Bush aide may return to Cambodia

Survivor of horrors of Khmer Rouge-led slaughter tells of his ordeal.

THE highest-ranking Asian in the United States’ Bush administration, who survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge-led slaughter in Cambodia, might return to his native country one day to help Phnom Penh in its reconstruction efforts.

This despite the loss of his mother, brother and sister, in the Killing Fields.

Mr Sichan Siv, the first-ever Asian to become a ranking presidential assistant, to Mr George Bush, told The Straits Times in an interview yesterday : “I don’t rule anything out. It is possible that I might go back to Cambodia but not in the near future.”

Mr Siv said that he was approached by a “high-ranking” Phnom Penh official last October, immediately after the United Nations-sponsored elections in Cambodia, to join the newly formed government.

But the 46-year old Cambodian turned down the request because he felt he could contribute more to Cambodia’s development outside Phnom Penh. “For the moment at least, I am more useful to the current Cambodian government by staying in the US.”

His experience and knowledge of the American public and private sectors could prove useful for Cambodia’s economic development, he said.

As Mr Bush’s Deputy Assistant from 1989-92, he explained to the American public the government’s policies on trade, human rights, refugees, narcotics, disaster relief and aid allocation.

He was also Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs from 1992-93.

Currently a Senior Vice-President at a New York-based investment bank, Commonwealth Associates, he said the bank aimed to raise capital for major investment projects which included the development of an industrial zone in Kampong Som.

Earlier, in a public lecture organised jointly by the Institute of South-east Asian Studies and the Institute of Policy Studies, Mr Siv held his audience captive with an account of his escape from the Khmer Rouge who killed more than a million people after capturing Phnom Penh in 1975.

In a calm and matter-of-fact tone for one who lost so much, he said: “I was lucky to survive the Khmer Rouge.”

An American diplomat offered him the chance to escape on US helicopters that took US diplomats out of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh. But he missed his chance by 30 minutes.

As the Khmer Rouge roamed the countryside and terrorised the cities, turning the country into a giant killing field, Mr Siv planned his escape.

His mother urged him to leave their village because of his previous association with the American aid organisation CARE.

Using forged passes and documents, he worked his way across Cambodia on bicycle towards Thailand in 1976. When he crossed the border, Thai border police arrested him and charged him with illegal entry.

He was rescued eventually by a US embassy official. He arrived in the US and worked his way up the ladder, going from working in an ice-cream parlour and being a Manhattan taxi driver to becoming a presidential aide.

But before he could do anything to help the family members he had left behind, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered them.

Mr Siv did not go into the details of this tragedy during his talk.

But he did speak about how his leap from ice-cream parlour employee to the White House was eased by his educational background.

He was a Phnom Penh University graduate in English studies, law and teaching, and attended teachers training college in Singapore on a Colombo Plan scholarship before the Khmer Rouge overran his country.

After his arrival in the US, he sought and obtained a scholarship from Columbia University from which he graduated with a Masters in International Affairs.

He said: “I started from the very bottom, surviving the Manhattan traffic jungle and learning sign language in New York. It was a more difficult experience than being with the Khmer Rouge!”

But stepping into the White House did not make for a comfortable life. “It’s like living in a fishbowl. If you do something wrong, you get grilled.”

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