Awards Category: Societal Leaders
Arn Chorn Pond
Co-Founder, Cambodian Living Arts
Arn Chorn-Pond is a renowned musician and human rights activist who advocates for the healing and transformative power of the arts, especially music, through organisations such as Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), of which he is a co-founder. He is best known for his work with Cambodian refugees, particularly in terms of trauma survivors and education on the Khmer Rouge genocide, and also supports education on forgiveness and reconciliation. Apart from CLA, Arn has founded and co- founded various organisations including Children of War, the Southeast Asian Big Brother/Big Sister Association, Peace Makers and the Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development. Currently, he is Director of Youth Programmes for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, and Special Advisor on Cambodian Affairs at Clear Path International. An accomplished flutist, Arn is credited with teaching acclaimed, Grammy-nominated Canadian flutist Ron Korb (also called the Dragon Flute in China, and Prince of Flutes in Japan) to play the Cambodian bamboo flute in traditional Khmer style; he also performed alongside Peter Gabriel and other luminaries in the 2001 Tribute & Homage for Harbourfront Centre’s World Leaders.
Creating a Better Future
In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came into power, 80-90% of the country’s artists and musicians, alongside almost every educated adult in Cambodia, were slaughtered – including Arn’s parents, who ran an opera house. Arn himself, however, was spared, sent to a labour camp where he was forced to learn the flute to keep the soldiers entertained, and to play propaganda songs to blasted from speakers to dull the screams of victims as they were tortured and killed. Within five days, a master trained Arn and four other children to play the flute and the khim, a form of hammered dulcimer; at the end of the five days, Arn and another boy were chosen to play, while the master and other children were led away and killed. When they brought in another old master for more lessons, Arn knew that the same thing would happen; so he pled with the guards not to kill him, telling them he didn’t have enough skills and offering his own life to them instead. That teacher, Master Mek, taught him to play to a standard they approved of, and till this day he believes the music was essential to his survival of the Khmer Rouge regime. Not every child was so lucky; three out of five children were slow to learn the instruments, and they were eventually killed. Arn, having survived the camps, was next thrown headlong into another conflict as the Vietnam invaded Cambodia; he was forced to fight as a child soldier, again miraculously surviving and stumbling across the border into Thailand. This was where his life was changed forever, as he was rescued by a Thai soldier and brought to Reverend Peter L. Pond at the Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp. The Reverend took Arn to Jefferson, New Hamsphire and formally adopted him along with 16 other Cambodian children, mostly orphans, in 1984.
Arn went on to attend White Mountains Regional High School, one of the first non-white students to do so, then graduated from Gould Academy in 1985. Later, he attended Brown University for two years before withdrawing to co-found Children of War, an organisation dedicated to ‘help young people overcome suffering from war and other traumas such as child abuse, poverty, racism and divorce.’ From 1984 to 1988, Children of War trained over 150 young people representing 21 countries, with more than 100,000 US students from 480 schools participating in the programme. When Arn returned to Cambodia, one of the few surviving Cambodians to return to the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border, and visited his hometown in Battambang, he came across another survivor of the Khmer regime – his old teacher, Master Mek, who was living on the streets. He convinced Master Mek to help revive Cambodia’s music; since 90% of Cambodia’s artists were eradicated by the Khmer Rouge and music had been the reason why he survived that eradication, Arn felt it was his responsibility to ensure that ‘Cambodian children never enter a world without music’. Thus, he established Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), the original mission of which was to revive the endangered traditional performing arts in Cambodia by locating former masters and trained professional musicians and empower them to pass on their skills to the next generation. CLA then expanded its scope to include scholarships, fellowships, workshops, training, commissions, arts education, and a cultural enterprise that provides enriching job opportunities to Cambodian performing artists. Arn also initiated The Khmer Magic Music Buss, which takes music performances and demonstrations to villages and communities living around Cambodia with little or no access to performing arts. Additionally, he works closely with special communities to keep rare forms of Cambodian music alive. While Cambodia is still recovering from decades of conflict and still faces many problems, Arn believes that reviving the arts is equally as important as other socio-economic initiatives stating that ‘while hospitals are important to heal people physically, restoring the arts restores identity, restores dignity; bringing people together in harmony, in peace.”
The atrocities that Arn witnessed traumatised him for life; his was forced to witness a lot of killing, sometimes three to four times a day. The guards made him push people into a grave and take off their clothes while they stuck a bayonet into them. Sometimes, he was even forced to participate in the killing. This was done in full view of many other children; if any of them reacted or cried, they would be killed alongside the other victims. Arn learned to numb himself from the blood and killing, shutting everyone off in his body just to stay alive.
Later on, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, Arn, along with many other children, was given a gun and forced to fight on the front line. Those who refused were immediately shot in the head; meanwhile, those who left the battleground against orders were shot from behind. Arn lost many of his friends during that time; he fought for three months as a child soldier, and escaped into the jungle where he somehow survived for three months, first following monkeys to see what they ate, then eventually eating the monkeys as well. When he was finally rescued by Reverend Pond, he had cerebral malaria and was close to death, but he survived to grow up and tell his tale to inspire generations to come.
Arn’s work in Cambodia and worldwide has won him universal acclaim; he was recognised with the Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award in 1996, the Kohl Foundation International Peace Prize in 1993, the Amnesty International Human Rights Awards in 1991, and the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1998, amongst others. He was the subject of a documentary, The Flute Player, in 2003, and has inspired an opera, a children’s book and a novel published by HarperCollins.