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Tan: From clinches of communism to freedom

By Greg Gelpi

Voting is not merely a nonchalant checking of a box on a screen for Teng Tan.

When the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia in support of a communist regime opposed to the reigning communist leader Pol Pot in 1979, Tan learned that his name was on a list of leaders to be killed.

Grabbing his wife and five children, he fled, walking for two days and one night to the country's border with Thailand on a trail strewn with bombs and other dangers. Once there, he boarded a bus and went to a United Nations refugee camp.

Writing letters to President Ronald Reagan from camp, he made it to the United States in 1983, and has worked as a custodian at Kemp Elementary School since then.

No food, no medicine in Cambodia, he said. His house consisted of a small hut with no door.

"We're not afraid of being killed," Tan said of living in America. "We can work at anything we can do. We can buy anything we want to if we have money."

Tuesday's election will be the first time he will vote in a democratic election. Watching voters stream in and out of Kemp, which serves as a polling location, he never knew how to register to vote until now.

"I want to vote because I'm a citizen," Tan said, adding that it's important to vote because a vote is a voice.

Tan recalled local Cambodian leaders being rounded up, packed into the beds of trucks and taken away where they were killed in mass.

"They had a plan to kill me a month later," Tan said. "I was waiting for them to kill me."

Hugh Arnold, a Clayton College & State University political science professor, called the atrocities of the communist regime "some of the worst brutal oppression" the world had seen since World War II.

"He's absolutely lucky to have escaped and to have survived with his life," Arnold said.

Up to two million people, a quarter of the country's population, died from the purges, executions and starvation, he said.

The latest survey by the Freedom House rates Cambodia a six for its political rights, where a one is most free and a seven is least free. Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that works to spread political and economic freedom, also rates the country's civil liberties as a five on the same scale.

According to the Georgia Secretary of State's Office, there have been almost 491,000 voters added to the rolls in the past 12 months. That brings the number of registered voters to 4,248,802, and about 72 percent of them are expected to vote Tuesday.

If you know an interesting person who should be profiled, send us the name and some information and we will consider featuring that person in a coming Friday. E-mail to bpaslay@news-daily.com .