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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Not My First Rodeo: A Delegate From Texas Explains What Makes This Convention Different

Sichan Siv, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
Cleveland, OH
July 19, 2016

Date: 07/19/2016 Location: Cleveland, OH Description: Sichan Siv, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, shares his unlikely story with journalists and talks about what makes the 2016 GOP Convention different from the others he has attended. - State Dept Image

4:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: My name is Jennie Young. Thank you for coming to today’s briefing. I just want to remind you if you haven’t already done so, please turn off your electronic devices. Also, the opinions of our speakers do not represent the views of the United States government.

We are really pleased today to have Ambassador Siv here to give you a briefing, to tell you what it’s like to be a delegate from the great state of Texas. Ambassador Siv, this is his sixth Republican National Convention; his second as a delegate. He was actually an alternate delegate for Governor Abbott who, if you haven’t heard, was injured recently and was unable to make it.

Ambassador Siv was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2001 and confirmed by the Senate as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. From 1989 to 1993, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, he served as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Public Liaison, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asian Affairs.

We will hear some short remarks from Ambassador Siv, and then we will open it for questions. And again, when you ask your question if you could please state your name and outlet that you’re from. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SIV: Thank you, Jennie, for the kind introduction.

Yes, I want to preface that I do not speak for the U.S. government. I used to speak for the U.S. government when I was ambassador, but if anything I speak for Texas and I have some Texan colleagues here with me.

I’m delighted to be with you today. I have been interacting with many of you all over the world. I was fortunate to travel to about 115 -- can you hear me? Is it all right? Good.

I was saying that I have been fortunate to travel all around the world to about 115 countries. I have been lucky to interact with a lot of cultures from various speaking worlds, and I’ve been lucky to speak a few other languages other than English and Texan.

I was born in Cambodia. I came to America in 1976, one month before the U.S. Bicentennial. I had just survived one year of the [inaudible] regime under the Khmer Rouge where I was sentenced to death twice. I was supposed to be airlifted out of Phnom Penh in 1975 because I was working for CARE, which is a relief organization, during the war. I was working under extremely dangerous conditions, trying to save the lives of many hundreds and thousands of refugees and displaced people who were fleeing the war-torn countryside to seek safety and shelter in the capital and other provincial cities. On April 12th, I was told by the embassy to be at the embassy within one hour if I wanted to be airlifted out of Cambodia. That morning I had a meeting with the [inaudible] province where we used to help a lot of refugees by supplying a lot of medical and food supplies, but the road had been cut by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese and later on by the Khmer Rouge. So I thought that by going to the meeting with the [inaudible] I would be able to save the lives of those refugees.

When I went to the embassy, I was told that the last helicopter had taken off 30 minutes before, so I missed the final U.S. helicopter by 30 minutes.

Five days later the Khmer Rouge came in and they turned the country upside down. They turned Cambodia into a land of blood and tears. They kill anybody who wore glasses. They killed teachers, nurses, government officials, military personnel. They kill anybody who had not been with them during the so-called revolution.

My mother gave me her wedding ring, her scarf, and a bag of rice and she told me to run, never give up hope no matter what happens.

So I pick an old bicycle, I began to ride a bicycle across Cambodia for three weeks. I used fake passes and false [inaudible] to get through the Khmer checkpoints. I was captured near Thailand. They tie my hands behind my back and they were going to kill me because they suspected that I was trying to cross the border to Thailand, which was exactly my intention. But a truck driver whom I had met a few days before saved my life. He told the Khmer Rouge I was an innocent person wandering around looking for my family.

So for the next year I was put in forced labor camps. We were all working in forced labor camps. The whole country was a forced labor camp. It was killing fields. We were forced to work 18, 19 hours a day and we were given a bowl of rancid soup a day to eat. When I went to sleep at night, I never knew if I would be alive the following morning. When I woke up, I said, ‘I will make it to freedom.’

In January 1976, they were looking for a crane operator. I knew that they were going to use a crane to pick up timber along the Thai border so I raised my hand. I never been in a crane in my life but I said I was a crane operator. So at night, I burn small candles, I pull a blanket over my head, and I began to study instructions. That fact alone would have cost me my life if I were caught reading, reading something in English. But in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge there were only two kinds of people. Those that died and those who were dying. So, I took the risk.

On February 13, 1976 I found myself in the back of the timber truck. I said, ‘now or never.’ So, I decided to jump off the truck. I was caught on a piece of lumber. I was dragged for a few hundred yards, and then I was slung off. I began to run, to walk, to crawl, to swim for three days, having nothing to eat or to drink. I fell in a booby trap which was a deep hole full of punji sticks, sharp bamboo sticks. I was severely wounded, but I wasn’t killed. So I pick myself up and I began to limp along until I got to Thailand where I was jailed. Then they realized I was a refugee, so they sent me to refugee camp.

