Godspeed to George William Cooper, Activist and Purveyor of Kindness

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

– Desmond Tutu

It was just over a year ago that Don Luce, whom I described in The Man Who Exposed the Truth About the Tiger Cagesas a kindred spirit and one of my heroes, passed away. Closer to home, literally and emotionally, longtime friend George Cooper breathed his last on the morning of November 30th in familiar surroundings at his home in Phnom Penh.

As is often the case with this wretched disease, the lung cancer for which he was successfully treated several years ago returned with a vengeance, spread beyond his lungs, and metastasized to his brain. His decline was swift and merciless. George would have turned 76 next month.

I first met George in January 1999 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, six months after he arrived. He was still an expat newbie, learning Khmer, a language he would eventually master, and becoming familiar with Cambodian culture.

We stayed in touched while I was still living in the US and after I moved to Vietnam 2005. The closer proximity allowed for visits in Hanoi and Phnom Penh. In between the occasional face-to-face contact, our communication consisted mostly of a steady stream of sharing articles, ideas, information, opinions, and insights via email.

What we shared, besides being members of the same generation, more or less (I’m 10 years younger) and the fact that both of us lost our fathers at a young age were an abiding interest in Asia and a commitment to social and economic justice.

After his initial lung cancer diagnosis, I sent George periodic inquiries about his latest lung x-ray, knowing how quickly cancer cells can multiply and spread. I was reassured by his updates that revealed he continued to be cancer-free. Maybe he beat this, I thought to myself.

On October 11, I sent him an essay I wrote about my father, who also died of lung and brain cancer. His reply: “That was moving, to put it mildly, and well-written as usual.” Little did I know that the same disease was methodically destroying his body. We talked about lighter topics such as baseball heroes and cards. Mine was Roberto Clemente and George was still looking for that elusive Babe Ruth card.

On November 7, 2023, I sent George a link via encrypted chat to a recent blog post I had written. His matter-of-fact response shocked me: “Good morning, now in Sunrise (Japan) Hospital to get a first dose of chemo because I have cancer. But I still read most of what you wrote and liked it. Waiting for the doctor to come with the chemo and get this show on the road.” I replied that I had been thinking about him recently.

He informed me that the cancer had spread to his thoracic cavity, which virtually guarantees a low survival rate. “Early stage?,” I asked hopefully. “Stage 4 and ‘very advanced’ is what my doctor said about both of these,” he replied. In other words, the countdown to his mortal departure from this world had begun. A day later, I offered to schedule a video chat but of course he was too sick for that.

The decision to visit George was easy. Three days later, I informed him that we had made all the arrangements and would arrive the evening of the 22nd. He asked, “Is this a work trip? See you guys when you’re here.” I told him that the main purpose of our trip was to see him and his wife Solita. I could hear his voice when he excitedly exclaimed, “My god. You’re coming here mainly to see me! And Solita.” We briefly spoke the evening before our flight to Phnom Penh. His voice sounded weak, and he seemed disoriented, an obvious effect of brain cancer.

The Bittersweet Visit

The original plan was to visit George at home. The rapid spread of cancer changed that. We arrived at the Sunrise Japan Hospital where we thought he was only to discover that he had been moved to the Orange Cancer Clinic across town.  On the drive over I wondered if I could maintain my composure. I did because the focus was on him not on the profound sadness and sense of impending loss I was feeling.

We arrived and talked with Solita and some friends in the lobby. I was gratified and deeply touched by how much support they were receiving from friends and colleagues in Cambodia and abroad. George’s illness that brought us all together if only for a fleeting moment.

We asked George if he knew what holiday it was in the US. He paused, looked up, and said “Thanksgiving!” We were thankful to be able to see him for what I knew would be the last time. One comment he made that I’ll always remember was a request that he did not want to return to the US, a country he left nearly over two and a half decades ago. In the fog of cancer, he was probably thinking that he might have to go there for treatment or even burial. Everyone reassured him he would remain in Cambodia.

In the precious time that we had, I had the chance to pay George a simple yet supreme compliment, namely, that he’s a good man. (He signaled a back atcha.) The world desperately needs more people like him. We held his hand, told him not to worry about anything, and reminded him of all the love and support, including financial, that was flowing to him from around the world.

