The Diplomat Who Warned About the Killing Fields

March 4, 2020
Photo Credit: Simon Soy | Unsplash

Disclaimer: This story was told to me in confidence by someone credible. This person finds former Ambassador Sichan Siv to be remarkable. Mr. Siv would rarely get rattled, and was described as a highly unusual person. Here is a small vignette about his ambassadorship for the USA.

Former Ambassador Sichan Siv. From genocide to the United Nations, he holds an extraordinary legacy of wisdom that has served the American people well. 

I had the honor to meet US Ambassador Sichan Siv in the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on two different occasions. We would meet with people, mostly with the Foreign Ministry, as well as in Human Rights, and the first encounter was nothing unusual in Ecuador.

But it was the second encounter that really made me realize what an unusual and exceptional person Ambassador Sichan Siv was. A small example follows:

While we were riding in an armored vehicle, Ambassador Siv told me he was the sole survivor in his family of the genocide in Cambodia, where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed close to three million Cambodians.

The infamous leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot. He is renowned as one of the creator's of the 20th century's "most brutal and radical regimes".  
(photo from CreativeCommons)

"Am I savage person? My conscience is clear." 

~ Pol Pot, when questioned on the millions of deaths in Cambodia in the 1970s during a Far Eastern Economic Review in 1997. 

The Khmer Rouge were the worst of the communist and Maoist fanatics. They were backed by the Chinese government. Ambassador Sichan Siv said after the Americans had left Vietnam, the north Vietnamese took over, and the Pathet Lao movement took over Laos, but the Maoist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. 

Mass graves of "The Killing Fields" in Choeung Ek, Cambodia (photo from Flickr)

The very first thing they did was to completely empty the cities of all its inhabitants, so they forced everyone out of the city and into the countryside. 

With very few implements, they told the people they had to build new houses and wells, and their own gardens, and everything else. That in and of itself killed a lot of people.

Then the Khmer Rouge armed these young, brainwashed children. They carried rifles and were told to guard the adults. Many of them were so brainwashed that they would kill people and the like.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie The Killing Fields.

Sometimes the Khmer Rouge would have big political meetings where people were forced to attend, but they would have had the place mined with explosives and killed a lot of people that way. Pol Pot’s policy was to turn the country back to the “year zero”, in which it would rid itself of any Western influence. So if you had an education, you would be marked for execution.

"Without our struggle, there would be no Cambodia right now.”

~ Pol Pot, interview with Far Eastern Economic Review (1997)

As a matter of fact, anyone who wore eyeglasses was considered to be an intellectual that had been tainted by the West, and therefore needed to be eliminated.

Ambassador Sichan Siv said (and I later read about this) that Pol Pot was so fanatical that though Cambodia had a population of eight million, he said that the revolution only needed one million to survive. He was willing, it appears, to get rid of more than three-quarters of the population of his own country.

“Everything I did, I did for my country.”

~ Pol Pot, interview with Far Eastern Economic Review (1997)

In any case, Sichan Siv lost his whole immediate family and his extended family. As a young man, he was somehow able to escape the minefields and patrols, and make his way to the Cambodian border. From there, he was put into a refugee camp in Thailand, and fortunately became friends with an American Peace Corps Volunteer who was able to get him to the United States on a visa.

Sichan Siv quickly learned English and landed in New York City. His job was driving a cab, but he obviously displayed some high degree of intelligence because one way or another, he was accepted into Columbia University and graduated with honors. He went on to become a high level US diplomat, and eventually the Ambassador to ECOSOC.

When he came to La Paz, Bolivia, we scheduled a meeting with the Foreign Minister. It was a very important meeting and I didn’t want to be late. We were maybe fifteen minutes away from the Foreign Ministry, when he asked the armored SUV if we could pull over so that he could look at some CDs of local Andean music with flute, guitar, charango, etc.

A band playing native Andean music, with instruments like the charango, the recorder, guitar, and more. Different bands will incorporate different styles and instruments. 

We had the driver pull over, and there was Ambassador Siv taking his time, whistling a tune, and looking at the different CDs. I tried on several occasions to say to him that we wanted to get there a little early, if not right on time. But what struck me is that he almost intentionally kept whistling and asking the driver to translate to the street vendor about the music.

Time ticked on by and we were actually running late.

When we finally arrived at the Foreign Ministry, in its very formal and ornate gilded Rococo hall, we came in and I could see that once the meeting started, the Foreign Minister was already a little miffed that we had showed up late.

He did not blame Ambassador Siv directly, but since he knew me, he complained to me that I should have known better, and that it was an important meeting. I didn’t say anything in return — I just kept my mouth shut.

Without getting into the details per se, the Foreign Minister began, and the dignitaries began to talk about the merits of Marxism and so forth.

It was then that I realized that Ambassador Sichan Siv had purposely arrived late so that he could talk to these people in a serious way. I can’t get into all the details, but essentially what he said was, “You may think you know what Marxism or socialism or communism is about, but only someone like me who’s actually lived through the genocide in Cambodia and its Killing Fields can tell you what it’s really all about if you go in that direction.”

And so the officials were, I would say, a mixture of shock and growing belief.

Skulls from the victims of the Cambodian genocide. (photo from CreativeCommons)

“I was responsible for everything so I accept responsibility and blame. But show me, comrade, one document proving that I was personally responsible for the deaths.”

~Pol Pot, as reported by David Ashley (1995) and quoted in Brother Number One (1999) by David P. Chandler