Freedom fighter

Post-retirement, Youhorn Chea is devoting himself to human rights in Cambodia. 214513_04 Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

There’s still unfinished business for retiring four-time Greater Dandenong mayor Youhorn Chea.

A refugee who survived Cambodia’s ‘killing fields’ in 1982, Cr Chea will devote himself to fighting his “unlucky” homeland’s ‘dictatorship’.

“I’ve served 23 years for the City of Greater Dandenong. Now it’s time – before I pass away – to see my country have freedom and democracy.”

In 1997, Cr Chea was elected on the council – the first Cambodian-born councillor in Australia.

Four years later, he was installed as Greater Dandenong’s first Asian mayor.

Two years ago, Cr Chea refused to be intimidated after he, state MP Heang Tak and former MP Hong Lim were named in a death-threat letter that he believed came from the top of the Cambodian Government.

As president of Cambodian Association of Victoria, Cr Chea had been outspoken against Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister and former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen.

He accused Sen of being re-elected in a “fake election”.

And Cr Chea still vows that he will not be silenced.

He’ll speak against the regime’s visits, property purchases and fundraisers in Australia.

He’ll rail against how 55 opposition MPs and 2000 local councillors in Cambodia were “sacked” by the Government.

“There’s no democracy, no Parliament – just one party.

“In Cambodia, if you say something (against the regime) you go to prison or have an ‘accident’. It’s not good at all.”

Cr Chea hasn’t been back to his homeland since 2016.

That year, Clarinda MP Hong Lim was banned from Cambodia after labelling the gunning down of political activist Kem Ley as a “political assassination”.

Cr Chea says his country had become like “the Khmer Rouge again” – a time in the 1970s and 1980s when one million Cambodians were killed or died from starvation.

His parents and five of his siblings were among the victims.

He and his family were enslaved in an unsanitary concentration camp, forced to carry out hard labour in hunger, thirst and oppressive heat.

He contracted hepatitis C, drinking unclean water from rice fields.

After escaping, Cr Chea and his surviving family members were separated, spread across the world.

Understandably, he is most proud of the harmony among Greater Dandenong’s 150-plus nationalities.

It’s exemplified by the spread of Sikh, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist places of worship, the strong Interfaith Council and councillors’ universal support for multiculturalism.

As mayor during 9/11, he feared a backlash against Muslim communities. He asked for Greater Dandenong Interfaith Council leaders to come together to pray for peace.

“I haven’t seen any discrimination here that I have seen in other places.

“The Muslim community came to pray and to explain that killing someone was not part of the Muslim tradition.

“If you kill an innocent person you go to hell.”

At the last council election, Cr Chea led the charge to scrap the recently installed parking meters in central Springvale.

It was an illustration of how councillors need to listen to residents and businesses first, he said.

“Small business people were almost dying. No one was coming into Springvale – it was a very, very stupid idea.”

Springvale has transformed under Cr Chea’s watch. Twenty years ago, residents felt unsafe, heroin and crime were rife on the streets.

A social worker as well as councillor, Cr Chea pushed for rehab and support services. Victoria Police moving into a station on the main street was a game-changer, he said.

Until Covid-19 hit, “Sensational Springvale” was a thriving shopping and dining destination.

A highlight is the Lunar New Year festival that brings together the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian communities.

“We need to have an open heart, to forgive and forget the past. Cambodia and Vietnam have been fighting for 200, 300 years.

“They have the same suffering as us, the majority of them are refugees as well.”

Greater Dandenong mayor Jim Memeti paid tribute to Cr Chea’s career.

“He’s definitely been a good ambassador for the community, especially the Cambodian community and residents from a refugee background.

“He’s well respected not just with the Cambodian community but the wider community.

“Cr Chea has done a lot for Springvale. When he joined Greater Dandenong Council, Springvale was known for all the wrong reasons… it was known as ‘Heroin City’.

“He worked hard with his constituents, MPs and council officers to change the Springvale area.

“Now it’s known as ‘Sensational Springvale’. It has a lot to do with what Cr Chea has done in the past 23 years.”