Seven members of the 42-person Royal University of Fine Arts dance troupe did not return from the US with the rest of the group Wednesday.
Proeung Chhieng, the troupe’s artistic director, said organizers did not realize until they were loading the vans for the trip to the airport in Washington that some would be staying behind.
“We did not want this to happen, but we could not foresee it,” said Proeung Chhieng, who is a vice rector and dean of choreographic arts at the university.
This incident comes about two months after 21 athletes and performers stayed in Canada at the close of the Francophone Games in July, prompting officials to question whether they have been too lax in granting permission.
“We regret that we have trained them for years, and in the end they have left,” said Ouk Lay, director of international cultural cooperation for the Ministry of Culture.
“We will take some measure. But we cannot be too strict with them, or we are accused of violating their rights. The problem is not political. It involves only their livelihoods.”
The status of the Canadian cases is still unclear, as Canadian officials will not comment until asylum applications have been processed. However, all 112 Cambodians who traveled to Malaysia for the Southeast Asian Games last month returned without incident.
The legal status of the absent seven was unclear Wednesday. US embassy officials in Phnom Penh said the troupe left Cambodia with visas valid through Oct 10. The officials said it is possible, though unlikely, that immigration officials in the US have extended those visas.
Six of the seven sent a strong signal that they wished to make the visit permanent, writing organizers a letter that called the US a “land of opportunity” and saying they planned to pursue studies or get jobs to send money home to Cambodia.
The six are dancers Kum Pheak Neary, Peou You Sady, and Cham Roeun Sophea; musicians Nol Som Bon and Khuon Chhoy; and stage manager Has Seila.
The seventh, Pich Chhavy Thyda, is the daughter of Pich Tom Kravil, a Funcinpec undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Culture. She has asked for permission to extend her stay in the US.
Alexander Arvizu, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, said that when people promise they will return—and then don’t—“it certainly points up the fact that [visa applications] have to be scrutinized carefully.”
The confusion over the missing members did not dampen the enthusiam of the friends and family who waited at Pochentong Airport for the troupe’s return.
Yonda Movann, 19, held a garland of jasmine flowers as he scanned the crowd for his mother, Him Nala, a vice dean at the university.
“We talked to her very often during the tour,” he said. “She said she met a lot of relatives while she was there.” Other family members chimed in on the list of US states: “In California.” “New York.” “Washington, DC.” “Texas.” “Massachusetts.”
The troupe emerged from the terminal into a mob of babies and grannies, cousins and nephews and spouses and children. Him Nala, clutching her garland, paused in a bit of shade to say the 12-city tour was a wonderful experience.
“As performers, we are very happy,” she said. “I have traveled many places, but never received a warmer welcome than we got from the American people.”
She said the attack on the World Trade Center Towers occurred just before they opened in Long Beach in the US state of California, home to the world’s largest expatriate population of Cambodians.
She said the troupe decided to perform that night anyway, rather than disappoint their audiences. It was a most moving experience, she said.
“We kept going, because we did not want to miss the chance to disseminate our culture.”
(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon)