Khmer Lowell Protest

By Pin Samkhon

On 29 March, over 300 people filled nearly every available space of the council chamber to urge the City to denounce Hun Manet’s visit and reject a gift of a statue of a Khmer king. This is the first time in Lowell history that the City Councils unanimously voted in favor of the Cambodian-Americans to “denounce” Lieutenant General Hun Manet’s impending visit. Hun Manet is a Lieutenant General in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the first son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Lowell Mayor Edward J Kennedy abstained from the otherwise unanimous 8-0 vote to decline to meet with Manet and reject a gift of a statue of Jayavarman VII, a 12th-Century Khmer king who is among the most revered figures in Cambodian culture that was due to be given to the city.

Lowell City Councilor meeting

A dozen of Hun Manet’s supporters led by the families of Sovann Ou, the Cambodian Honorary Consulate General, and Tolayuth Ok. The rest of protesters were against Hun Manet’s visit and the gift of the statue.  At least 20 residents spoke and many others held signs denouncing the prime minister, Hun Sen, for what they called his corrupt politics, civil-rights abuses, dictatorship and an infringement from the Cambodian government on their new lives in Lowell.

This is the first time the City Councils had the opportunity to be informed of their constituents’ concerns loud and clear. Tolayuth Ok spoke highly in favor of Hun Manet’s visit and the gift of the statue. Kamara Kay, a Cambodian-American who is a registered Republican candidate for the State Rep, Adam Pril, who represents businesses, Champa Pang of Cambodia Town, Rithy Uong and Vesna Nuon, who were the former Cambodian-American city councils, were among the majority of people who spoke against the visit and the gift.

Every now and then loud applauds were heard when each speaker was addressing key points in their arguments to oppose Hun Manet’s visit. The few people who spoke in favor of such visit and gift were greeted with lots of boos from the audience during their speech. On a few occasions the Mayor had to call to order and warned people to stay quiet when another person was having the floor.

Protesters standing in the city hall hallway

Mayor Ed Kennedy showed his neutral stance when he abstained from the vote that evening. However, the rest of City Councils including Rodney Elliott, who signed a sister city agreement with the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, and Rita Mercier, both of whom are the most popular public figures in Cambodian-American community, spoke at length about how much they’ve learned about Cambodian culture and politics, and the hardship so many Lowell Cambodians escaped.

Two weeks ago, the City Councils of Long Beach, California, which has the highest population of Cambodians, also denounced Hun Manet’s participation in the Khmer New Year parade. The Cambodian-Americans in Long Beach have staged several large protests against the Government of Cambodia.

Protesters rallying together during the meeting

The event on March 29 in Lowell marks a very meaningful moment when democracy was genuinely enjoyed by Cambodian-Americans. It has sent a very strong message about real democracy to other Cambodian communities in other countries across the world. The event was well covered by the WCAP radio, the Lowell Sun, NRP, ABC, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the Cambodia Daily newspaper.

Cambodian-American community has shown an unprecedented sign of solidarity and democratic participation. They have shown their strong people power and how they can better exercise their rights and how their vote counts. It is just the beginning of some more good things. The City has shown its strong and determined decision to support the majority. The outcome of the March 29 event gives a lot of hope not just to people in Lowell but also to activists for change in Cambodia.

What is the actual impact of this movement?

What the community leaders have to address in the future is find ways to deal with people who please the Phnom Penh government by using Lowell as their stepping stone. Other prolonging issues concerning the misuse of the nonprofit organizations or associations for personal interests by a handful of people who have created confusion and division in Cambodian-American community need to be addressed as soon as possible as well.

Khmer version: click the image for full-screen

After that protest, Cambodian-American community members and leaders and the leadership of the City are obligated to find out about how to better understand the real motive behind the big rally. Their might have been some oversight regarding how powerful Cambodian-American community is.

It was not a sign of vengeance when two groups of people, either against or for, staged the protest at the same time. Nonetheless it showed how the community was manipulated by a handful of mischievous and selfish people. Those who defend the Cambodian People’s Party (the CPP) need to be aware that by protecting bad practice by corrupt people in the Government of Cambodia you are instilling “the worst immoral behavior” for your younger generations. You are not leading by example.

The City of Lowell has made a very brave and historic decision to protect the interests of Cambodian-American community. Such decision is very much applauded by the community.