From 1975 to early 1979, for a period of more than 3 ½ years, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia committed one of the most atrocious genocides in human history.
Under their ruler Pol Pot, this Cambodian genocide killed up to 2.5 million men, women, and children due to starvation, being worked to death, torture, and murder.
In the wake of the Vietnam Conflict in the region that created a power vacuum and saw the Marxist-leaning Khmer Rouge come to power, their mission was to cleanse society from anyone who was an intellectual, subscribed to foreign ideology or influence, or affiliated with the previous government, military, police, or even schools.
The subject of this dark and still somewhat forgotten genocide was brought to light in the 1980s film, The Killing Fields, exposing that up to 25% of Cambodia’s entire population was wiped out in just these three+ years.
Sitha Toeung was only six years old when the Khmer Rouge entered the capital city of Phnom Penh in 1975,
From Cambodian genocide survivor to dedicating his life to running a flourishing orphanage, this is Sitha Toeung's life story.
Once outside the city, people were forcibly separated – families broken up - and shipped off to work camps throughout the country. Those who resisted were murdered on the spot.
At these camps, people were starved and worked to death, tortured frequently and often killed arbitrarily.
Sitha was in a camp, too, and saw his three brothers killed, his mother barely spared. But survive he did, until late 1978/early 1979 when the Vietnamese army stormed the country and forced the Khmer Rouge to flee to the jungles in the north.
Whoever was left may have been alive, but they did not much left, as a whole series of generations lost their family, property, history, culture, and faith in humanity.
In the midst of the 1980s when Cambodian society started to crawl out the darkness, Sitha picked up the pieces and managed to obtain a college education in Phnom Penh. He met his wife, Sreymom, while teaching English, and together they looked to the future.
With a whole nation of impoverished orphans, there were plenty of children who needed help, so Sitha and Sreymom took in a few children for what was supposed to only be a week or two but became permanent. They traveled to the city of Siem Reap in the north and volunteered for a charitable organization and realized it was their life’s work to take care of Cambodia’s unwanted children, helping their nation heal.
Soon, they took in more children. And more. And then officially formed The Childrens Improvement Organization (or Organisation, the British spelling) orphanage.
They moved the budding family to a plot of land and several rudimentary structures they rented from a Taiwanese company, and that’s where I connected with them back in 2015 when I was living in Cambodia. Through a total random happenstance, I was met Sitha and helped place two orphan sisters, Jenny and Jenna, at the Childrens Improvement Center, or CIO.
Over the years, I’ve visited Sitha, Sreymom, the kids, and the orphanage many times, and helped support them with my own humble donations and also raising awareness. Thanks to the benevolence of strangers, Sitha and Sreymom managed to buy property of their own, building a nice complex that is perfect for the 35 children they now care for.
From narrowly avoiding a certain death under the Cambodian genocide to a flourishing charity that’s changing so many young lives, Sitha gives us hope that one person can make a difference in this world.
In this podcast, Sitha tells his story.