Sophal Ear: Cambodian thinker

Simply dressed in his favorite khakis and dark brown V-Neck T-shirt, Sophal Ear took to the stage in style at the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference, and gave a fascinating talk on ‘escaping the Khmer Rouge,’ in February 2009 in Long Beach, California. Much known for leveraging the power of ideas to change the world, TED was founded in 1984.

Born in 1974 Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sophal Ear was raised and educated in the United States of America. He studied both Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s currently an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

(video): Sophal Ear on how his mother, Cam Youk Lim (1936 – 2009) survived Cambodia’s tragedy. February 3-7, 2009–photo courtesy of TED.

Some remarkable world’s leaders who have given TED talks include Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Gordon Brown, Bill Gates, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Sophal Ear is undeniably the first Cambodian-born American to take TED stage and in 2009 become a TED fellow through the TED Fellows, a fellowship program for young world-changers and pioneers who have shown unusual accomplishment and exceptional courage. He currently is writing a book on the unintended consequences of foreign aid in Cambodia. 

Tharum Bun: I would like to share condolences to the loss of your mother. It was inspired to see her presence at your talk at TED in February last year. She had an incredible story of survival from the Khmer Rouge atrocity.

Sophal Ear: My mom was very special to me. I am still trying to publish the Eulogy to her (see link below) in an international news outlet.

Q: How did you get invited to talk at TED?

A: I applied and was selected as a TED Fellow in 2009, so I got to go to the 25th Anniversary TED Conference which that year moved to Long Beach, California, from Monterey, California where it had previously been held for 24 years and where I also happen to live. As a TED attendee (known as a TEDster), everyone is invited to submit a proposal to give a talk at TED-University, which is an auditorium that holds 800 people or on the mainstage (but limited to 3 minutes). My proposal was accepted and I was given SIX WHOLE MINUTES on the TED-U stage. Not all talks given at TED on the main stage or the TED-U stage become video TED Talks, but luckily mine did, and it’s been an amazing experience. I’ve even got a picture of my mom receiving a standing ovations after my talk and in the back is a familiar face, that of Bill Gates. I wouldn’t have figured it out were it not for Picasa (a Google product), which crops faces and showed me, quite unmistakably Mr. Gates’ face.

Q: When did you start learning about the Khmer Rouge?

A: I think I’ve always been interested in politics both French and American, but particularly Cambodian politics, and naturally the topic of the Khmer Rouge comes-up frequently. From a very young age, I knew my family was a family of refugees and that was when we lived in France. At the age of 10, when I moved to the US, I remember writing a letter to then President Ronald Reagan about the need to continue to fight communism. It was in my 7th grade English as a Second Language class at Willard Junior High School in Berkeley, California. My classmates thought it was funny, and I am sure that if my teachers knew, they would have been appalled. Berkeley is a very liberal city. Later on, at 15, I started corresponding with Hann So, the founder of a newsletter called Khmer Conscience (KC). My missives to him became long elaborate letters typed on my typewriter. He printed some of my stuff and eventually, at 16, he sent me a clipping of a piece entitled “Are We Ready for Democracy?” in a newspaper called Ngoi Viet (Vietnamese People) Weekly that had reprinted it from his newsletter. That piece was from a letter I’d written him which he had published in KC unbeknown to me. I was so thrilled yet terrified and embarrassed that it took me at least 10 years to summon the courage to read it in full. It became the first thing I ever published in a real newspaper.

Q: How did your mother tell you about her own story?

A: Mom was never shy about sharing her past, but it took many years for me to get more and more out of her. You have to ask questions, and in 2004 I decided I was going to write a piece based on her story for the New York Times Lives Page. This is the last page of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which I read religiously as a boy because my neighbor in Oakland, California, was a Khmer-American who delivered the New York Times and would give me a copy every day. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, frankly, because the Times is still my favorite newspaper ever. They have “as told to” one page stories, and this would be of my mom telling me her story. It was at first rejected (DC-Cam picked it up here), but the next year, I tried again and it made it to the Times on 17 April 2005, the 30th Anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh. You can read it here. This goes to show that failure is not the end, it’s just the beginning. Along the way, strangers helped shepherd it along, coaxing big-shot editors to give it some consideration, pulling and prodding, and eventually it worked. I was amazed. To top it off, the piece also paid really well, $1,000!

Q: How did she feel during her first visit to Cambodia (including Pursat) and Chau Doc and Hung Ngu in Vietnam?

A: Her first visit back to Cambodia was without me, but her subsequent visits were always with me. One even lasted six months, which was an amazing time for her, one of the few stretches in her life when she didn’t have to wear multiple socks or layers upon layers of jackets (she picked-up Malaria under the Khmer Rouge and ever since had felt cold all the time). When we went together to different parts of Cambodia, including Vietnam, it was for her a happy time. It was as if she could finally enjoy these places as a tourist and put away bad memories of the past–having been helpless or in danger decades earlier. I think it helped to erase some of that bitterness and sadness and it cast a new light on these places. I know she had a wonderful time because her pictures show her smiling and at peace.

Q: Was there any suspicion on changing names of Vietnamese girls to those of boys and on boys’ to those of girls?

A: Thankfully, Ms. Teuv, a random Vietnamese lady she met in the testing camp, told her this before she actually announced the names to the authorities testing her. You see, strangers can save lives, and they often do.

