Cambodian TV show reunites families separated by Khmer Rouge

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A flimsy wall is all that divides Moung Ramary and the father she has never met (second from right) as she talks with the host on stage. (Photo by Brendan Brady.)

A new Cambodian reality show is reconnecting family members separated by the brutal Khmer Rouge, and doing it all in front of cameras.

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The show is called "It's Not a Dream." It encourages viewers to send in their stories of missing loved ones. Some of those who write in get their stories read on TV and a lucky few are reunited with their families in front of a live audience.

It's a gimmick, but that's not a problem for Moung Ramary.

"I saw the program on TV that finds lost family members, many of the families they reunite are so excited," she said.

Ramary lives in Phnom Penh. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge forced her parents to marry. After the Khmer Rouge fell, her father left her pregnant mother. Ramary had never met him until "It's Not a Dream" decided to help.

"I want to meet him even if he is sick or poor," said Ramary, 33, before the show. "I want to have the chance to offer him my love and whatever I can."

It took the producers of the show a few months to track down Ramary’s father, Sokhem. Then one night, she finally got to meet him on television. When Ramary arrived at the studio, she was whisked away to a waiting room. Producer Prak Sokhayouk didn’t want to risk Ramary bumping into her father backstage.

"We separate them and we also arrange different times for them to arrive here," Sokhayouk said. "We make sure they won't meet before the time we let them meet."

Ramary's father arrived at the studio with one of his daughters from his current marriage. He is in his 60s and in poor health.

On stage, the host asked Ramary about her childhood and the hardships she and her brother endured. Her father sat on the other side of a flimsy divider, watching her on a live video feed.

Ramary's brother was also on stage. And the host asked them if they were ready to meet their father. Sokhem emerged from backstage. As per Cambodian tradition, Ramary and her brother prostrated themselves before him. He fell to his knees to embrace them.

"I'm so happy, father, you're alive," Ramary said.

It was a moving moment, just the kind that Sokhayouk, the producer, tries to engineer. She says she has to be careful not to drag it out.

But not everyone appreciates these dramatic effects. That includes Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, an NGO that researches Khmer Rouge history. Chhang lost much of his family during the Khmer Rouge's reign. He said he wouldn't go on that sort of TV show.

"I would not want myself (to) go there and cry," he said. "I have cried for 30 years so I don't have to go there and cry again in front of the TV camera."

Chhang said he appreciated that the program helped bring families together, but added that it was more about entertainment than national healing.

Sokhayouk said that while she was trying to create good television, she continued to be touched by the stories.

"When we see a reunion on stage, even for me, I cannot stop crying," she said.

Ramary says she appreciates what the show did for her. But now she is trying to connect with her father in a more natural way by visiting him on weekends, away from the cameras.