George’s sister, Kathy Cooper Kolgut in Alexandria, Virginia, set up a GoFundMe account that raised nearly $28,000, money that went to his wife and soon-to-be widow Solita, in addition to cash-filled envelopes that were handed to her to cover medical, funeral, and other expenses. (George asked for his phone so he could see the GoFundMe page and who was contributing.)

In her message, Kathy described her older brother as “a devoted husband, a cherished friend, and an inspiring mentor, has left an indelible mark on countless lives. His unwavering support and willingness to go above and beyond for others have made him a cornerstone in our lives.”

As it turned out, the chemotherapy treatment that she spoke of in another part of the message was short-lived when faced with the painful reality that events had overtaken perceptions and wishful thinking.

George’s funeral and cremation, according to Cambodian tradition, were on Saturday, December 2nd, an unseasonably cool day in tropical Phnom Penh. I believe that George, the one-time Catholic school boy from Virginia, was looking down on his Buddhist funeral with a smile – at peace.

His Life

A 1970 cum laude graduate of College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts with a BA degree in political science. George moved to Hawaii the same year and later completed a law degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law in 1978. He remained there until 1996 when he pulled up stakes, traveling extensively throughout Asia before deciding to settle in Cambodia in 1998 to begin the next chapter of his life.

On George’s LinkedIn profile he describes himself as “an American lawyer based in Cambodia, and working mainly in Cambodia since 1998 on behalf of the poor. I’ve concentrated on property issues but have also represented families of murder victims, have handled international adoptions that have humanitarian aspects, and have worked on a number of other issues. I’ve worked for a legal aid organization, a German government overseas technical assistance agency, the World Bank, NGOs, and I’ve worked on cases as an individual legal advisor.”

A Hawaiian alternative media publication Honolulu Civil Beat published an obituary ‘Land And Power’ Author Geoorge Cooper Dead At 75 that referred to him as a co-author of “one of the most influential books in modern Hawaii history. The book Land and Power in Hawaii: The Democratic Years, published in 1985, “took personal financial interests into account in their actions as public officials,” described by one publisher as “a pervasive way of conducting private and public affairs.” George’s experience with this pivotal issue would serve him well in Cambodia.

The December 30, 1985 edition of The New York Times published a review that described of Land and Power as “a privately printed book crammed full of the driest of data from real estate records and legislative dockets” that became “has become a local best seller here in only two months. The book… draws on public records in asserting that many members of Hawaii’s ruling Democratic Party faction, now in office more than 30 years, profited as developers, lawyers, contractors, investors and sometimes as influence peddlers in the development that changed the face of the islands. The Democrats took power in 1954, after half a century of control by Republican landowners, promising to change a system in which most of the land was owned by a few. Instead, according to the book, individual Democratic officials cut themselves in on real estate profiteering.”

In a 2022 essay for Civil Beat, George wrote, “My aim — which I never thought would be realized — was to raise by just one step up only the general conversation in Hawaii about land and power, to acknowledge there was a connection. It seems to have done that: To my amazement the term ‘land and power’ passed into the general vocabulary of Hawaii as a kind of condition that has been forever true in Hawaii, and in the years our book covered, who owned the land and held the power changed but the basic condition had not, and it seems it never will.”

In a 2017, interview for the Kokua Hawaii Oral History Project conducted via email by Gary T. Kubota, George reflected on his involvement with the island activist group Kokua Hawaii.

GK: What surprised you once you met Kokua Hawaii members? Could you describe the style of leadership, your encounters with them, and where they took you? How did they help you?

GC: I was surprised by all that I learned about Hawaii and its history from them. I found them to be strong and self-confident but not arrogant. I thought they were very principled, and well-organized. I was at first afraid they wouldn’t like me because I’m white, but that wasn’t the case at all. I liked all of this very much. They made me feel that I could contribute to the kind of work they were doing. It was like they opened the door for me to that work. I’m still doing that work today.

George referred to the Kalama Valley struggle as “a great turning point” that “put me on a course in life that led to working in land struggles in Kauai and Oahu, to co-writing Land and Power in Hawaii, and to today working in land struggles in Cambodia.”

