Farina So

Farina So

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Farina So: Breaking the silence on the Cambodian genocide

Despite her slight frame and unassuming demeanor, there is strength about Farina So. Some might say it is a strength born of oppression, brought about during the Democratic Kampuchea regime – an era that witnessed the death of an estimated 21 percent of Cambodia's total population.

So, a graduate student from Cambodia, enrolled in Ohio University's Southeast Asian Studies program in 2008, following five years of research with the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Among her responsibilities at the center, So led an oral history project, collecting survival stories from fellow Cham Muslims, an ethnic minority in Cambodia that was widely persecuted under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979.

Though separated from her home in Phnom Penh by nearly 9,000 miles, So has dedicated her two years at Ohio University toward research and public education on the genocide. Her dedication has earned her widespread respect across OHIO's international community as well a Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund scholarship, an educational grant benefitting women from developing countries whose graduate studies and future plans aim to benefit women and children in their respective regions. 

According to Joan Kraynanski, an administrative associate in the Center for International Studies, So is well deserving of the master's degree she will earn in Friday's graduate commencement ceremonies.

"Farina embodies the image of the model graduate student, meticulous in her academic work," Kraynanski said. "Her appreciation for the opportunity to study at Ohio University was obvious by this dedication to her academic course work, which in turn gave her the opportunity to further research the development issues facing the Cham community in Cambodia - her research passion."

Referred to by Yale scholars as "one of the worst human tragedies of the last century," the Khmer Rouge era was marked by extremism, ethnic hostility and widespread murder. But the Cham Muslim population, to which So belongs, was hit particularly hard.

During this period, Muslims were prohibited from worshipping, more than 130 mosques were eradicated, and the vast majority of prominent Cham clergy in Cambodia were killed. Many Cham people, including So's mother, were evacuated from their homes and forced into hard labor. So's mother was among the survivors, but an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished during the period.

After the Vietnamese overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, So's parents returned to the Kandal province only to find their home in ruins. Like many Cambodians at that time, they were forced to create their new life from the ground up – clearing the forests and building a new home by hand.

So was born the following year. And though the Khmer Rouge era technically predates her, So said the regime's legacy has touched the lives of all Cambodians indelibly.

"Even though I was not a direct victim, I was affected by the legacy of the Khmer Rouge," she said.

Tragedy struck again in 1989, when So lost her father and sibling to disease. So's mother was left to raise and support her four surviving children, of whom So was the oldest.

Times were hard, and money was tight, but So's mother made education a family priority.

"She was determined that we go to school even though we are daughters, so that we could make a life and a future there," So recalled.

After earning an undergraduate degree in accounting, So's interests began to shift. Her work at the documentation center opened her eyes to genocide, gender issues, and issues faced by ethnic minorities. Eventually, these concepts developed to form the focus of her research at Ohio University. 

"I had heard a lot about the school and specifically its Southeast Asian Studies program," said So. "In my country, I'm very involved in application – doing projects, meeting people, community service. But, I wanted to learn about theory and research to balance my knowledge and practice."

Despite the distance, Cambodia has been a guiding influence throughout So's OHIO education.

For the past two years, she has worked to develop her thesis, "An Oral History of Cham Muslim Women Under the Khmer Rouge." Her work is based on more than 300 interviews (including more than 100 interviews with Cham women), mostly conducted by So. So hopes to publish the work in a monograph, which will also be translated into Khmer, the official language of Cambodia.

This past April, So organized an exhibit in Baker Theater in an effort to educate the campus community on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. Following the temporary exhibit at Baker Theatre, the entire collection was entrusted to the university’s Center for International Collections for a permanent exhibit, located in Alden Library’s first floor.

"The Exhibit of the Resistance to the Khmer Rouge: Arms and Emotion" features photographic and archival materials to inform the public about Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) Case 002, which is slated to try the four most senior surviving leaders from the Democratic Kampuchea regime next year.
Case 002 is part of ongoing tribunals by the United Nations to bring surviving senior Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. Among the tribunal's findings, trials have turned up evidence of "crimes against humanity, genocide… torture and religious persecution."

So said it is likely that her interviews will also be used as evidentiary information in Case 002, in the absence of ample written evidence or photographs (which were confiscated from the Cham people during the Khmer Rouge reign). She also hopes to utilize these interviews, along with her newly acquired knowledge and skills, to establish a Center for Oral History and Gender Studies through the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

"It is very important for both Cambodian people and people around the world to know what has happened… especially how people deal with the past atrocity and how to prevent such similar tragedy from recurrence," said So. "Genocide conflict is a global issue…The work that we are doing here is just only a small step to raise people's awareness, remember and prevent genocide. But much work remains to be done to help the survivors move on."