Cambodia turns killing fields into tennis courts

Human sculls are displayed in the stupa of Choeung Ek, a former Khmer Rouge 'killing field' dotted with mass graves about nine miles (15 km) south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo / AP
Human sculls are displayed in the stupa of Choeung Ek, a former Khmer Rouge 'killing field' dotted with mass graves about nine miles (15 km) south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo / AP

Tep Rithivit is a successful businessman who has played his part in rebuilding Cambodia after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years. Yet one of the proudest moments of his life will come this week when four of his fellow countrymen play a series of tennis matches in what is likely to be a near-empty stadium.

Group four of the Asia/Oceania Zone is as low as you can get in the Davis Cup. But Cambodia's first appearance in the competition, in Qatar, will be the realisation of a 17-year dream.

When Tep returned to the land of his birth in 1995, his family having fled to France and then Canada shortly before Pol Pot came to power 20 years earlier, he was anxious to find out what had happened to the men he used to watch playing tennis with his father, Tep Khunnah, who was one of the country's best players in the 1960s. He discovered that all but three of Cambodia's top 40 players had perished. Courts were used for executions, swimming pools as mass graves. An estimated 1.7 million people died.

Since Tep's return, which was prompted by his father's death, he has taken tennis into Cambodia's schools and orphanages, built a training centre for the country's best players, recruited coaches and scoured the world for expatriates who might be good enough to compete at international level.

The Khmer Rouge forced millions of Cambodians to leave the cities and work in rural labour camps. Money and private property were abolished and people who were suspected of being educated or middle class were tortured or executed. Those who played tennis, which was a preserve of the elite, did not have a chance.

Tep, who was 10 when his family fled, used to watch his father play at Le Cercle Sportif, a club in Phnom Penh used by the wealthy. The Khmer Rouge found another use for it. Political executions were carried out there and its Olympic-sized pool became a mass grave. Cham Prasidh, Cambodia's Minister of Trade and Commerce, another survivor of the killing fields, used to go to school next to the club. He would watch Tep Khunnah's matches through a fence.

"When I returned to Cambodia and Cham heard that I was back, he tried to find me," Tep said. "He had just restarted the tennis federation. He said: 'Why don't you come in and help me do this? You know tennis here.' He knew that I could put in the money. We've worked together since then."

While the Government and the International Tennis Federation have given financial support, the tennis programme would not have been possible without Tep, who is the Cambodian federation's secretary-general. "I fund it mostly with my money," Tep said. "I am fortunate. I have an investment company and a consultancy company here."

Standards are improving rapidly, but Tep knew he would have to look elsewhere for players capable of representing the country internationally. He discovered Bun Kenny, who has a Cambodian father and French mother, while on holiday in France. Bun came to Phnom Penh for a trial three years ago, lived with Tep's family for eight months, and has stayed. He is the only Cambodian with a current world ranking: number 1192.

While Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the region, living standards are rising and the political situation is stable.

The Cambodia to which new young players are being introduced is very different from the country in which Tep Khunnah spent his prime years.

- Independent

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