The Hawaiian word “kokua” means “help” in the sense of helping others without expecting anything in return, a form of selflessness that is the essence of social interdependence in Hawaiian culture. This is perhaps the finest description of George Cooper’s raison d’être in life.

His Legacy

The outpouring of grief upon George’s passing reflects the impact he had on people in Cambodia, the US, and many other countries. Inclusive Development International (IDI), a US-based NGO that partners “with grassroots organizations and local communities around the world to defend their land, natural resources and human rights against threats from harmful investment projects,” published an article In Memoriam: George William Cooper on the day he died. It traced George’s linear path from working with “Indigenous communities resisting forced eviction for resort developments in the Kalama Valley of Oahu” in Hawaii to his work as a senior attorney for IDI on land rights and forced eviction cases. IDI noted that “his advice and support on the cases we’ve worked on in Cambodia helped stop forced evictions and secure the land tenure of hundreds of families.”

The article ended this with heartfelt reflection that resonates with anyone who knew him: “George touched so many people throughout his life with his endless kindness and generosity. He was a man of immense integrity, which endeared him to everyone he worked with inside and outside of government and made him so effective at getting results for the people he helped.”

Chanrithy Him, a child survivor of the Khmer Rouge, US refugee, and author of the award-winning memoir When Broken Glass Floats – Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge, echoed this sentiment when she spoke of “the deep gratitude I had toward him for devoting his time and energy that he spent to rebuild Cambodia. He was selfless and I sensed he took upon himself to help anyone who needed assistance,” referring to him as “a good man, a man with integrity and good character who would make time for those were in need even he was super busy. He was a generous and honest lawyer.”

When Chanrithy was looking for leads for the script of a movie version of her book with a major Hollywood studio, her lawyer tried to cheat her. “Most lawyers are assholes,” George told her wryly.

Ha Thi Nguyen, director of assessment and evaluation of STEM Programs at Rice University, knew George for two and half decades. She first met him in 1998 when she was a freshman studying English in Hanoi and George visited Vietnam as a tourist. He was volunteering at an English center in Hanoi at the time, and her roommate was a student in his class. As she recalls, she met him a few weeks later with some friends at a bia hơi (draft beer) restaurant in the city’s Old Quarter.

After losing contact for a year, George returned in late 1999 and inquired about Ha at her university. It was a time in Vietnam when very few people had Internet access and many couldn’t afford to own a phone, making communication difficult for most. Eventually, he found a way to contact Ha again. They remained in touch until his passing, including the night before he died.

Ha remembers George as “one of the very few Americans that I got to know since a student. Knowing that I am a first generation college student, he inspired me to go study in America and was the one who introduced me to the East-West Center and the University of Hawaii. That’s where I found the scholarship for my master’s degree in public administration. He helped edit my scholarship essays, and taught me how to write proper English. I traveled with him a few times on bicycles, riding through rural areas of Hanoi and exploring the countryside. He is a very thoughtful, careful, caring, and loving person and through the interaction with him, I learned so much to become a professional and a good person. He is one of the most generous people I know.”

Ha describes his legacy as one of “humility, generosity, kindness, caring for people, and working for a more a just and better world. Every friend I know who knows George loves him.” After he died, she told her kids how sad she was at losing a great friend. Their response was she should continue living the way George did. “That’s his legacy,” she added.

Mark Bo, a friend and former colleague, first met George in 2008 when he was working for a land rights organization. He credited his friend with helping him “look at things differently. He was acutely aware of the injustices that surround us and the violations of people’s rights that go on every day. Whereas I was prone to becoming angry and eventually hopeless, George was analytical and rational. George was no less outraged, but he channeled his energy into focusing on what he could actually do help people. I think I learned a lot from how he approached things analytically and pragmatically, and channeled all his energies into finding solutions.” This is the same George Cooper I knew.

Mark praised George’s impact on the lives of so many, noting that, “If George could help you in any way he would. He built friendships with many people in Cambodia. When he saw good in people, he would provide support, help them with job applications, proof read thesis proposals, give legal advice, or whatever he could, and never asked for anything in return.

