Congressman Joe Kennedy III visited Cambodia Town in Lowell

Kovet Kret, Congressman Joe Kennedy III, Lowell Cambodia Town members with its president Annabelle S. Pholly and councilor Vesna Noun

By Soben Pin | Published in print on July 27, 2020

Congressman Joe Kennedy III visited Cambodia Town in Lowell on Saturday July 25th to prepare for his primary election for the U.S Senate seat. Joe Kennedy III has served the 4th congressional district since 2013. Prior to serving as a congressman, Joe Kennedy III studied at Stanford University and earned his Juris Doctor at Harvard Law School in 2009. In September 2019, he announced his challenge against incumbent Ed Markey who has been serving since winning a special election in 2013.

The Kennedy name has been familiar to Cambodians for a long time. In 1959, first lady Jackie Kennedy visit Cambodia during the Vietnam War. She helped smooth the negotiations between King Sihanouk and United States government.

Joe Kennedy III is the grandnephew of President John F. Kennedy, a grandson of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Both men were iconic American politicians during the 1960s and their lives were ended by assassinations that many Americans still feel a deep sense of loss today.

Arriving at Cambodia Town Lowell in front of the Bayon Monument, he was greeted by supporters holding his sign. Kennedy III launched right onto the grass field, elbow bumping his supporters. He walked into the first Cambodian business, Mony Var Insurance, led by city councilor Vesna Noun, Kennedy appreciated the Angkor Wat picture and said that he and his wife were in Siem Reap, Cambodia for a vacation after they were married seven years ago.

Under the hot 90 degrees sun, guided by councilor Vesna Noun, he visited Cambodian businesses in the Pailin Plaza. They walked to Jimmy Auto Garage and Le Petit Cafe on Carlton Street, P & P Jewelry Store and Check Cashing on Middlesex Street, Pailin Market on Branch Street, asking business owners if they applied for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP Grant). Some business owners said they did apply for the PPP Grant, and others said they did not or did not know about it, but those who did apply said they did not receive money. Across the street from Pailin Market, he was given a tour of the Bayon Statue. Lowell resident Kovet Kret explained the meaning of the four faces of the Bayon Statue. It symbolized “simplicity, compassion, equanimity and wisdom”.

“It’s a very vibrant community. People live and do business here for a long time. The resiliency of the people is extraordinary considering they came from a very hard place. It’s another testament to the United States of how great our country is” said Joe Kennedy III.

He then visited the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association where he met with Executive Director Sovanna Pouv and staff members. His tour ended in Downtown Lowell where he met with Lowell Mayor John Leahy, councilor Sokhary Chau and some business owners on Merrimack street.

I had a chance to speak briefly with Congressman Kennedy III between our walk from business to business. While the topic of the day mostly focused on how Cambodian businesses are impacted by Covid-19, I asked him whether he knew that the 2018 election in Cambodia was not a free and fair election, in which the opposition party leader Kem Sokha was under house arrest, and was charged with treason for collaborating with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen’s government. After a series of brutal crackdown on the opposition party and shutting down NGOs, the ruling party, Cambodian People’s Party won in a landslide the 2018 National Assembly election despite warnings by the international community that the election was not free and fair.

When asked what is his position on the issue, Congressman Kennedy III said “it’s a serious accusation, but if there such accusations we will look into it. Any country in the world that holds an election that is irregular, it is a threat to our democracy”.

Record shows that on January 3, 2020 — Senator Ed Market, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, along with Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), introduced S. 3081, the Cambodia Democracy Act, in response to the deteriorating human rights and democracy situation in Cambodia.

Human Rights Watch found “The ruling Cambodian People’s Party maintains power through violence, politically motivated prosecutions, repressive laws, and corruption. Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985, oversees one-party rule in the National Assembly since government-controlled courts dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, detained opposition leader Kem Sokha, and banned more than 100 opposition members from politics in the lead up to sham elections in July 2018. The government has also intensified its crackdown on independent media, local human rights defenders, and land rights activists. Rights to free expression and peaceful assembly are sharply curtailed, and there is no accountability for serious abuses.”

“Those who have perpetrated grave human rights abuses or undermined democracy in Cambodia should lose access to the U.S. financial system. The Hun Sen government must know that the world is watching as it cracks down on civil society, opposition leaders, and journalists, including former employees of Radio Free Asia. The Cambodian people have a right to democracy, rule of law, and the opportunity to deliver on the promise of the Paris Peace Agreements of a generation ago,” said Senator Markey on a press release.

The Gardner-Markey Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018, enacted into law in December 2018, imposed conditions upon U.S. assistance to the Government of Cambodia related to democracy and regional security.

S. 3081, The Cambodia Democracy Act, is companion legislation to H.R. 526, passed in the House of Representatives on July 15, 2019.

The Cambodia Democracy Act includes the following:
Asset blocking sanctions to senior officials of the Government, military, or security forces of Cambodia that the President determines have undermined democracy in Cambodia or committed related human rights violations.
Codifies the State Department’s existing visa restrictions for these individuals.
Requires the President to transmit to Congress a list of the sanctioned individuals, and the President may waive sanctions upon a certification that such waiver is in the national interest of the United States.
Sanctions may be suspended for up to one year, and renewed for one-year periods, upon the President’s certification to Congress that Cambodia is making meaningful progress towards ending government efforts to undermine democracy, ending related human rights violations, and conducting free and fair elections.
KhmerPost USA reached out to Congressman Joe Kennedy III office for further comment, but were unable to receive a response in time of printing.

The majority of Cambodian Americans in the United States would like to see democracy return to Cambodia as promised by the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991. Many Cambodians have been working hard and succeeded in passing resolutions H.R. 526 in Congress and S. 3081 in the Senate. The Cambodian community hopes if elected, Joe Kennedy III would continue to support democracy for Cambodia.

The primary election will be held on September 1, 2020.