Bringing the Gospel Home to Cambodia

James Goldberg

How Vichit Ith Brought His New Faith Back to His Native Land

Vichit Ith

Ghosts of the Past

When Vichit Ith was in his teens, the world around him seemed to be falling apart. From time to time, he could feel the tremors of B-52 bombings in the distance as the United States Air Force dropped nearly three million tons of explosives on his native Cambodia, an extension of the war in neighboring Vietnam.1 During the same period, a coup deposed the monarchy and a secretive communist militia—known as the Khmer Rouge—began gaining support and cutting a bloody path toward the capitol. Life was as harrowing for many Cambodians then as in the most violent times described in the Book of Mormon, and scholars still struggle to understand what factors caused a relatively peaceful society to unravel so quickly. “We never understood what really happened,” Vichit later said of his own experience. “We only saw people dying."2

Vichit’s father, Pao Ith, did what he could to protect his family. As a French-educated expert in forestry engineering, Pao valued education and public service. He also knew that his children would find few opportunities for learning in the war zone Phnom Penh had become. In 1974, he sent Vichit to study in the Philippines and sent Vichit’s mother and three siblings to France. Still, Pao himself stayed, hoping the war’s end would bring renewed opportunity to use his knowledge for the good of the land and people. Instead, the victorious Khmer Rouge turned against the people. One in four Cambodians—including Pao Ith—would die under their rule.

After the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees sent Vichit a one-way plane ticket to join his surviving family members in France. He brought a few belongings and “many ghosts of the past.” In Paris, he assumed responsibility as the main breadwinner for his mother and siblings in their new life as refugees. He was 19 years old.

Rice Bowl Syndrome

In France, Vichit found whatever work he could to support his family while taking correspondence courses in his little spare time to prepare for college. His hard work paid off. In 1977, he was offered a scholarship to study sociology at the Sorbonne. “After what happened to me in Cambodia, I was very inclined to study social sciences,” he recalled. But though his grades were in the top 10 percent of his class, the hope of finding answers through his studies soon gave way to worries over how he would earn enough to provide for his family with a sociology degree. Driven by his need to put the “rice bowl” first, Vichit switched schools to study international business instead.

As a Buddhist, he told himself that he could take time after his career to seek peace and spiritual reconciliation with the past. “I would just want to retire and prepare for my death and go and meditate like a hermit somewhere. To really be away from this world,” he said. “After seeing all the atrocities in the war and so on, … it was something that I really wanted to do.”

In the meantime, he threw himself into his work. To gain sales experience, he took a job selling women’s “stockings, socks, and so on” in rural central France. Because almost no one there had ever seen a Cambodian before, he sometimes felt “like E.T.” but his experience helped prepare him for his next job with a global commodity-trading firm. Rising quickly from junior trader to Area Director for the Middle East and Far East regions, it soon seemed that the whole world was open to him as he traveled between Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Thailand, and Singapore.

You Don’t Have To Be Lonely

But something in his life was missing. He met a woman named Tina Khoo on a blind date in Singapore and was interested in her, but his busy schedule made it difficult to develop the relationship. A year after meeting Tina, Vichit began to feel “burned out in my job because of traveling so much” and he “decided to quit and just came back to Singapore and tried to pursue my girlfriend.”

When Vichit mentioned marriage, though, “Tina told him she would not marry except in her Church’s temple.” At first, Vichit “didn’t think this was going to be a problem. There were temples everywhere in Singapore."3 But it soon became clear that he would need to embrace her LDS faith to build a covenant marriage with her. When his former company offered him a position with less stress and travel in Egypt, Vichit decided to adopt Tina’s faith so he could bring her to Cairo as his wife.

Vichit didn’t know much about that faith, though. “Basically the only thing I had ever heard about the Church was polygamy,” he recalled—and that practice had ended in the Church well before it faded in Cambodia. He had many new teachings to process as he rushed through the required discussions with missionaries, aided only by a few helpful talks with a local French member and a sense that whatever beliefs anchored his wife-to-be “couldn’t be that wrong.” And yet, something about the spirit of the message also reached his heart. As he learned, he began to reflect on his long search for meaning and his earlier wish to pursue a spiritual life after retirement. He came to “believe that, really, Heavenly Father had answered my prayers. Why should I wait that long to have a spiritual life?” Through the restored gospel, he could live a consecrated life already. “You can do a lot of wonderful things now, and you don’t have to be meditating alone somewhere on a mountain.”

They Were All Americans

Vichit Ith was baptized in Singapore the day before his wedding in 1987. The next week, he was attending church in Cairo. As a Cambodian with painful memories of military intervention in his own country, it was startling for him to find that many Church members in Egypt were US military personnel, often Vietnam veterans, who had been sent to support the Egyptian army. The branch president, Don Forshee, even “looked like Henry Kissinger,4 which did not ease my stress at all.” How could Vichit worship with a group in which he felt so out of place?

“That was a hard beginning,” he said. The early spiritual impressions he’d felt before his baptism were not enough on their own to carry him through the cultural challenge he now faced. On Sundays, Vichit continued to drive Tina to church but would wait outside while she attended. Her desire to share a life in the gospel with her husband seemed to be slipping away.