Q: What’s your Vietnamese name given by your mother?

A: My mom gave me the name “Bear”, which is just a diminutive for little (or youngest one) one in Vietnamese. I probably was given a formal Vietnamese name, but it was just for that short stretch of time of days or weeks.

Q: Were you or your late mother aware of any Cambodian families who went to Vietnam for survival? If there was any, how did they survive? Other than the Vietnamese language, were there any other conditions during that time that people trying to escape to Vietnam could use?

A: There are many other people who did the same thing we did. I know of at least a half dozen personally, but there were hundreds of people if not of thousands of people. There was even an area for them–not a refugee camp–but a temple that they hung out at in Ho Chi Minh City called Watt Chanta Reang Sey. They survived because the Vietnamese did not send them back, and they basically made ends meet somehow, not that they got much help. We were lucky, my aunt had married a Vietnamese barber in Phnom Penh and when Lon Nol kicked out a lot of Vietnamese after his 1970 coup d’etat, the barber returned to Vietnam with my aunt. My aunt had also been helpful to the Vietcong (she wasn’t well off, so she probably figured it might benefit her), so they were nicer to her and her family when they took over Vietnam. I think they gave her a letter or somesuch for having helped them. As a result, she could protect us somewhat, but life was still very difficult for them and for us.

Of the six people that I personally know, it seems that all spoke Vietnamese… but it’s possible that those who didn’t could have been helped by family living in Vietnam who were Khmer Kampuchea Krom for example or, as in the case of my aunt, Khmer married to Vietnamese. But crossing under the circumstances we went through would not have been possible if you didn’t speak Vietnamese. In fact, real Vietnamese people failed the test. Those who had lived in Cambodia for too long could no longer speak it convincingly according to my mom and flunked. Others passed, but their spouses couldn’t, and they had to decide then and there whether to stay or leave. It was like the movie Sophie’s Choice, a terrible situation.

Q: What is your next plan in your civil complaint about the death of your father to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal?

A: Well, there’s nothing to plan but to wait and see. The unemployed in Cambodia like to say that they walk kicking air. In a way, that’s what I’m doing when it comes to this complaint. It’s not as if I need or want anything from them, after four years of neither here nor there and more than one hundred million dollars, what can you expect? I just hope they release their first verdict before they exceed the number years, months, and days the Khmer Rouge were in power.

Q: What is your overall perception about the tribunal process?

A: As it happens, today my Op-Ed came out in the Global Edition of the New York Times and tomorrow’s print edition of the International Herald Tribune. Read it here.

Q: What’s your impression of Cambodia when you visited for the first time?

A: Oh, it was amazing, it was like making new memories of things I’d dreamed about but never remembered until I got there. I remember getting a ride from cyclo powered by a boy my age. He was thin and small, my size. He could have been me, and I him. Life’s so random. Why did he have to stay in Cambodia and why did I get to leave? My mom took risks, Ms. Teuv helped, a random Frenchman in France helped get us out of Vietnam, an aunt in America sent money, cajoled and pressured. It’s amazing how nothing that happens to you is simply your own actions. It’s always the efforts of many, and yet it all seems random. But is it really?

Q: What inspired you to be who you are today?

A: My interest in politics led me to study political science as an undergraduate, but I also had to do economics because I felt that I needed to know not just how to write, but how to count too. One day, while doing my econ honors thesis, I stumbled upon a footnote in a book edited by Karl Jackson called Cambodia: Rendez-vous with Death. It talked about scholars who supported the Khmer Rouge. I was aghast! I decided right there and then to find out more and to write a second thesis, which I did, and which became the Khmer Rouge Canon. Thus was born my love of studying Cambodia and all things political and economic having to do with Cambodia. I felt that it was my duty, as a survivor, to do what I could to improve the knowledge of the country. I wrote in the preface to my theses that if they were totally wrong and caused others to study Cambodia because I was wrong, then I would have at least accomplished (and succeeded in producing) that much. But in the end, it isn’t what inspired me to be who I am today, but who inspired me to be who I am today. My mom was both mother and father to me since I grew up without a dad, and as a survivor who triumphed against all odds, she inspired me to be who I am today. She saved five kids and 14 grandkids’ lives by passing those two language exams (one by the Khmer Rouge and another by the Vietnamese) and crossing into Vietnam to freedom from the Khmer Rouge. The Talmud says that if you save a life, you save the world. The Chinese have another proverb, “When you save a life, you are responsible for that life.” She is responsible, in the original sense of the word, for 19 lives including my own my soon to be one year old son Steven Sophal Ear’s life (who was still in his mom’s belly–my wife, Chamnan Lim, is shown eight months pregnant sitting to the left of my mom in the picture below), and I cannot even begin to fill her shoes. Read her Eulogy here

After the compelling talk, Sophal Ear introduced and paid tribute to his beloved mother (standing), who saved her children and grand children from Cambodia’s infamous genocide, to a group of distinguished audiences that include Microsoft chairman and world’s pragmatic philanthropist Bill Gates (at the back, second from the right). Sitting left next to his mother is his 8-month pregnant wife, Chamnan Lim. February 3-7, 2009–photo courtesy of TED.


  • Sophal Ear: The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of the US Navy or US government.
  • Tharum Bun: my special thanks to both Socheata Vong and Kounila Keo for helping me to come up with some of the questions in this email interview.