Seeing with New Eyes

Text by Serene Ashley Chen
Photo by Shawn Khoong

In 2008, Sangeetha Yogendran travelled to Cambodia to help build a well for the villagers there.  A close encounter with a new friend, who was head of the village she was volunteering with and a former soldier who fought during the Khmer Rouge, opened Sangeetha’s eyes to a whole new paradigm that would shape her views about her role in society and her subsequent career choices. Sangeetha, a graduate of NUS Law School, speaks to Catalyst Asia about her time at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal*, her reflections about humanitarian work and what she hopes to achieve in the next five years.

What is your role at Save The Children International?

I started 1.5 years ago as a humanitarian response officer and I had the opportunity to be involved in the Typhoon Haiyan response. Today, I cover full spectrum humanitarian operations and development for Save The Children International’s work in South and Central Asia which include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

The experience with Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most intense and eye-opening life experiences I’ve had. We were deployed immediately after the typhoon struck. Along with four other colleagues, we had to figure out a way to get almost 100 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the victims once our Boeing 777 plane touched down from our global warehouse. The sense of urgency meant that nobody was complaining. If you stopped, you would be delaying essential aid.

What motivated you to take on this role?

I was with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Singapore when the opportunity to join Save The Children International presented itself. Having always wanted to pursue humanitarian work and being idealistic, I jumped at it. When I got home, I had to explain myself to the family.

The decision to join Save The Children International was not an easy one because I knew I would be giving up a nice paycheck and the stability of a civil service job for an environment that offered less certainty. However, the role spoke to me as this is something that has been in my heart for some time now – the ability to impact lives.

How did your interest in human rights start?

If I were to narrow it down to a catalysing moment, it would be my maiden trip to Cambodia in 2008. I was volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Together with a team of working adults aged 20 to 60 years, I was helping to build a well for the community there. The village head I was working with had an amputated leg. I later realised that he had fought as a soldier in the Khmer Rouge and lost the lower part of his leg after stepping on a landmine.

That was my first encounter with the Khmer Rouge and the subject of genocide. My interest was piqued and I spent a lot of time researching about this part of history and the journey led me to an internship with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s Victims Unit in Cambodia. An internship which was supposed to last for 3 months turned into a 7-month stint. Fortunately, the Dean of the NUS Law School at that time was extremely supportive and I was able to successfully defer my graduation.

Tell us more about the stint. What was most surprising about the stint and how did your experience there shape you?

The department I was in acted as an intermediary between the victims of the Khmer Rouge and the lawyers representing them. My role involved a mixture of legal research, budgeting and coordination. The highlight for me was having to arrange for 93 registered victims to attend the first day of trial at the Tribunal.

My interaction with the victims made me realise that there were so many underlying issues and a lot of work had to be done especially in the areas of social support and psychotherapy. Due to the traumatising experience from 30 years ago, many of them are suffering from mental issues. As far as I know, there is only one organisation – Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation Cambodia- that is dedicated to supporting this area of work.

Many victims are so angry.  I remember some of them telling me that the detention facilities at the United Nations (UN) that housed the defendants of the Khmer Rouge are a lot nicer than their homes and they saw it as an injustice. This anecdote gives a flavour of the bitterness they are living with. Yet, they are conflicted internally as well. One man told me that if he were to see a perpetrator on the streets, he would be tempted to kill him. Yet, he is restrained by his religious beliefs. A lot of Cambodians are Buddhists and they believe that violence is not the way.

The experience at the Tribunal fundamentally changed me. That is still my main point of reference for how I got involved in humanitarian work. I started looking into other Tribunals  in Rwanda, Yugoslavia. A seed of curiosity grew in me. Very few experiences come close to the experience I had at the Tribunal. Meaningful work had a new definition.

How would you describe your journey thus far? What are some of the challenges of humanitarian work? 

In terms of challenges, I would say the nature of humanitarian work is such that you can be called up to go to some place for an undetermined amount of time and you wouldn’t know the job scope before hand.  You’d have to drop everything all of a sudden. It would be much harder if you had responsibilities and commitment that would require you to be around, especially if you had children or parents to take care of back home. Having an understanding spouse and family members is essential if you want to do this line of work. I think this might explain why there are more men than there are women in humanitarian work.

What are your reflections and what is your view of the future?  What do you hope to achieve in the next five years?

This is not meant to be advice or anything, but for anyone who is keen on humanitarian work I would say that it is not easy as this is not a tried and tested career path, you need to have passion and perseverance. Humanitarian work can be very draining.

I intend to do a masters in human rights and/or humanitarian law as I would like to be able to combine humanitarian work with my legal background. I am passionate about both. I want to make a difference in someone’s life and help correct a wrong if you will. Humanitarian law is much more tested in a conflict-related situation as opposed to a natural disaster-related one. I want to be involved in that because that’s where the challenge is and where I hope the reward will be. I hope that when I look back 10 years from now, it’ll all make sense.

*The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, is a court established to try the most senior responsible members of the Khmer Rouge for alleged violations of international law and serious crimes perpetrated during the Cambodian genocide.

About Sangeetha

Sangeetha Yogendran is currently a Humanitarian Officer with Save the Children International, supporting humanitarian response and emergency preparedness in the Asia region. Sangeetha previously worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore on international boundary issues. An Advocate & Solicitor of the Singapore Supreme Court, Sangeetha has interests in international law issues such as human rights, humanitarian law and international criminal law. Her interest in Cambodia and international justice began in 2009 when she worked with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s Victims Unit. She has continued her involvement by assisting Civil Party Lawyer Mahdev Mohan in collecting victim testimony for a minority group in Cambodia affected by the Khmer Rouge, which then informed legal submissions to the Tribunal. She has also worked or interned with the International Criminal Court, Interpol and the UNHCR.

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