Campus & Community

From the killing fields to the groves of academe

7 min read

HBS graduate Sonny Chheng’s unthinkable past, and hopeful future

Chheng’s parents hid their identities successfully for two years before the soldiers came. Chheng says he’ll never know if his father was taken because the Khmer Rouge learned that he’d worked for the government, or if he was randomly selected during a periodic purge. (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

When Sonny Chheng receives his diploma from Harvard Business School (HBS) this June, it will be a moment he will treasure for the rest of his life.

His earliest memory is not so happy. It’s the day the soldiers came to take his father away.

“He was with me [in the family’s hut],” he says. “My mother was still in the rice fields doing her shift. It was over two years after we’d been taken to [Cambodia’s] Killing Fields…. When [the Khmer Rouge] came in to take my father, he actually had the opportunity to write a very brief farewell letter. He gave the letter to me… and he said ‘Hide this from everybody but your mother.’”

When Chheng’s mother returned, she found him standing in the corner, clutching the letter, frozen with fear.

Since that day in December 1977, Chheng’s journey has led him from the jungles of Cambodia and refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia, to Boston Latin School, Harvard College, and finally, Harvard Business School.

Chheng was born in February 1975, only two months before the Khmer Rouge came to power. He says that it was the goal of the new regime to create “a nation of peasants,” by purging Cambodian society of all intellectuals, capitalists, and supporters of the deposed government. Virtually everyone else was herded into the Killing Fields: farming collectives where men, women, and children endured forced labor and squalid living conditions. Chheng’s father, Seng Hong Chheng, was a police inspector. His mother, Haynam Taing, was a teacher from an intellectual family. Both were on the Khmer Rouge’s execution list.

Faced with the choice between death and slavery, Chheng’s parents chose to conceal their identities and pose as farmers. The family was evacuated to a camp where they worked in the rice fields from early morning until late at night, usually with little to eat. The conditions led to a miscarriage for Chheng’s mother. Others suffered more.

“Many people died from starvation,” Chheng says. “Many people had to try to find anything they could – bugs, insects in the field – to feed themselves because they didn’t give us much to eat and they worked all day very hard.”

Chheng’s parents hid their identities successfully for two years before the soldiers came. He says he’ll never be sure whether his father was taken because the Khmer Rouge discovered that he used to work for the government, or because he was simply selected at random during one of the regime’s periodic purges.

“[The Khmer Rouge] haphazardly selected people to purge and forced confessions out of them that they were working for the CIA or that they had a history of being an intellectual or of being a capitalist,” Chheng says. “They used many torture methods … before they finally killed them. They killed an estimated 1 million to 2 million people.”

The Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in 1979, a year after Chheng’s father was murdered. Abandoned by the retreating Khmer Rouge, the labor camps emptied. Chheng and his mother returned to Phnom Penh. When they reached the Cambodian capital, though, they discovered that his mother’s parents and seven brothers and sisters were all dead from starvation. With no family or friends left, she decided they would leave Cambodia. Following other refugees, they moved through the jungle, eluding the Khmer Rouge, thieves, and land mines.

“A lot of people stepped on mines or were killed in other ways,” he says. “I saw a lot of dead bodies, a lot of bloated bodies, covered with flies. I remember the smell in the air. It was absolutely nauseating. After a few days we did make it to Thailand and the refugee camps. I was only about 5 years old.”

Once at the refugee camp, Chheng’s mother volunteered at a hospital, in order to learn English, and applied for immigration to the United States. There, she met a German doctor who, along with a U.S.-based friend of the family and the International Institute of Boston, helped secure approval of the application. That summer Chheng and his mother settled in Allston, about four blocks from Harvard Business School.

Once in America, Haynam Taing used her teaching experience and the English she had learned as a volunteer to get a job as a bilingual kindergarten teacher at the Hamilton Elementary School in Brighton. Sonny Chheng says that the transition to a new country, new culture, and new life was jarring. Even the most mundane experiences could be disorienting.

“Coming here, initially, it was very confusing,” he says. “When I was in a bus, I felt the trees were moving, not me, because I was so unused to the experience.”

Chheng focused on his education. In sixth grade, he took the exam for entry into Boston Latin School and was admitted. A few years later, he came to Harvard College, where he majored in economics and dreamed of attending Harvard Business School. As an undergraduate, he took courses that used the case-study method and also sat in on some HBS classes. He says he’s enjoyed the M.B.A. program, but won’t miss the experience of his first “cold call” (the beginning of a class, at which time a professor calls on one of the students to summarize the assigned case, diagnose the company’s problems, and offer solutions).

“I remember how nervous I was,” he says. “College is mostly lecture. At HBS … the students talk more than their professors. Somehow I got through it.”

After college, Chheng went to work for the Wellesley-based consulting firm Accenture, in its change management group. He says that he plans to return to consulting after graduation this June and that his chosen career reflects his interests in both teaching and economics.

“My role frequently requires patiently teaching clients as well as deeply understanding their business issues,” he explains. “It looks at how change impacts the people of a company and how to help them create or get through changes. I liked it so much that when I graduate from HBS, I’m going to go back and do similar work for Deloitte Consulting in Boston.”

In 1999, Chheng visited Cambodia for the first time since his escape. He was anxious at first and says that “I didn’t know what kind of memories I would have.” To his surprise and delight, though, he discovered that many relatives on his father’s side of the family actually survived the Khmer Rouge, including his grandparents. He plans to visit them again soon. He says that Cambodia still has tremendous poverty, but he’s hopeful that things are getting better.

“The good news is that it looks better than what I remember, but there are still a lot of people who are not able to feed themselves or have homes,” he says. “A lot of elderly and children begging in the streets. But you can see it improving from the terrible experience it had years ago. I hope that it will one day become a place where people can lead better lives.”