Fiery Speeches, Protest and Petitions: Cambodian Community  in Lowell Opposes Battambang-Phnom Penh Sister-City Motions

Over 150 Cambodian community members gathered at Lowell City Hall on Tuesday April 25th to express their disapproval of Mayor Sokhary Chau’s motions 11.10 to establish Sister-City with Battambang, and 11.9 to request a report with regarding the establishment of a Sister-City with Phnom Penh back in 2015. 

Mayor Sokhary Chau. Photo by Soben Ung.

Councilor Yem withdrew his name from the motion 11.9 at the beginning of the meeting stating that he didn’t want to divide the community. Mayor Chau sought for someone to second the motion, but did not receive one, so the motion failed. Mayor Chau’s motion to establish the Sister-City with Battambang did not have a second either, so both motions died on arrival. Councilor Vesna Nuon motioned for scheduled speakers to speak even though the motion has been dropped. Councilor Erik Gitschier seconded the motion.

All the speakers, Cambodian and non-Cambodians, spoke in solidarity to oppose the Lowell Sister-City Phnom Penh-Battambang. Local organizations such as Solidary of Lowell: Marissa Dupont and Dee Halzack, Yun Ju Choi of CBA, Justin Ford, Joseph Boyle, former City Councilor Rithy Uong, Bopha Poeuv, School Committee member Susie Chhuon, Tara Hong, and Eng Chai Eang, exiled member of parliament and Chair of the Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights in Cambodia. 

Lowell School Committee Susie Chhuon

School Committee member Susie Chhoun spoke fiercely, “the proposal that Lowell be a Sister-City of Phnom Penh and Battambang is not a politically neutral one. It is designed to camouflage a range of human rights abuses which takes place in Cambodia under a veneer of normality. She cites the US State Department 2022 report on Cambodia that “arbitrary killings, torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatments including arbitrary detention remain standard practices of the government.”

“Twinning the city will not contribute to tackling any issues which Cambodia faces. It will only create a false international impression of a country which is governed by the rule of law,” Chhuon said.

According to the Rule of Law index by the World Justice Project in 2022, Cambodia ranks number 139 out of 140 in the world. 

Yun Ju Choi, executive director at CBA also spoke. Choi was part of a delegation from Lowell that went to Cambodia in 2015 with councilor Rita Mercier and Rodney Elliott. “I had a lot of regret for being there and being part of that Sister-City establishment.” she said. Former mayor Elliott who led that delegation, and who could not be present, also shared, through Choi, that he regretted going there and establishing that city sisterhood, citing he did not understand Cambodian politics at the time. “We all know there is some division in the Cambodian community, and councilors are to make policies to benefit Lowell citizens, but this motion is doing the opposite,” she said.

Cambodian exiled parliament member Eng Chai Eang

MP Eng Chai Eang was stripped of his parliamentary immunity by Prime Minister Hun Sen and currently he is living in exile in Lowell. He said, “Lowell city council and the mayor were elected by the people of Lowell and you are performing your duties according to the rules, the principle of justice and democracy. However, In Cambodia, the mayors are not elected by the people. they are appointed by Hun Sen and they serve the interests of Hun Sen.”

He further said that if Lowell were to make friendship with a city in Cambodia, Lowell would degrade itself to the same level as the dictators by working with them.

Councilor Rita Mercier said, “I’ll never say that I went there for nothing because I learned a lot about the people I represent.” As part of Lowell’s delegation with some residents of Lowell, they went to the Thailand border refugee camp, Tuol Sleng prison, and Angkor Wat. They visited 13 women who were in the prison for protesting about their land evictions and helped free them after returning home to the U.S. “A country that created a lot of havoc and hardship and murder of its people”. 

“On this motion that came before us, I was very disheartened to see it. Mr. Mayor, I know you have good intentions but I would have to not support.” said Councilor Mercier.

Councilor Kim Scott said she cannot support the motion at this time. “I wish that was a possibility, I know there are many people living in this city who were born in Cambodia and would like to see that relationship exist, but unfortunately the country is fraud with corruption and human rights violations, and that is not something we can stand behind as a council.” She also said she believes the council needs to develop a policy concerning the Sister-City, the criteria that there has to be a democracy in order to partner with the City of Lowell.

Councilor Vesna Nuon pointed out that Mayor Chau also lost his father, “most of us Cambodian- Americans in this room and at home have been through the Khmer Rouges’ (period), lost loved ones.” He supported Councilor Scott’s statement to put in motion for Lowell to not enter into a  partnership with a city located in a country that does not respect human rights, the rule of law, and free and fair elections.

Councilor Erik Gitschier thanked the people for their calls and emails and said that he had learned a lot since last week. He said he received a call from a  Vietnam Veteran who represented a Coalition of Gulf war and Vietnam Veterans and shared the same thoughts  as the speakers have spoken today. The councilor further said “Sister-City is supposed to be about a celebration, between communities coming together to celebrate back-and-forth. But as this went on, we saw their opposition. I think that with a Sister-City or any previous Sister-City, we should have a rule, if there is opposition to having a Sister-City.”

A petition by  Cambodian civil society  consisting of 31 organizations around the world along with over 200 individual signatures was hastily gathered and submitted to the council to oppose this partnership because it would “legitimate this autocratic regime in Cambodia.”

“It had to mean a lot for a lot of people, it’s wet out, it’s cold. People have been here since 5 o’clock in the hallway in the City Hall. It’s our duty to support the covenant we have here and that covenant suggests democracy“ said Councilor Gitschier.

“At any time when a Sister-City is brought about or discussed, people of that heritage are proud,” said Councilor Corey Robinsons. “It’s unfortunate to see people voice their opposition to acknowledging and establishing a partnership with their homeland. That proud Cambodian Americans oppose it, that in itself speaks volumes.” He agreed to have a policy going forward for the Sister-City. “It’s not fair for the residents of the city and the residents of the United States that have ill feelings back home,” said councilor Robinson. He thanked the speakers for educating the councilors about what this truly means in their hearts, and why at this point of time they can’t go home nor extend their hands .

Councilor Wayne Jenness motioned to request the rule subcommittee to meet and develop a policy around establishing a Sister-City, seconded by Councilor Erik Gitschier.

Mayor Chau responded that “When I made this motion for the Sister-City, it was intended to be good for Lowell and Battambang, not for politics or the government.” Citing Lowell has 12 other Sister-Cities, including Liberia, Ireland, France, Cameroon, Columbia, and Russia. He said Sister-City continues to be a groundwork method for the exchange of tourism, commerce, cultural ties, and most importantly healthcare and student exchanges. He said this motion was brought to him by some local residents, but Battambang is personal to him because it’s the city where he was born. He said the Sister-City is created for the people, to help the poor, and those who are disadvantaged and underprivileged in cities and villages

 “I imagined this would be a unique opportunity to help the farmer’s children to be awarded scholarships to study at our great university, for example, the Cambodian community wants to sponsor poor students to study here who in turn will become a teacher, a nurse, or an agriculturalist, who will help her villages. We’re talking about changing one life at a time, perhaps, we all want to be changemakers, however, we are trying every method to change it”, said the Mayor.  Nevertheless, he said Battambang is known for farming, great music artists, boxing, and great foods.. The crowds remained unconvinced by yelling “NO!” at the end of his speech.

Prior to this, the local temple head monk issued a declaration outlining why starting a relationship with a repressive regime will extend and grow its influence and its ability to threaten the people in the States, who do not agree with its dictatorial methods.