Wednesday, May 16, 2007

An exclusive interview with Sichan Siv

Sichan Siv is the Cambodian-born former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, whose inspiring story will be published in his memoir, due out in March 2008. Read my exclusive interview with him below:

Q. After 30 years in the US, do you think of yourself as Khmer or American? And how do you reconcile one alongside the other?
I am both. I am an ABC: American By Choice or American Born Cambodian! I feel privileged to be an American of Cambodian ancestry, enjoying the blessings of freedom and opportunities, and being able to maintain an ancient cultural heritage.
Q. What was the catalyst for your career at the White House and then at the UN? I became interested in the US political process while watching TV coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions in the summer of 1976. From my involvement in refugee resettlement and the plight of Cambodia in the 70s and 80s, I became more familiar with how Washington works. In 1988, I volunteered for the Bush campaign to better understand presidential elections. The thought never crossed my mind that I would end up working for two Presidents of the United States.
Q. What has been the rationale and motives behind your successful career?
Adapt and be adopted! I had two dollars in my pocket when I arrived in America in 1976. I worked hard to adapt myself to America, so that America would adopt me. My mother told me when I was a child to “never give up hope, no matter what happens.” Hope kept me alive and helped me move forward in some of the most difficult circumstances.
Q. To be employed by 2 US Presidents is a rare achievement, but what would you consider as your proudest moment...and your greatest achievement?
At the White House, I was proudest when I said “On behalf of the President.” At the United Nations, when I walked in, my colleagues from 190 countries looked at me. Through me, they saw America. They saw its promise. They saw its opportunity. They wanted to hear what I had to say. When I uttered: “On behalf of the President and Government of the United States and the American people,” that was my proudest moment. My greatest achievement has been the ability to implement the President’s policies that help hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Q. Were you able to achieve anything working for the Administration that aided and supported Cambodia and the Khmer people?
My two presidential appointments, at the White House under President George Bush (41) and as an ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush (43), had national and global scope. They were not to work on Cambodia. Yet, at the White House I was able to participate in the peace process that led to the 1991 Paris Accord and organize numerous briefings on Cambodia to maintain awareness and keep the issue front and center. At the UN, the United States has been the leader in all UN development, economic, and humanitarian programs. I am happy that the Khmer people have benefited from them.
Q. Briefly, what did your Ambassadorial role involve over the last 5 years?
The focus was from “cradle to coffin.” My responsibilities ranged from children, to health, HIV/AIDS, economic issues, food crises, humanitarian disasters, human rights, refugees, women, all the way to aging. The United States is the largest donor to all these programs and my office at the US Mission to the UN oversaw some 70% of the U.N. budget.
Q. Have you returned to Cambodia since leaving in the 70s?
I returned to Cambodia the first time in March 1992 while I was still at the White House. It was 16 years after my escape from the Khmer Rouge forced labor camps. It was quite an emotional trip. In 1994 I took my wife to visit. Since then, we have been to Cambodia on a regular basis. Each time, we enjoy staying longer and longer. I am also pleased to support Cambodian communities around the world.
Q. Can you encapsulate the flavour of your memoir to be published early next year?
GOLDEN BONES is a human story. It recounts my journey from humble beginnings in a sleepy village in Cambodia to the corridors of power in Washington, DC. It is about an extraordinary escape from hell in Cambodia; an American journey from apple orchards to the White House; a timeless and universal tale of love, dreams, hope, and freedom. This is the unique history of two lands: opposite sides of the earth; two cultures: ancient and modern; two nations: weak and strong; two societies: poor and rich. It is the true story of one mother’s love and sacrifice, of her son’s hope and struggle for survival, and his life between these different worlds.
Q. Finally, what does the future hold for Sichan Siv?
It is hard to predict the future. I will continue to connect, to share, and to inspire. Hopefully, “the best is yet to come!”
In the turbulent 70s, the hope for many Cambodians was to exchange the fear and fighting of their own country for a new life elsewhere, and for the majority their target country was America. For Sichan Siv this dream became a reality and his inspiring story, to be called Golden Bones, will be published in early next year by Harper Collins. Siv not only achieved his dream, he took it to a remarkable level by becoming a White House appointee and for five years he served as a United States' Ambassador to the United Nations before stepping down last year.
As the only one of sixteen family members to survive the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Siv escaped the clutches of the Khmer Rouge and crossed the border, only to be jailed by the Thai authorities. His former employers at CARE petitioned successfully for him to be relocated to America and he arrived in Connecticut in June 1976. Later he moved to Manhattan where he drove a cab and counseled refugees. Holder of an undergraduate degree from the University of Phnom Penh, he entered Columbia University's international affairs program, earning a master's degree in 1981, and became a US citizen the following year. From 1989 to 1993, he served President George Bush at the White House as deputy assistant for public liaison and at the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for South Asian Affairs. After a successful period in private business, in 2001 the current US President, George W Bush appointed him as US Ambassador to the United Nations. Read more here.

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