Migration Memories
Robinvale perspectives


Sothea Thea: A refugee’s perspective


From Cambodia 1990 to Robinvale 2004

One of the main challenges in shaping Sothea’s story was to make the best selections from the many dramatic and powerful details of his experience as a Cambodian refugee. Another was to provide the right amount of background information about events and places that are not well known in Australia.

  sothea's display
Sothea Thea.  Photograph: Jo Sheldrick, 2006.   View of Sothea’s story on display at the National Museum of Australia. Photograph: Lannon Harley. Courtesy: National Museum of Australia, 2007.


Mapping the personal, the local and historical

In the exhibition the situation that prompted Sothea’s flight was shown by using a map, images and text. In 1990, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was regaining power in the area where Sothea lived and forcing young men into its army. At the same time Australia had become involved in an international effort to negotiate peace in Cambodia and was anxious not to jeopardise the process by accepting refugees.

map of SE Asia
  Sothea's map panel
Details from Sothea Thea, panel three, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Design: Paula McKindlay

photos from Sothea's journey
  Detail from Sothea Thea, panel four, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Design: Paula McKindlay


Newspaper articles and files of the National Council of Churches in Australia were sources of images that showed Sothea’s first experience of Australia.







The local

In the local context, Sothea’s story of seeking asylum in the 1990s connects with the experience of more recent refugees who are now living in Robinvale. But in his case Robinvale was a much later destination which, to start with at least, was a yet another painful dislocation from the life he had managed to establish in Melbourne.

family photos
Detail from Sothea Thea, panel four, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Design: Paula McKindlay.

The personal in historical context

Travelling from South East Asia by fishing boat to seek refuge in Australia is an experience that a number of refugees from Vietnam, East Timor, Cambodia, Afghanistan and the Middle East have in common. In the exhibition, some of Sothea’s vivid memories of his journey as a seventeen-year-old were shown as a personal geography of this refugee history. 

text and boat drawing
Details from Sothea Thea, panel two, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Design: Paula McKindlay


Looking back on the project

sothea with his jacket
  Sothea Thea. Photograph: Jo Sheldrick, 2006.


When we start talking about the story, everybody just living there, everyone is just back to life.  See them running, see them talking, see them standing around… It’s just reliving the moment when I tell the story to you… I said, well it’s a good opportunity for me to express it, how life been through.  Not just one person’s life… every refugee life…

Sothea’s memories of his life in Cambodia, his journey to Australia, his detention and release, are amazingly detailed and evocative. Each time we went back over a part of the story, it expanded and became richer in both its historical and personal meaning. I was nervous at first about the impact of going back into these often frightening and desperate moments, but for Sothea the value of telling was more important. As he said, ‘well, a bit emotional, but we made it through!’