When George fell ill, I spent a lot of time with him and his wife Solita at the hospital. I knew that over the years he had helped many people, but during the relatively short period after he was taken into hospital, I met an endless stream of people I had never met before, and every one had a different story about how George had helped them. As hard as it was to see a good friend’s life coming to an end, I was moved to see how many people he had touched during his life, and to witness how much gratitude and love there was for him. I think these small stories are his real legacy.”

Phan Sin, a Cambodian attorney and legal consultant who had known George since 2005, referred to him as a “role model for many, including me,” and described him as “very open, kind, and helpful…he was just there for us.” He highlighted George’s work in helping rural and low-income households and indigenous peoples.

In one of many noteworthy examples of service and selflessness, George crossed figurative paths with Christopher Howes and his interpreter Houen Hourth who were kidnapped and shot to death by Khmer Rouge guerillas in March 1996. (They were 36 and 19-years-old, respectively.) Howes was working for the global landmine clearance charity The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) as a member of a team clearing landmines near the Angkor Wat complex near Siem Reap. The tattered remnants of the Khmer Rouge were defeated once and for all two years later.

While his name does not appear in this 2008 Guardian article about the trial and verdicts, George was instrumental in bringing the four murderers to justice. Longtime Cambodia observer Andy Brouwer, who was present when the guilty verdicts were announced, noted on his blog that “Another key figure in the investigation into what happened is George Cooper. In 2002, George Cooper, an American legal aid lawyer based in Cambodia, took up the case in his spare time and painstakingly combed through the evidence for six years until he had enough to put the suspects on trial. His work, combined with the evidence from Dixon (Scotland Yard superintendent) and his Cambodian colleagues, prompted by the persistent calls from the Howes family, the British Embassy here in Cambodia and MAG, all had the desired effect when the suspects were arrested at the back end of last year and earlier this year.”

The Measure of the Man

Like others who knew him, what I remember most about George are his kindness and compassion. I’m reminded of George Saunders commencement address to Syracuse University’s class of 2013 in which he talked about failures of kindness.

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

George was a living example of this humane and enlightened approach to life, a testament to his heartfelt commitment to both charity and justice. He had no regrets in this regard.

Fred Rogers, US television host, author, producer, and minister, once spoke about how he was taught to look for helpers in a world characterized by violence, exploitation, instability, and oppression. When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster’, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world. I try to look for those people and I see them everywhere, not just the haters and those who act on their hatred. George was one of the helpers.

When I think of George, Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and his lines about choosing the side of the exploited and oppressed came to mind: “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.” George was always there for people in need helping them in the spirit of kokua.

One of the comments in response to George’s 2022 essay illustrates George’s far-reaching impact over time. Vicky wrote, “George, each time I canvass for a community cause or show up at a town hall to voice a concern I think about how you inspired me to get involved and to be aware of what’s going on in my backyard. In the early 1970s, you came knocking on my door on Niumalu Rd. in Nawiliwili, Kauai to sound the alarm that a developer had plans to rezone the area known as the Alekoko Menehune Fish Pond. The master plan was to turn the area into a development that would have gentrified the neighborhood with a marina and condominiums. We went to the county building and researched how the rezoning would environmentally impact the area and displace many of the residents who had lived there for generations. You called on Patsy Mink to speak to everyone with reassurance that the development would not take place. Years later, I worked at a bookstore on Maui when Land and Power was published. We could not keep enough copies in the store. Thank you for your wisdom and for educating the masses.”

Like my hero Don Luce, whom I knew from a distance, and others who gave so much of themselves to their fellow human beings and to make the world a better place, George is an up-close-and-personal hero whose life exemplifies the Buddha’s Fifth Remembrance:

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Paraphrasing the Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh, George’s life is his message. He always chose the side of the oppressed, the poor, the downtrodden, and did what he could to make their lives better be it with time, money, and/or expertise.

George’s life and work conjure up a popular meme that draws on multiple sources: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Let us follow in George’s humble footsteps and continue his work whoever and wherever we are. Let us reflect on “What would George do? in every relevant situation. Like him, let us be the Tom Joads and helpers in a troubled world. It is our only hope as human beings.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.