his good deeds are still alive,” Ny Chakrya said. “That is the value of a human being.”