Settling war crimes with music
Former child soldier Arn Chorn-Pond on transforming Cambodia's identity from killing fields to living arts
One of the first things Arn Chorn-Pond tells me is also one of the most striking: "I'm very happy," he says, when I ask how he is. Three words that are anything but throwaway, when one weighs them against his past as a former child soldier under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. More than 40 years on, Arn has much to be thankful for - and although he's told his story countless times, you can tell he'd have no qualms telling it countless more.
Arn was about nine years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power and took over Cambodia in 1975. "At that age, I had no idea there were any other countries, or people who spoke different languages," says the survivor, who was in town last month as part of a Peace Fellows Lecture Series and Residency Program at NYU Abu Dhabi. All he knew was the Buddhist temple he and his siblings were sent to and their life around town in Battambang.
"Music was everywhere at the time. My little brother and sister, who I loved very much, would love to go to town with me. We loved rock 'n' roll and ice creams and dancing on the streets. I knew nothing about war. But that was short-lived. Because as soon as the Khmer Rouge came in, everything changed... We were not prepared for anything."
One doubts anything could've prepared anyone for what was to come. Arn was separated from his family, and taken to a Buddhist temple that had been converted into a killing place, together with 700 other youngsters - all of whom were made to work from 5am to midnight without food. "We were children. But every day, the soldiers would kill people and force us to watch," he recalls. Any expression of sympathy would've earned them a bullet in the head, so Arn - who lived there for four years - learned to repress his feelings. "Only 60-70 of us survived," he says.
Strangely, it was not wit or cunning that saved Arn's life - but music. "The soldiers wanted us to play their revolutionary songs. If you made a mistake, you'd be shot or axed in the head. There were 3-4 other children who were slow to learn the songs. They didn't survive." Arn mastered the flute in a matter of days and he believes his ability to learn so fast was because he came from a family of musicians.
"My parents owned a famous opera company," he says. "I remember the light from the stage shining on my face when they put me on at age five or so. They were trying to groom me to be an actor, but that dream fell apart when the Khmer Rouge came in. People have [since] told me how good they were. There was no money in that profession - they just loved making people laugh and cry."
When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, however, Arn's flute was quickly replaced with a gun, and he and his peers were pushed to the front lines as human shields before the advancing enemy soldiers. It was kill or be killed. In 2012, Patricia McCormick wrote about Arn's life story in a book called Never Fall Down - the title was a phrase that had become the then-12-year-old's slogan. Asked why he was so determined to live, despite the monstrosities he was relentlessly exposed to every day, he simply says, "I was a child. I was afraid to die."
The horrors of those days came to an end for him as unexpectedly as they'd begun, when he escaped into a jungle and was found by the man who would become his adoptive father, Peter L Pond. Pond, a reverend, took Arn back to the United States, where the youngster struggled massively to assimilate into American culture. In a 2015 TEDxTalk, Arn spoke of how high school made him want to kill himself because he'd "never felt so alone" in his life. "I wasn't facing physical threats in America; no one was telling me that if I didn't play, an axe would hit my head. But the worst feeling was being made fun of by other kids. I couldn't find guns anywhere in the jungle of New Hampshire, but the isolation hurt so bad in my heart."
Arn's confusion was further compounded when he learned the history between both countries. "I felt like no one in the entire school knew anything," he explains. "They weren't being taught about how half a million tons of B-52 were dropped in Cambodia illegally against international law. And as a Cambodian American myself, it hurt even more to understand how my second country, which saved my life, could bomb my first country."
It was Arn's father who encouraged him to talk about his story and allow his music to open doors. "I realised I could raise money to help my people. When you're useful, the hurt lessens." Arn has since gone on to found a host of organisations to educate the world through music. Key among his initiatives is the Cambodian Living Arts foundation that encourages young people to learn traditional arts and use it to create new art forms. "I'm glad I'm still alive to see how we're transforming Cambodia into something more that the world can know it for - for living arts, not just killing fields."
While many would've taken the first opportunity to cut themselves away from a past as bloody and violent as Arn's, the activist has no such inclinations. "I cannot deny my flesh and blood," he says. "I cannot run away from being Cambodian first. The truth that I don't want to deny is that what happened to me shaped me and made me who I am. The Khmer Rouge didn't make us proud. They made their country a hostage of their madness, but we have a rich culture that we can be proud of."
When he hears of the current political rhetoric and of governments threatening war, Arn says, "I want to tell them: in the end, nobody is going to win, including them. Music and art are what bring us together and connect us all. If you make guns, you'll use them. If you make bombs, you'll use them. So, make musical instruments instead."
Arn himself has no scores to settle. Or, to put it more accurately, he's already settled them all. "I'd hug any of the regime soldiers who tortured us, if I met them today," he says. "When they came to Cambodia, they killed 90 per cent of all the performers and artists there, all the people who were supposed to teach us about our identity and culture as Cambodians. So, when we brought music back to Cambodia and performed there, that's how I settled my score with those soldiers. In 2013, I 'carpeted' New York with a plane load of artists. That's how I settled my score with the Americans too."
The musician's message rings loud and clear in the quiet-but-passionate intonations of his voice. "The Khmer Rouge tried to brainwash me into becoming a senseless killer and murderer like them. I'm sorry," says Arn. "They didn't get me. They missed... I wasn't given a choice back then. They forced me to do things I didn't want to do. But killing people is not the way to go. Peace and musical instruments - that's my vision for the world. People make money from war. I want to change that. And I will do it in my lifetime."