Brothers across borders

Renowned Cambodian psychotherapist Sathya Pholy brings a message of peace and brotherhood to Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese societies

Southeast Asia Globe
October 10, 2009

Renowned Cambodian psychotherapist Sathya Pholy brings a message of peace and brotherhood to Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese societies

Sathya, who was previously known as radio counsellor Dr Love until an NGO claimed exclusivity of the name, works as a consultant for microfinance providers VisionFund, as a psychotherapist for the Phnom Penh Counselling Centre and as the host of “Love Talks with Dr Sathya Pholy”, a weekly radio show on Love FM 97.5. 

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to become a psychologist. I have always wanted to help people.  When I was young living in Cambodia my father kept telling me the importance of education. “Learning is a lifelong process,” he’d say.  He told me that worldly possessions can be stolen or destroyed but knowledge and wisdom can never be taken away from you. 

When I was young and living in Cambodia, I saw a lot of pain and suffering during the Khmer Rouge regime. I was told stories about how the Vietnamese (known to us as “Youn”) had abused Khmers for time immemorial. I also heard stories about how the Thais (known as “Siam”) abused the Khmer people. And how both neighbours had stolen our treasures and lands. I learned to hate the Yuon and Siam. At that time many Cambodians referred to the Thai and Vietnamese as their “genetic enemy”. 

My family and I left Phnom Penh in 1983 and lived at Cambodian-Thai border camps. We lived with guerilla forces who were still trying to fight against the Vietnamese and what they called a Puppet Regime in Phnom Penh. We were further indoctrinated to hate the Youn and the bogus government that was taking whatever remained of our country. In 1985, my father was arrested and killed by the Thai authorities. I found myself hating the Youn but co-operating with the Siam who had killed my father because they were helping the refugees at the same time with support from UNHCR. 

In 1987 I left Thailand and arrived in New York City’s Bronx district. It was a big cultural shock for me as I swapped the forests of southeast Asia for one of the world’s most densely populated urban jungles. It took me several years to get used to my new life. Beneath my apartment violent crime and drug dealing were rife. Every day I would hear about someone getting shot in my block or the next. 

I studied at the Theodore Roosevelt High School, where we would have to pass through a metal detector before going to class. Fights would constantly erupt at break times. I often felt I had escaped a war in Cambodia, only to have to deal with another one in the Bronx. 

At first I had both black and white friends at school and around the neighbourhood. But as the violence between different gangs increased, people began to stick to their own kind. The blacks, whites, Hispanics and – I began to notice – Asians(Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai and Chinese) were starting to hang out with each other for protection against other ethnic groups. 

In early 1990, I moved from New York to Lowell, MA. I was still in high school. Lowell, MA is one of many cities and towns in the US that have a diverse culture and many ethnic groups. I played volleyball with teammates from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Europe and Africa. 

While in high school I was part of the New Horizon Program, which helped with studying and organised summer employment. I met some of my best friends from Southeast Asia through the programme. Throughout my academic career there were so many teachers, counsellors and administrators who encouraged me to continue my studies and pursue my own version of the American Dream. Many of these special individuals were Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian. When I was doing my doctoral degree in Fresno, CA, I got to know more people from Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. We became close friends. We hung out together every day. We went to the movies, played poker, visited temples and played sport. We became brothers. I couldn’t speak Thai or Vietnamese but English became our common language. 

They looked like the people who killed my father but they were anything but my enemy. We would discuss our histories and could agree to disagree. I knew they were not responsible for what happened in the past. They didn’t perpetrate atrocities against my people. 

Any remaining animosity between Cambodia and Vietnam and Thailand is mostly linked to the past. In many instances, issues and conflicts among the three are the results of politics. In the same way that common folk of many Middle Eastern countries don’t hate the American people, just American foreign policy. I believe the recent incursions into Cambodian territory that led to conflict and bloodshed were not caused by the hatred of the Thai people, just the political situation in Thailand. Most Thais and Cambodians are simply interested in making trade not war. The Thais, Vietnamese and Cambodians share similar aspirations to make their lives better and achieve their goals. They have more things in common than differences. We all want the same from life. We all want to live in peace and freedom. We all want prosperity for our children and grandchildren. 

Discrimination and stereotyping are usually caused by a lack  of understanding and communication. A culture, a religion, an ethnic group or a nation hates another because they don’t understand them. This brings a hatred that is based on fear – fear of the unknown. If we look back through our regional history we know that the Thais share the same bloodlines as Cambodians, just as Cambodians share 40% of their bloodlines with Indians. Khmer culture is inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism. Thai culture owes much to Cambodian influence dating back to the time of the Angkor empire. 

When the Khmer Rouge invaded Vietnam during the late 1970s many of the people they slaughtered were Khmer Krom – ethnic Khmers. Today, many of the Thais along the border are ethnic Khmer Surin. We are all essentially brothers. Getting along with our neighbours is not only natural for us, it’s essential. As the Prime Minister of Cambodia said recently with regard to the Cambodian border issue with Thailand: “We cannot dig out the land and move it somewhere else. As long as we are neighbours with Thailand we all need to find the way to get along.” 

Professionally, I have worked with people from all over the world. As long as we communicate properly, seek understanding and offer tolerance we can solve any problems or misunderstandings. I certainly believe that Cambodians, Thais and the Vietnamese can become good friends and neighbours when we apply the golden rule of treating others with the respect with which we would want to be treated. 

Dr Sathya Pholy, 38 is a social scientist, psychologist and scholar in education, mental health and addiction. He has a PhD in educational psychology and a masters degree in counselling psychology. He has been a certified alcohol and drug-abuse counsellor (CADAC) since 2001 – he was the first certified Cambodian drug counsellor. Dr Pholy has taught extensively in the American educational system from K-12 to university level. He travels extensively for national and international workshops and conferences regarding contemporary social issues as a speaker and presenter. In addition to his employment with Vision Fund he works as a technical advisor/consultant in education, psychology and addiction for NGOs and the government sector. He is also technical advisor for Friends-International and its partners/affiliates. He has served as associate dean in the College of Social Sciences and as dean of graduate programmes in private tertiary institutions. He is also a guest speaker on contemporary issues on Beehive 105 FM, Love FM 97.5 and Family Radio 99.5 FM. 

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