I spent my time teaching English to my fellow refugees because they were suffering severe mental depression. They sat around all day feeling sorry about the past and worrying about the future. So it was a win/win proposal, because they were able to get some basic English at the same time they were able to take their minds off the sorrow and the worries.

On February 13, 19--, that was later on. On June 4, 1976 I arrived in Connecticut. A small town called Wallingford, Connecticut, with my mother’s scarf, an empty rice bag and two dollars. I was sick and tired, but full of hope. I wanted to adopt myself to America so that America will adopt me. Like they say in French, s’adopt [e sever] adopt, to adopt, to be adopted. So I picked apples in Connecticut. I ate apples, enough to last me a lifetime. Then I went to work for an ice cream store. I had to learn how to cook hamburgers, scoop ice cream, and so on, so forth. I’d never seen a hamburger in my life. Suddenly I was hearing rare, medium rare, hold the lettuce. I didn’t understand what it was until the trainer told me that I didn’t want to put the lettuce on the hamburger. That’s what she meant by holding the lettuce.

It was very difficult for me, so I moved to New York, I stood at the street of Manhattan corner there and I saw all the yellow cabs with the sign on the back that read, ‘drivers wanted,’ so I called and they asked me to go and take a test. It’s all about directions. I don’t know how many of you came from New York, but you know traffic in New York. I didn’t know where I was going so I just checked the boxes. They asked me, for example, how do you go from the Waldorf Astoria to Yankee Stadium? I had no idea, so I just checked the boxes. At the end, I brought the sheet to the examiner. They looked, he looks at the boxes, he shook his head. He sighed and said, “You passed.” So, I became a taxi driver.

In 1977 you didn’t need to know where you were going to drive a taxi in New York. You only need to have good brakes and strong horn. [Laughter].

I survived the Manhattan traffic. I applied to a number of graduate schools. They all turned me down because I had no transcript. Finally, Columbia gave me a full scholarship. I did a Master’s of International Affairs for one year, then I went down to Wall Street.

My wife and I were introduced to the Reagans and we began to receive invitation to the White House, but none topped the one on July 13, 1988. I was a Rose Garden guest of the President and Vice President of the United States, and while I was standing there I never knew I would be working at the White House a few months later.

When George H.W. Bush got elected, he asked me to go and work for him. I was volunteering for his campaign in New York, so that’s another process of learning about American politics. I went to work at the White House on February 13, 1989, exactly 13 years from the day I jumped off that truck in northwest Cambodia. So I made it from the killing fields to the White House in 13 years. There is no other country on earth that you can make it that far in such a short time. That was a tribute to George H.W. Bush and to America.

Under Bush, the world changed; the Cold War ended. Eastern Europe became free. Germany became united. Soviet Union fell apart. And Bush handled the post Cold War world successfully without a shot being fired. That was a credit to his diplomatic skills.

And there I was sitting in the White House seeing history taking shape in front of my eyes. Only 13 years after I escaped from the killing fields of Cambodia.

In 2001, as Jennie mentioned, I was appointed by George W. Bush to be an ambassador to the United Nations. There my colleagues from 192 countries, when they looked at me they saw America. They saw her strength, her greatness. This time I sat on behalf of the President and people of the United States. That was my proudest moment.

All of this is summarized in a book that I wrote called ‘Golden Bones,’ which is term Cambodians use to refer to somebody who is very blessed. You are person with golden bones if you are very blessed, if you are lucky. And I’ve been blessed, I’ve been very lucky to live here, to make it from refugee to the White House and to represent my country of adoption to speak on behalf of the people and the nation.

America, you must have realized by now, is not a conquering power. Our men and women continue to make the ultimate sacrifice so that others might have freedom. We respond to earthquakes and tsunamis. We help refugees. We support health and education, women and children around the world. We give voice to the voiceless. We protect human rights. We are doing this not to be popular. We are doing it because it is right, because we are Americans, because we are compassionate society.

When I go to bed at night, I feel blessed. When I wake up, I am thankful. I am thankful for living in this great nation where people have the right to dream and turn their dreams into reality. That each of us can have a happy home with faith, family, friends, and freedom. So, that’s my background.

