By Jack Broom
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE (AP) — One of his legs ends at the knee. The other, just below it.
It’s a disquieting sight, but Tun Channareth, of Cambodia, sitting in a wheelchair he made himself, would not want you to turn away.
“Some people understand my English,” he told a group of Seattle University students a few days ago. “Some people understand my body.”
Channareth’s speech, his body, and his passion convey a simple message: that land mines, many of which were placed in wars and conflicts decades ago, continue to kill and maim thousands of men, women, and children around the globe each year.
“The suffering never stops,” said Channareth, who said one of every 230 people in his country is an amputee, the bulk of their injuries caused by land mines left over from decades of civil war and incursions by foreign military.
Even today, he said, it’s estimated that as many as 5 million land mines and other undetonated explosives remain in Cambodia alone — a country slightly smaller than the state of Washington — many still capable of killing a child at play, or a worker in a farm or field. And even if a field is cleared of mines once, the danger can return as plastic-encased explosive devices move around in annual floods.
Channareth’s devotion to that message is the reason he was selected to travel to Norway to accept a 1997 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
It has led to visits with world leaders on several continents, including the prime minister of Japan, royalty in Spain, Cambodia and Belgium, the late Pope John Paul II, and a telephone conversation with former President Clinton.
And it’s why he’ll be speaking Sunday at Seattle University’s graduate commencement ceremony, where he will receive an honorary doctoral degree from the university.
All this attention would have been the farthest thing from his mind on that December day in 1982, when, as a 22-year-old resistance soldier — and a husband whose wife was pregnant with their first child — he stepped on a mine near the border between Cambodia and Thailand.
After the blast, when he saw the mangled remains of his legs, his only emotion was despair. “I just wanted to die (I thought). ‘What can I do now? How can I support my family?’ ”
If another soldier hadn’t stopped him, Channareth said, he would have shot himself with his own weapon.
Over the next 13 years in a Thai refugee camp, Channareth received vocational training and came to see that burgeoning numbers of people shared his fate. Returning to Cambodia, he got a job with the Jesuit Refugee Service in the city of Siem Reap, assembling and later designing wheelchairs, many of which go to land-mine victims.
Channareth’s connection with Seattle University dates to the summer of 2007, when Le Xuan Hy, an associate professor of psychology, went to the Siem Reap area to see its best-known attraction, the Angkor Wat Temple, and to visit the Jesuit center.
“The first thing I noticed about him was how nimble he was, even with the loss of his legs,” Hy said. “He was on fire about the help he needed to give to the people.”
Hy said Channareth was a striking blend of two identities. He was a hard worker in a simple manufacturing shop, and a knowledgeable conversationalist about world events — particularly as they relate to the growing call for international bans on both land mines and cluster bombs.
After returning to Seattle, Hy told Channareth’s story to two of his fellow SU faculty members, Quan Le, an associate professor of business and economics, and Peter Raven, director of international business programs.
Last September, Le and Raven led a group of 18 undergraduate students and MBA candidates on a “service-learning” trip to Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. In Cambodia, they planted 70 trees, met Channareth, and assembled a dozen wheelchairs.
Justin Hatley, 30, of Seattle, who made the trip in the last stages of earning his MBA, said the experience was eye-opening. Like many Americans, Hatley tended to think of the Vietnam War and Cambodia’s bloody Pol Pot regime as closed chapters.
He knew land mines had been used in the region, “but I didn’t know they were still around and that kids and adults are still walking into them.”
Le and Raven also nominated Channareth for the honorary doctorate. SU President Stephen Sundborg, announcing the selection, said Channareth “has reached out with compassion in service to other land-mine victims, while working tirelessly to rid the world of these insidious weapons.”
Channareth said he appreciates the honor, but that its real value will be in the attention he hopes it might bring to his cause.
That work is far from finished, he said. Although 156 nations have signed the Mine Ban Treaty, nearly 40 have not, including the United States, Russia, and China.
Some of the SU students who traveled to Cambodia have since worked on a petition campaign calling on President Obama to join the anti-land-mine effort. Although the United States has financially supported land-mine-removal efforts, a State Department spokesman said in 2009 that if it agreed to the ban, the United States might not be able to meet its national defense needs and protect its allies.
The zeal Channareth feels for his crusade has replaced the despair that lingered long after his injury. He and his wife now have six children, one in high school, one in college, and four who are college graduates.
At speaking engagements, he often tells his listeners to “grow the flower of peace in your heart.” A peaceful heart, he says, creates a peaceful person, which in turn would produce a peaceful family, community, county, and world. ♦