As Australia paid tribute to the recent passing of Bob Hawke, the country’s 23rd prime minister, this author sent a statement of condolence on behalf of Cambodian community in Australia to former prime minister Julia Gillard, describing Hawke as “the greatest peacetime leader Australia has ever had” and who “was an inspiration.”
Hawke’s policy in the early 1980s was deeply appreciated by Cambodian refugees who were accepted to settle in Australia. To Hawke, “every human being mattered.”
In Hawke’s memory, this is the right time for the author to retrace his former life as a refugee prior to settlement in Australia in 1983 – the year that Hawke became prime minister.
Just three days before Hawke’s passing, on May 13, friends and members of the author’s family gathered in Sydney to commemorate our arrival in Australia on that date in 1983. Typically, we reminisced about our past tragedies, and Hawke’s wisdom that afforded refugees the opportunity to make contributions to Australia.
Hawke’s predecessor, Malcolm Fraser of the Liberal government, had already implemented a program that saw displaced people affected by civil war accepted from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
How my family became refugees
Together with my parents and three siblings, I fled Cambodia in December 1979 under the cover of darkness. It was barely eight months after my father magically strolled into our lives after having gone missing in 1969 – the year I was born.
Until then, with the exception of my mother, everyone presumed my father, who was in the armed forces serving a pro-US government, had been killed either on the battlefield by Viet Cong or, if he did survive, would not have been spared by the Khmer Rouge.
As the youngest, I had no memory of my father. During Pol Pot’s “Angkar” regime, the state had pressured my mother to remarry on many occasions. Confident that my father was still alive, however, she vehemently resisted all marriage proposals.
A few months after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in January 1979, my father miraculously appeared. But his arrival was overshadowed by the news of the disappearance of my older brother.
Ten months later, my father’s priority was to flee Cambodia. He had learned that it was only a matter of time for the Vietnamese forces to discover that he had served alongside the US-backed government against the Viet Cong before Pol Pot came to power.
Reminded by the loss of his identity as Khmer Krom, my father was acutely aware of Vietnam’s occupation. It was part of policy of Vietnamization that would see Cambodia ruled under Vietnam.
Determined not to live under and be persecuted by Vietnam’s occupying forces in Cambodia, we were one of the first few families to leave our village for a safe sanctuary on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Military assault in December 1979
We reached the first site controlled by an unregulated Cambodian armed unit that had also fled Vietnam’s occupying forces.
Less than two months later, ferocious shelling and civil conflict erupted among the various warring factions. It was the first time I had encountered men in uniform running around with AK-47s, live bullets flying overhead and the smell of powder from artillery bombing.
Distraught people dispersed randomly in the direction of Thai territory as they attempted to escape the incoming forces and shelling.
In the midst of smoke and fire, my older sister Sophy had gone missing. As people frantically ran away from the bombing seeking cover, my other brother, sister and I took off to a nearby market, hoping that my missing sister had gone there.
The constant bombings could be heard within close proximity of the market. Within a few minutes, this formerly bustling and vibrant market became an eery place as displaced people deserted it. As the situation became more perilous, we ran back to our parents. My father ordered us to take cover in a shallow trench nearby.
Finally, my father made a gut-wrenching decision to leave the site. Predictably, my mother was furious and obstinate, because she wanted to wait for my sister.
My mother’s voice was drowned out by loud shelling as she tried to persuade my father to stay on. In the end he persuaded her to join the exodus. It was clear that the whole site was turning into a ghost town.
Tempted to move forward but reluctant to show his despair, my father kept his distance behind us – as he was pondering whether he had made the right decision.
As the dust settled that afternoon, I remember looking around as far I could see; we were the only family left trudging along. In the distance we spotted a few trees ahead of us. Located in the middle of this uninhabitable vast plain, a shadow of a woman emerged under those trees.
By a sheer miracle, it was my sister waiting for us. But there was no time to rejoice, as we picked up our pace heading deeper into Thai territory.
We reached a location where a convoy of buses were lining up. We were stopped, but were given no instructions or explanations. But we had no choice; the path was blocked as displaced people queued up. So we got in line with the others and boarded a bus.
Later on we learned that they were United Nations buses sent to pick us up as news leaked of the massive military assault by the Vietnamese forces.
That same evening we were driven into a camp called Khao-I-Dang.
By the time our refugee status was processed and identity cards were issued, it was almost midnight. This camp was the first official safe zone with logistical infrastructure to house and support refugees.
Eventually we reached another holding camp. Despite being documented as refugees, we had not secured an interview with US immigration authorites; the United States was our preferred destination as my mother’s brother, who settled in Ohio in 1979, was our sponsor.
As this camp was a vetting process centre, we were considered the lucky ones. Once admitted, the likelihood of resettlement in a third country was more certain.
Within six months of our arrival, my parents were asked to attend interviews separately with the Americans. As my father left the interview room, he was upbeat about the prospect of being accepted by the United States. Proud and ecstatic, he recited his military identification and credentials, awarded to him by the pro-US government that preceded the Pol Pot era.
On the brink of repatriation
But we were not in fact as lucky as we thought to be admitted into this holding camp. Waiting for the outcome of the embassy interview took a toll on my father, who became depressed. It had been more than a year with no news from the US Embassy. We patiently waited as friends and latecomers, including my eldest sister and her family, were all successfully processed and settled in the United States.
As we waited for the outcome, weeks became months and months turned into years.
Finally, the United States rejected our bid for asylum. The American officials doubted not only my father’s claim of military service, but my mother’s claim that her biological brother was residing in the United States.
Crushed by the news of rejection and the US allegations, my parents were left shattered and devastated.
That decision enraged my father. Until the day he died in Sydney in 2000, he was determined not to set foot on American soil.
Ironically, my father had given the IDs of his men who were killed during the war to other rejected refugees when they made a second bid for interviews with the Americans; all were successful.
Faced with the prospect of forced repatriation in 1982, my father encouraged the four of us to pass the time by attending French and English lessons conducted by the United Nations and some of the countries represented onsite. In the meantime, to justify our presence in the camp, my parents also lodged applications to settle in France and Canada.
While waiting for responses from France and Canada, my sister Sophy’s Australian volunteer colleague came to our rescue. Within weeks of lodging an application, we were called for an interview with Australian authorities, and the outcome was swift. Australia accepted us. On May 13, 1983, we landed in Australia.
Reminded of Hawke’s wisdom that “every human being mattered,” my father’s epiphany was reflected in a quote by Chris Bowen, a Labor member of Parliament and currently a shadow minister. Bowen noted in a 2017 parliamentary speech my father’s response to Australian immigration authorities as he was being interviewed in the refugee camp, as related to Bowen by myself: “When my father first went before the immigration board in 1983, aged 60, they said to him, ‘What do you have to offer?’ He said, ‘Maybe nothing, but my sons will.’”
Bowen added: “That was a very telling statement, I thought, by Mr Ek Sr. And he is right: His sons, Sawathey in particular, have gone on to make an important contribution to Australia. That was recognized with the Order of Australia medal in 2001. I’m sure that in 1983 Mr Ek Sr could not have imagined that his son would make such a contribution that he would receive an Order of Australia medal.”