Starving and near death, 16-year-old Rithy Uong walked slowly with his family on a forced march, with Khmer Rouge soldiers watching over them. They came to a river and his mother stopped. She wanted to push him in to end his suffering. She didn’t have the will to do it, and they marched on.
That was 26 years ago.
Today Uong is a city councilor in Lowell, in the US state of Massachusetts—by his own reckoning the first Cambodian-American elected to public office in the US.
He survived the killing fields and today can talk about the brother and brother-in-law who were killed, about another brother who was forced to work in the fields until he was gored by a water buffalo, about the three years he spent not knowing if his family was alive.
That he is now a success has made him an inspiration for Cambodians on both sides of the ocean. His political victory is a benchmark for his community’s progress in Lowell, home to 30,000 Cambodians, the second largest such population in the US.
“I never think of myself as someone big. I think of myself as a small politician. I work for the people,” he said.
Uong left Phnom Penh last week with a delegation of Lowell officials after touring his former home to establish cultural and educational exchange programs. On the delegation’s last day here, the group signed an agreement to make Lowell the sister city of both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as the province of Pursat.
For Oung, his life in the US was shaped by his life here. “The election was nothing,” he said. “I died two or three times already.”
He was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. His family fled, first to Sa’ang district in Kandal province. There he found only starvation. His health worsened. His stomach bulged. He was 16 years old, but he was so skinny he could barely stand on his own.
“There was no hope for me to live. I was dying,” Uong said.
The family was ordered to move again and Uong’s mother wanted to put him out of his misery. Instead he was sent to the provincial hospital in Kompong Thom province. An older brother soon joined Uong after a water buffalo gored him. They stayed for three months and when they were released from the hospital, they were alone. Their family had moved again, this time to Preah Vihear.
It was three years before they were reunited, by accident, when Uong’s sister became sick and was sent to the same hospital. She found her brothers living in the nearby town.
Uong learned that his older brother, a second year medical student, had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. A brother-in-law who worked as a secretary for the Cambodian embassy in Ho Chi Minh City was also killed.
Most of Uong’s family fled to the border camps, then to the US in 1981, where Uong enrolled at Boston University and earned a degree in electrical engineering. He was not fluent in English, but numbers were something he could understand.
He taught math at Lowell High School, then earned a master’s degree in 1989 and began counseling high school students.
Uong became president of the Cambodian community association in Lowell. Political aspirations followed. He gathered other leaders of the Cambodian community to discuss strategy in 1998. Cambodians are a minority population in Lowell, and community members wanted to break into the all-white city council, a nine-member panel that oversees all city laws, spending and hiring.
In 1999, the Cambodians made their bid for office. The community’s leaders picked Uong to run for the council seat because of his positive nature. “They said ‘You have the ability to take a beating. If you lose, you still smile,’” Uong said.
A voter registration drive produced 1,000 new voters in the Cambodian community. Cambodian youth volunteered to campaign for Uong in their neighborhoods. He promised safer streets, support for the elderly and affordable housing, issues of importance to his fellow Cambodians.
On voting day in early November 1999, he placed sixth out of 18 candidates with 6,700 votes, enough to put him on the council for a two-year term.
The election was a milestone for the Cambodian community, Uong said. Cambodian issues are now discussed by the city council more often. He helped arranged the city’s first official visit to Cambodia this month. There are plans to build a museum of Cambodian culture with replicas of Angkorian carvings and sculpture in Lowell.
Uong said his success comes from his belief in turning negative experiences around, in making friends out of enemies and constantly readapting himself to his changing environment.
He even shortened his name to Rithy because his real name, Chanrithy, wouldn’t fit on an automobile bumper sticker.
When people throw racial insults at him, making fun of his dark skin or Southeast Asian heritage, he turns the statement around and makes it funny. That way he makes a friend out of an enemy, he said.
“People in society want you to fight back, but if you hate someone you can’t get close to their point of view. If you keep fighting it’s not going to work. You have to put the community’s interest ahead of the personal interest.”
As he pursues a better life for his community in the US, Uong said he hopes people here can do the same through democracy.
“I’m so proud of the people here in Cambodia,” he said. “They are not afraid to come forward and to elect their officials, and that’s the first step toward building democracy.
“I hope those people will be able to vote freely and speak freely without anyone threatening their life. Only then can we move forward.”