Three weeks after becoming the first Cambodian-American legislator in the U.S., Rady Mom joined hundreds of protesters in Phnom Penh on Sunday to demand the release of 17 imprisoned activists, opposition figures and monks from Prey Sar prison.
Mr. Mom, 45, who was elected as a Massachusetts state representative in the November 4 U.S. midterm elections, arrived in Cambodia last week for a two-week visit to the country.
“I feel pity for my brothers and sisters,” a visibly upset Mr. Mom told some 200 protesters outside the maximum-security prison before passing the microphone to his spokesman, Khem Chantha.
“We call, through newspapers and the media, for the government to release our brothers and sisters,” Mr. Chantha told the crowd. “Their crimes are not really serious—blocking traffic is not a penal offense.”
Seven activists from the embattled Boeng Kak community were sentenced to one year in prison on November 11 after being convicted under the traffic law of obstructing traffic after they placed a bed frame in the middle of Monivong Boulevard. The stunt was intended to bring attention to flooding in their neighborhood.
The protesters and Mr. Mom hoped to meet with the 17 prisoners—a group that includes 11 activists, three CNRP figures and three monks—but were not allowed to enter the detention facility.
Anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha, also from the Boeng Kak community, said that while disappointed at not being allowed inside, the protesters were heartened by Mr. Mom’s presence Sunday.
“His support encourages and inspires us to fight for justice, and shows we are not alone,” Ms. Bopha said. “We were happy to see him participate with us to demand the release of the 17 who have been unjustly imprisoned.”
Prior to joining Sunday’s demonstration, Mr. Mom met with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday and opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Saturday. He plans to meet with a number of other CPP and CNRP officials throughout the next week and a half.
While visiting a school inside Phnom Penh’s Svay Pope pagoda Sunday afternoon, Mr. Mom said that despite taking part in the morning’s demonstration, the purpose of his trip was not political.
“The first [reason] was to have a little bit of vacation time,” he said. “I also really wanted to have a connection—see the country where I was born—from a different point of view.”
Mr. Mom said his meeting with Mr. Hun Sen last week was a way for him to view Cambodia through the eyes of the man who has ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
“[The meeting] was to meet a man, a prime minister, who runs this great nation…to get a little bit of insight on how he sees the country,” he said.
When asked if his view of the prime minister had changed after speaking with protesters and opposition lawmakers—who accuse Mr. Hun Sen’s government of orchestrating some of the arrests—Mr. Mom said he did not know enough about the political situation to comment.
“I don’t’ know the whole story of all that,” Mr. Mom said. “I’m more concerned [about] where I came from.”
Mr. Mom was elected this month as the state representative for the 18th Middlesex district in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell has the U.S.’s second largest Cambodian-American population, numbering about 30,000.
Mr. Mom arrived in the U.S. with his family in 1982 after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime and spending several years in a Thai refugee camp.
On Sunday, Mr. Mom said he hopes his story will inspire not only his constituents, but young Cambodians as well.
“I went to the States in 1982 without a word of English,” he said. “I want to inspire men and women…whether that’s in the States or here, to inspire them to step up, take pride in what they want to see changed. Don’t just scream out, but step up and do something about it.”
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)