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TED2009

Sophal Ear: Escaping the Khmer Rouge

February 6, 2009

TED Fellow Sophal Ear shares the compelling story of his family's escape from Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. He recounts his mother's cunning and determination to save her children.

Sophal Ear - Development economist
Sophal Ear leads research on post-conflict countries -- looking at the effectiveness of foreign aid and the challenge of development in places like his native land, Cambodia. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I normally teach courses on
00:12
how to rebuild states after war.
00:15
But today I've got a personal story to share with you.
00:19
This is a picture of my family,
00:21
my four siblings -- my mom and I -- taken in 1977.
00:24
And we're actually Cambodians.
00:28
And this picture is taken in Vietnam.
00:30
So how did a Cambodian family end up in Vietnam in 1977?
00:32
Well to explain that, I've got a short video clip
00:36
to explain the Khmer Rouge regime
00:39
during 1975 and 1979.
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Video: April 17th, 1975.
00:44
The communist Khmer Rouge
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enters Phnom Penh to liberate their people
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from the encroaching conflict in Vietnam,
00:53
and American bombing campaigns.
00:55
Led by peasant-born Pol Pot,
00:59
the Khmer Rouge evacuates people to the countryside
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in order to create a rural communist utopia,
01:06
much like Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution in China.
01:09
The Khmer Rouge closes the doors to the outside world.
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But after four years the grim truth seeps out.
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In a country of only seven million people,
01:23
one and a half million were murdered by their own leaders,
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their bodies piled in the mass graves of the killing fields.
01:29
Sophal Ear: So, notwithstanding the 1970s narration,
01:33
on April 17th 1975
01:36
we lived in Phnom Penh.
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And my parents were told by the Khmer Rouge
01:40
to evacuate the city because of impending American bombing for three days.
01:43
And here is a picture of the Khmer Rouge.
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They were young soldiers, typically child soldiers.
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And this is very normal now, of modern day conflict,
01:52
because they're easy to bring into wars.
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The reason that they gave about American bombing wasn't all that far off.
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I mean, from 1965 to 1973 there were
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more munitions that fell on Cambodia
02:04
than in all of World War II Japan,
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including the two nuclear bombs
02:10
of August 1945.
02:12
The Khmer Rouge didn't believe in money.
02:15
So the equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank
02:18
in Cambodia was bombed.
02:20
But not just that, they actually banned money.
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I think it's the only precedent in which
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money has ever been stopped from being used.
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And we know money is the root of all evil,
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but it didn't actually stop evil from happening in Cambodia, in fact.
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My family was moved from Phnom Penh to Pursat province.
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This is a picture of what Pursat looks like.
02:39
It's actually a very pretty area of Cambodia,
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where rice growing takes place.
02:44
And in fact they were forced to work the fields.
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So my father and mother ended up in
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a sort of concentration camp, labor camp.
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And it was at that time that my mother got word
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from the commune chief
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that the Vietnamese were actually asking
02:59
for their citizens to go back to Vietnam.
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And she spoke some Vietnamese,
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as a child having grown up with Vietnamese friends.
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And she decided, despite the advice of her neighbors,
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that she would take the chance
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and claim to be Vietnamese
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so that we could have a chance to survive,
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because at this point they're forcing everybody to work.
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And they're giving about --
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in a modern-day, caloric-restriction diet, I guess --
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they're giving porridge, with a few grains of rice.
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And at about this time actually
03:30
my father got very sick.
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And he didn't speak Vietnamese.
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So he died actually, in January 1976.
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And it made it possible, in fact,
03:39
for us to take on this plan.
03:42
So the Khmer Rouge took us
03:44
from a place called Pursat to Kaoh Tiev,
03:46
which is across from the border from Vietnam.
03:48
And there they had a detention camp
03:51
where alleged Vietnamese would be tested, language tested.
03:53
And my mother's Vietnamese was so bad
03:57
that to make our story more credible,
04:00
she'd given all the boys and girls new Vietnamese names.
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But she'd given the boys girls' names,
04:07
and the girls boys' names.
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And it wasn't until she met a Vietnamese lady
04:12
who told her this, and then tutored her for two days intensively,
04:14
that she was able to go into her exam
04:18
and -- you know, this was a moment of truth.
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If she fails, we're all headed to the gallows;
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if she passes, we can leave to Vietnam.
04:27
And she actually, of course -- I'm here, she passes.
04:29
And we end up in Hong Ngu on the Vietnamese side.
04:33
And then onwards to Chau Doc.
04:36
And this is a picture of Hong Ngu, Vietnam today.
04:38
A pretty idyllic place on the Mekong Delta.
04:40
But for us it meant freedom.
04:42
And freedom from persecution from the Khmer Rouge.
04:44
Last year, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,
04:49
which the U.N. is helping Cambodia take on,
04:52
started, and I decided that as a matter of record
04:54
I should file a Civil Complaint
04:56
with the Tribunal about my father's passing away.
04:59
And I got word last month
05:02
that the complaint was officially accepted by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
05:05
And it's for me a matter of justice for history, and accountability for the future,
05:08
because Cambodia remains a pretty lawless place, at times.
05:13
Five years ago my mother and I went back to Chau Doc.
05:18
And she was able to return to a place
05:22
that for her meant freedom, but also fear,
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because we had just come out of Cambodia.
05:27
I'm happy, actually, today, to present her.
05:30
She's here today with us in the audience.
05:34
Thank you mother.
05:36
(Applause)
05:38

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Sophal Ear - Development economist
Sophal Ear leads research on post-conflict countries -- looking at the effectiveness of foreign aid and the challenge of development in places like his native land, Cambodia.

Why you should listen

Elected to the Crescenta Valley Town Council in November 2015 for a 3-year term, encompassing more than 20,000 residents in unincorporated La Crescenta and Montrose, California, Sophal Ear, Ph.D., is a tenured Associate Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles where he lectures on political economy, security, development and Asia.

Previously, he taught how to rebuild countries after wars at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and international development at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He consulted for the World Bank, was Assistant Resident Representative for the United Nations in East Timor and Advisor to Cambodia's 1st private equity fund Leopard Capital. A TED Fellow, Fulbright Specialist, Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations and Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, he sits on the board of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Refugees International, Partners for Development, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, the Southeast Asia Development Program, Diagnostic Microbiology Development Program, the Journal of International Relations and Development (Palgrave), the International Public Management Journal (Taylor & Francis), Journal of South-East Asian American Education & Advancement (Purdue), and Politics and the Life Sciences (Cambridge University Press).

He is the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2013) and co-author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resources Quest is Reshaping the World (Routledge, 2013). He wrote and narrated the award-winning documentary film "The End/Beginning: Cambodia" (47 minutes, 2011) based on his 2009 TED Talk and has appeared in four other documentaries.

A graduate of Princeton and Berkeley, he moved to the United States from France as a Cambodian refugee at the age of 10.

The original video is available on TED.com
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