Why Texas? My wife happened to be from Texas. She was trained in the same school as Laura Bush. That is a school of library and information services at the University of Texas. We met in New York through a friend. She worked at United Nations for a number of years and then she worked for the World Bank, and we always wanted a home in Texas, so we chose San Antonio. I had two friends from San Antonio including my own county party chair and a colleague. Why San Antonio after having been to all over the world? We chose San Antonio because we love the military. It’s a bit military presence there. They call it the Military City, USA. Good medical facilities and a lot of history. You know, the Alamo, the Missions, River Walk, and so on. So, any of you that have been there would remember. If you have not, please come and visit us. And the breaking point was the airport is so easy to get in and out. So we’ve been in San Antonio since ’06.

I was involved in sort of national politics when I was living in New York and Washington, so when we moved to San Antonio I decided to be involved in local politics. So I learned everything from precinct level to county level all the way to the state level. I worked, volunteered everywhere. And the way it works in Texas is that you go to your precinct, you get elected to the county convention, you get elected another level from the county convention to the state convention. There when they decide if you can go to the national convention. And I ran for an alternate at-large. There are two ways to get elected. First, you run through your congressional district. The second one is to run for at-large delegates. I ran for at large, statewide. I was elected to be the alternate to the Governor of Texas, which Jennie mentioned. Greg Abbott, he was unfortunately burned in an accident and he couldn’t make it, so I filled in his seat.

We came here united, because we wanted to win this election, and we knew we had to get Donald Trump elected to be the next President, and we will move the country forward to make America safe again, strong again, and work again.

So let me stop here, and I thank you again for the opportunity to be with you and if you have any questions in English, French or a few other languages, I’ll be happy to.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for sharing your life story. Wonderful. I like it very much. I am Hiro Aida with Japan’s Kyodo News.

AMBASSADOR SIV: Did you say you’re from Kyodo?

QUESTION: Yeah, Kyodo, K-Y-O-D-O. You may know that.

AMBASSADOR SIV: I used to work with your colleagues in Cambodia. He was killed in the war.

QUESTION: Oh my God. When was that, ‘60s or --


QUESTION: Yeah, there was a guy who lost life there.

Anyway, my question is, you were elected or nominated by the President George W. Bush as ambassador. And how do you think about the fact that the Bush family including George W. and George H.W. and Jeb, they rejected, declined to come here? What do you think about, for example, today’s Wall Street Journal editorial that says that the Republican party is now narrowing their base only to the white constituents? And it seems to be excluding even the conservative. Wall Street Journal, in its editorial, says that this is a dangerous trend and the Republican party may perish if they go this way. So what do you think about those --

AMBASSADOR SIV: First, I cannot speak for the Bush family, although I know them well. I think President George H.W. Bush just turned 92 last month and he has been in a wheelchair so he doesn’t travel much. At this moment I think they are in Maine, in Kennebunkport, their summer home, and I am not surprised that he and Mrs. Bush, Barbara Bush, did not travel.

George W. Bush decided not to be involved in politics. He is not one of those former presidents who just kept on pouncing on the one who came after. He never said anything about Obama. So that was his decision. I think Jeb, that was his decision too. I cannot speak for them.

But I have not read the Wall Street Journal, so I don’t know what they are really saying in there. I love the Wall Street Journal but not always the editorial pages. The Republican party is not a white-dominated party. It’s a party for all. Look at me, I’m not white. And when you look at the Texas delegation, there are blacks, there are Hispanic, there are everybody. It’s very easy to find a Texan delegate because they are very patriotic. They wear their hats. Yesterday they wear their flag shirt, and today we are all red shirt. And you can talk to any of them. You find the youngest one, the oldest one, black and white, and I don’t think just for Texas alone. It’s not fair to say that we are white party. We are 155 delegates. We are the second largest delegation in the country. And I should point out that Texas is the 12th largest economy. If Texas were an independent country, it would be the third largest economy. And we were an independent country at one point, from 1836 to 1848. 12th largest economy. And there have been nine million people who moved to Texas since George W. Bush went to the White House in 2001. So the past 16 years, nine million people have moved to Texas. 800 people a day that move to Texas. Why? Because it’s a very good environment. It provides good quality. Give you the basic foundation of America, freedom and so on and so forth. Second [amendment], [inaudible], so I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Republican party is a white party.

There are a lot of people that made the decision on their own, and I don’t think it reflects on anything. If anything, I think they are ready to make America strong again and safe again and more powerful again. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you, Kristoffer Ronneberg with the Norwegian newspaper Aftensposten.

Being from the Texas delegation, could you tell us something about the sentiment in the delegation, especially in light of what happened yesterday? How did you experience that chaos that erupted on the floor? And do you believe that this convention will be able to gather the conservative and the Trump parts of the party, which I guess is one of the main aims of the convention?

AMBASSADOR SIV: I mentioned a minute ago that as far as the Texas delegation is concerned, we came here united and I have to remind you that Ted Cruz is a senator from Texas and he ran a very good campaign. He won Texas. He won our whole state, of course. But all of us in the delegation are united behind Trump.

