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The odissey of the Cambodian cowboy

Written By vibykhmer on Sunday, May 17, 2009 | 12:30 AM

Sichan Siv will tell his story in Long Beach this week. (Courtesy Sichan Siv)

Hennessy: An amazing story of an odyssey from the Killing Fields to the White House

Tom Henessy
Long Beach Press Telegram (California, USA)

Life dangled from a precipice. Your best chance of survival was to pass yourself off as an illiterate peasant.

If you were educated, you might die. If you wore glasses, suggesting you were educated, you might die. If you were seen foraging for food, even grass or insects, you might die.

It was Cambodia, 1976. A year earlier, the Khmer Rouge had taken power. Now they were determined to establish a primitive society, one easily ruled. When the decade ended, they were gone. But up to 2 million people were dead.

Or so it is thought. No one can make an accurate count.

But Sichan Siv, 27 years old, resourceful and brave, had survived. He was especially vulnerable, having once worked for the humanitarian group CARE and having helped refugees from the Vietnam War, which, if revealed, would have meant certain death.

Siv escaped Cambodia by walking 500 harrowing miles past land mines, Khmer Rouge patrols, decomposed bodies, wild jungle animals and booby traps. It took him almost a year to reach neighboring Thailand.

Separated from his family by the Khmer Rouge, he never saw his loved ones again, but he survived in part by recalling his mother's words: "No matter what happens, never give up hope."

It was a message that would carry him to the United States, the White House and the United Nations.

Coming to Long Beach

Sichan Siv will tell his remarkable story Tuesday in Long Beach as a guest of the Long Beach Library Foundation.

Meanwhile, I have interviewed him from his home in San Antonio, Texas, where he now lives and has written his story in a book called "Golden Bones."

Q: What is meant by "Golden Bones?"

A: Cambodians call somebody who is extremely blessed and lucky a person of golden bones.

Q: And you were extremely lucky to have escaped Cambodia. Why did you leave?

A: The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a land of blood and tears. It was an enormous slave labor camp where people toiled for 18 hours a day with only one meal. It was deepest hell. I was sentenced to death twice, for trying to escape and for damaging a truck.

Q: Your life under the Khmer Rouge and while trying to flee Cambodia was nightmarish. Do you still dream about those days?

A: Not anymore. I used to have nightmares for a long while. As I woke up, I felt very relieved when I realized that I was in America.

Q: How did you escape Cambodia?

A: On Feb. 13, 1976, I jumped off a logging truck in northwest Cambodia and ran across the jungle for three days having nothing to eat or drink. I fell into a booby trap and was severely wounded. In Thailand, I was jailed for illegal entry before being transferred to a refugee camp. I spent a few months teaching English to fellow refugees and being ordained a Buddhist monk. I arrived in Connecticut on June 4, one month before the Bicentennial.

To the White House

Q: After being sponsored by a Connecticut family, you assimilated very quickly. How did you manage that?

A: I felt I had to adapt to be adopted. So I did everything that came my way to the best of my ability, from picking apples to driving a taxi. I got a scholarship to graduate school at Columbia. I worked on Wall Street and other places until 1988 when I volunteered in the (George H. W.) Bush campaign. I was one of the lucky few to be asked to serve at the White House in 1989.

Q: That's a remarkable career.

A: I was at the right place at the right time. The Bush transition was looking for someone to handle the communications aspects of our national security. I was born in a poor country, spoke several languages, and was familiar with international relations. When President Bush left the White House in 1993, I returned to the private sector and continued to work on global issues. This experience also helped me when George W. Bush nominated me to be a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in 2001. I was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

Q: What do you consider the achievements of the Bush presidents?

A: It's hard to describe them in a few sentences. At the White House, first among equals was President George (H.W.) Bush's decision to extend Most Favored Nation trading status to China and to receive the Dalai Lama. Then you have to give high marks on his management of the post-Cold War world. At the U.N., George W. Bush was the first president to increase foreign assistance by 50 percent since JFK, and the first head of state to bring human trafficking to the world's attention. I feel very privileged to have served two presidents, and through them the American people.

Q: In 1992, you returned to Cambodia as a member of the highest-level mission to that country since 1975. Describe what it was like to go back.

A: It was an emotional return. I had left 16 years before, on foot through the jungle. I returned as a presidential assistant in a U.S. government aircraft. I did not recognize anything. For a few hours, I was numb.

Q: Soldiers returning to their old battlefields sometimes say it is therapeutic to see them at peace. Has that been the case for you in returning to Cambodia?

A: It is therapeutic. I try to take my wife there once a year to reconnect and to show her new places. (Siv's wife, Martha, is Texan.) In November 2008, we went to Ratanakiri (a province) in the Northeast, a remote wild and mountainous region. I was there with my older sister 40 years ago. It brought back fond memories, as well as sad ones.

Q: What does Cambodia need to do at this point in its history?

A: Cambodia needs to address domestic issues such as injustice, crime and corruption. When these are resolved, it can be a politically mature nation.

Q: You travel often to American cities with large Cambodian populations. Why?

A: It's part of carrying my mother's wisdom of never giving up hope, as I describe in "Golden Bones," and encouraging others to continue to work hard, do great things, and lead a good life. I also try to connect all these communities so that they can compare and build upon their experiences.

Cambodia to Texas

Q: You now live in Texas, a far cry from life in Cambodia. How is that working for you?

A: I love Texas. While growing up in Cambodia, I enjoyed watching Western movies in French and was amazed at the "can-do" attitude of Texans. As we usually say, "I was not born in Texas, but I got here as soon as I could." I also love California. Each time I am here, I say to myself, "I'll be back."

Last month, Siv was honored for his service by being given the George H.W. Bush Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association's Award. The award came with a letter from the former president, who wrote, in part: "When we think of you, we think about an outstanding leader and public servant; we think about honor, decency, and integrity....Well done, my friend and well deserved."

Tom Hennessy's column appears on the first and third Sundays of the month. He can be reached at 562-499-1270 or by e-mail at scribe17@mac.com.


Former Ambassador Sichan Siv will speak from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Long Beach's Main Library, 101 Pacific Ave.

Admission: $30 benefiting the Long Beach Library Foundation. For reservations, call 562-628-2441.

The book: Barnes & Noble will sell copies of "Golden Bones."


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