Vichit and Tina Ith, 2014

But Tina was not one to give up easily. One week in fast and testimony meeting, she stood up and begged the branch members to reach out to her absent spouse. “I need your help to really befriend my husband and try to find ways and means to talk to him and to really make him comfortable with the Church,” she said. The members listened, and Vichit began to let them into his life. “They were really doing their best,” Vichit said, and so he accepted invitations to meals and activities. Over time, his growing spiritual relationships with members outweighed his initial impressions about them. “Egypt was really quite a turning point in my life, thanks to all the members there, who were wonderful,” Vichit said. “They helped me a lot in gaining my testimony of the gospel.”

Vichit learned that the gospel can help bridge intimidating differences, both perceived and real. “At the end of the day, we are all children of God, believing in the same thing.”

Returning to Cambodia

Through conversations with Church members in Cairo, Vichit became interested in BYU’s MBA program and gained admission there.5 Tina gave birth to their first daughter in Provo while Vichit finished school, and then the Ith family relocated to Thailand for Vichit’s next job.

While the Iths were living in Thailand, things began to change in Cambodia. In 1991, a UN mission was accepted into the country to help promote peace and rebuild after so many years of destruction. And though Khmer Rouge fighters remained active in the countryside, the nation’s first free elections were announced in 1993.

People began to contact Vichit. Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a son of the king who had employed Vichit’s father, was running as a candidate in the elections and invited Vichit to come join his party and administration there. Thailand’s mission president, Larry White, felt that a window of opportunity had come to bring the Church into Cambodia and felt inspired to ask Brother Ith if he would be willing to help.

Initially, Vichit said no to both men. To Prince Ranariddh, he said simply “I’m not a politician.” With President White, he was more direct:  “Don’t ask me to go back to Cambodia because I’m so traumatized by my life there and by my experience there.” But at the same time, Vichit had a nagging feeling that “you cannot really hide from your past.” When his country and his Church kept calling him to return, he reconsidered. He continued to talk with President White “and then one day, I ended up being on the plane going to Cambodia with him.”

Blessing the Land

On April 29, 1993, a group of five Latter-day Saints—John and Shirley Carmack, Larry and Janice White, and Vichit Ith—landed on the bumpy runway of the still out-of-repair Phnom Penh airport. Vichit’s mother’s cousin, who was working at the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, met them at the airport and accompanied them to their first meeting with government officials.

After an encouraging first meeting, the Carmacks and Whites followed Vichit for a visit to his boyhood home. To say things had changed would be an understatement. “It was occupied by a Cambodian general and an AK-47 automatic rifle was in the corner of [Vichit’s] childhood bedroom,” President White recalled. And yet what struck Vichit in the midst of all the signs of tumult was how mango trees around the home that had been small when he was young “were now large and heavily laden with green fruit.”6

Being back in the home he had shared with his father in times of peace and war brought back strong memories for Vichit. He hadn’t known when he left that he would never see his father again. He had never had a chance to express his gratitude one last time or to say a last goodbye. That night, Vichit told President White that “he had always wanted his father to be proud of him and perhaps helping the Church enter Cambodia” would “bring this hope to fruition more than any other thing he could do.”

“He wept as he spoke,” President White remembered. And then together, the five Latter-day Saints knelt and prayed. As the presiding authority for the Asia area, Elder Carmack “offered a priesthood blessing on the land. He prayed that there would be spirit of compromise and reconciliation” among the people that would allow peace to prevail—and Vichit’s hope to be realized.7

A Lot of Hope for the Country

In May 1993, Cambodia’s elections took place and a new government was peacefully established. Having become convinced during his April 1993 visit that the time had come to serve his country directly, Vichit returned to Cambodia as an economic advisor to the new prime minister and soon became the head of the Cambodian Investment Board. At the same time, he worked directly with the Ministry of Cult and Religious Affairs to gain official recognition for the Church in Cambodia and to help secure visas for missionaries and other Church representatives. This work was essential in paving the way for the May 1994 baptism of Phal Mao, the first person to join the Church in Cambodia.8

As he watched the growth of the Church over the next few years, Vichit reported being “almost shocked to see” just “how strong the testimonies of the new members” were. “They were hungry for peace and love,” he said, and their lives showed their commitment to bringing those principles into their homes and communities. Vichit found it particularly “spiritually satisfying” to see ethnically Vietnamese converts “united in the gospel” with their Cambodian brothers and sisters in spite of the historical misunderstanding between the two groups.

LDS Meetinghouse in Phnom Penh

Even at times when he found his government work for the country slow and difficult, Vichit could look to the faith of members and feel “a lot of hope for the country.” He felt that the same gospel that had made him “a better person, a better husband and father” could help heal his homeland. “The Church belief in simple and frugal life, hard work and community service is all important for Cambodia,” he told the Phnom Penh Post in 1995.

Vichit was also thrilled when Cambodian branches began to send missionaries abroad to preach. “I’m very happy that one of my Cambodian office assistants was one of the first ones sent to California to be a missionary,” Vichit said. Their unique heritage and experience could help bring the gospel to people throughout the world who needed it. In time, two of Vichit’s own daughters would also serve: one in the Taiwan Taichung Mission and another in the United Kingdom Leeds Mission.9

Today, 40 years after being sent away from a suffering Cambodia, Vichit looks at the younger generation in the Church and sees “great promise for the country, which promise will be based on righteousness.”10 For all the economic development Cambodia has seen over the past 20 years, its greatest resource will always be individual people who live good lives and reach out in active service to one another.