In a big national convention like this you always have - I don’t know if you call it raucous or whatever - there is always disagreement. But we are not disagreeable, and I strongly believe at the end we will be united behind Trump.

The people have spoken. You have heard already that in the primary there are like 14 million people who voted for Trump. He gathered more votes than any other presidential nominee in the past. So it is time for us to be united.

And today I went to the Iowa delegation. You have top speakers there including Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and Tom Cotton from Arkansas, and they all said that it’s time for us to be united behind the nominee and I strongly believe that unity is the one that will bring us together and take us all the way to the White House.

QUESTION: This is Maurin Picard from Le Figaro from France.


QUESTION: Wonderful. I’m not going to speak French for this.

AMBASSADOR SIV: Okay, good. I’m sorry. I said I love Figaro because I read it every day.

QUESTION: Thank you.

What do you expect from Ted Cruz when he is going to speak this week? And how do you relate to Ted Cruz, the candidate? So to say, when did you eventually accept the fact that Donald Trump was going to be the Republican nominee? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR SIV: Thank you. I think Ted Cruz is one of the most smartest people ever. You probably know his story. He was Solicitor General of Texas and then he ran, as a Solicitor you always make argument in front of Supreme Court. And he is a very smart person. His background is just very impressive. I cannot speak for him, but I believe that he will come out for the best benefit of Texas and for the American people. So he will be supporting Donald Trump. But you have to find out afterwards. I hope I’m right, but that’s my own opinion. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hello, Fina [inaudible] with Danish Radio.

I’m wondering, just to go back to Jeb Bush, he has actually said that as far as he is concerned with Donald Trump as the leader of the party he thinks conservatism is dead. Do you see Donald Trump as a conservative leader who can unite the party? Ted Cruz was a conservative candidate.

AMBASSADOR SIV: That’s right. Of all the candidates, Donald Trump was the only one - I think Donald Trump is the only one that I met once. I met Donald Trump once about eight years ago, in 2008. I met him in a restaurant. And before I met him I was not really a big fan of his, and I had a friend with me who was neither a big friend. But I found him very personable. And we spoke a little bit. And to my surprise, I got a letter from him. It’s very personal. It’s not like a form letter that was drafted by a secretary, but it was a personal letter.

Those of you who live in New York, you know the Trump World Tower, right, in front of United Nations? There is a Japanese restaurant called Megu. That’s where we met. And I was quite impressed with his reaching out to me, and my friend also was very impressed.

I think he is conservative enough. He spent all his life building business, building family, helping people, and he knows how the economy works. He’ll be a very good president. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hello. We’d like to do a one to one interview in French after that, if you --


QUESTION: Frederic Autran, Radio Mediterranee International. Just one in English. Considering your personal story as a refugee coming from a country, a conflict zone, how do you relate to all this strong rhetoric that we’ve seen over this campaign regarding the Syrian refugees, for instance, but more broadly, about immigrants, especially coming from Mr. Trump, who seems to be your choice now for president.

AMBASSADOR SIV: First, I have to tell you that my first job was a flight attendant, was a steward, as a flight attendant. I flew all over Asia. And you know, when you are in a plane, the security briefing, the oxygen mask. The oxygen mask theory is that you put the mask on you first before you can save your child. Meaning that you have to be safe to be secure before you are able to save other people.

I was vetted also when I was in the refugee camp in Thailand. I was asked, ‘have you been a member of the communist party?’ I said, ‘no, I just escaped from the communists, from the Khmer Rouge.’ So vetting process is very important. You cannot just let people come into your house without knowing what the background was. This is oxygen mask theory.

You can look, you can see that under embodiment of the American refugee policies. I’m the one who came here because the United States decided to bring a few thousand refugees from Southeast Asia. The Cambodians, the Laotians, the Vietnamese in the ‘70s and then on and on. America is one of the most welcoming countries on earth. Of course you have, we have Europe and France too. The French people took a lot of refugees, all the Scandinavian people. Everybody. But in terms of welcoming, we are a nation of refugees and immigrants. You go to a meeting of Americans, you look around, they are all from somewhere, you know. Our ancestors came from Europe, but also we have refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and then now from Iraq and Afghanistan. So I go back to oxygen mask theory. You make yourself safe first because you open the door to other people to come into your house. Thank you.

MODERATOR: We’re going to end the Q&A portion now. I want to thank Ambassador Siv for coming and briefing. We’re going to do some one-on-one’s. I know of at least three, so if you can just line up here, and he’ll make himself available for one-on-one’s. Thanks.

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