Life Full of Contradictions for Overseas Cambodians Returning Home

When Chhang Song came back from the US in 1989, he was surprised that to his eyes not much had changed in his home village in Takeo province. The home where he had grown up had been destroyed during a battle sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, but had been rebuilt to look the same as before. His long-ago friends and neighbors were there, although many family members had died.

The Buddhist pagoda still stood. His village was poorer, but it felt good to again speak the colloquial, countryside Khmer he had missed during his years in Washington.
“Cambodia had not changed into Vietnam as some people had claimed,” he said. “I was very much at home.”

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in October 1991, Chhang Song like other overseas Cambodians made plans for a permanent return. Many returnees, full of hope and idealism, came to work for the Untac administration, to start a business or to work for a political party ahead of the 1993 elections.

Most had stumbled across the Thai border into refugee camps in the 1970s and 1980s, full of hunger and nightmares, but with the hope of gaining a visa to go abroad. With the new peace, they expected to return to find the idyllic Phnom Penh they remembered from the 1950s and 1960s.

Once they arrived, they found the city’s empty streets, malnourished people and broken buildings. They were welcomed by locals, but initially were considered to be more foreign than Cambodian.

“People were cold,” said Lao Mong Hay, former executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy who lived in Great Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. “They called us ‘minority Cambodian.'”

But Chhang Song was warmly welcomed as one of the few returnees to join the ruling CPP, where he continued to act as a bridge between the former communists and the democratic West.

In the 1980s, he had testified before the US Congress against providing aid to the factions fighting the Vietnamese-backed government at the Thai border. He also helped arrange a long interview in the US between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the influential National Public Radio.

These were political acts that set Chhang Song far apart from the rest of the Cambodian-American community, which saw many in Hun Sen’s regime merely as Vietnamese puppets. Many saw his advocacy as a betrayal to his home country.

But to Chhang Song, the CPP seemed to offer the best hope for Cambodia. “They had a good group of people. I saw that Cambodia had a chance to have a government of its own,” he said. “Hun Sen has problems, but he’s the best in comparison with others.”

What Chhang Song and Savath Poeu, a Cambodian-Australian who joined the CPP in 1991, could offer was their first-hand experience in a democratic society. Along with other returnees from the West, they gave the party “a measure of credibility,” Lao Mong Hay said.

In Sydney during the 1980s, Savath Poeu had been active in the Cambodian community. He had organized visits by factional leaders such as then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Son Sann.

“My friends were so amazed when I joined the CPP. But I had problems with Vietnam, not the CPP,” he said. “And it looked to me that Funcinpec was not well-organized.”

Top CPP officials gave him the task of convincing overseas intellectuals to join, or at least sympathize, with the CPP. As president of the party’s overseas branches for the next 10 years, Savath Poeu traveled to the US, France, Belgium and elsewhere.

The 1990s had brought a victory of democracy and liberalism to the world and to Cambodia. This drew a mixed reaction from communist-trained officials here who embraced the new free market economy becoming rich from the sales of state-owned property while worrying about holding on to power.

That was taken care of after the 1993 national elections. Although Funcinpec won the election, the CPP forced its way into a power-sharing agreement that lasted until July 1997, when it wrestled power away from the royalists completely.

Those four years were exciting for returnees who came to help rebuild Cambodia, according to Thida Khus, an NGO worker who brought almost 100 of her fellow Cambodian-Americans to work here during that time period. Her volunteers taught English, computers, accounting and business management.

“People at home [in the US] can’t understand why we came back, because of their memory of the Khmer Rouge,” she said. “But working here is rewarding. I can contribute more here. It is more special.”

Cultural conflict between overseas Cambodians and those who lived here in the 1970s and 1980s was inevitable. There were the different ways of speaking and behaving overseas Cambodians tended to be more outspoken, said Thida Khus.

And there was the off-putting tendency by returnees to let others know they were from overseas and to flash their money.

“They drove around in chauffeured cars and carried bottled water into restaurants,” said Bell Herod, a US citizen who has lived in Phnom Penh since the early 1990s. “The restaurant staff would just roll their eyes. I think Cambodians still feel a strong sense of annoyance [toward returnees].”

For example, when Apsara Authority President Vann Molyvann was fired from his position last year, some officials cited his status as a foreigner.

He was not easy to work with, said Angkor Conservation officer Keo Saravuth. His way of dealing with others was more foreign than Cambodian, he said.

“[New President] Bun Narith is CPP. He has lived in Cambodia a long time. So I think he will be better,” Keo Saravuth said at the time.

For returnees, proper behavior and respect can go a long way, said Chanvarith Puth, a Cambodian-American who is Funcinpec’s governor of Kampot province. “It is not really easy to come back,” he said. “But if you don’t act like you know everything, then you can get along.”

In the government in the mid-1990s, the CPP began to criticize the role of Cambodian officials with dual nationalities. While one faction of the party was encouraging the recruitment of members from abroad, others in the CPP were looking ahead to the 1998 national elections.

In 1996, CPP officials floated the idea of preventing people with more than one passport from standing for electionÑa measure that while aimed at hurting Funcinpec’s election chances also reflected a sentiment among many CPP officials who had worked in the government since 1979.

“This has always been a delicate situation. Many people here were worried that returnees would come and take their place,” said Licadho founder Kek Galabru, who herself spent some years in France.

“People had survived for years and fought for positions during the difficult periods, while overseas Cambodians were living free of fear,” she said. “Most Cambodians still think the high-level positions should go to them because of the suffering they went through.”

When factional fighting between Funcinpec and the CPP began in 1997, many frightened and disappointed returnees left Cambodia for good, while top officials from Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party went into exile for a short while before returning ahead of the 1998 elections.

This reinforced resentment of dual nationals, who Cambodians say will simply leave the country whenever there is trouble.

Currently, some Funcinpec members are pushing to oust co-Minister of Interior You Hockry, who is a US citizen. They have criticized him, among other things, for living abroad in the 1980s while many Funcinpec members were fighting the Vietnamese-installed government.

In the CPP, distrust of returnees remains and has increased ahead of next year’s national elections, several observers said.

In December, the CPP abruptly booted Chhang Song, Savath Poeu and Cambodian-American Phay Siphan from the party and the Senate. In January, Funcinpec Senator Keo San, a French citizen, was also expelled. Phay Siphan left the country immediately after the dismissal.

No reason was given for the firings. “As far as I’m concerned, I never did anything wrong,” Savath Poeu said.

But in the CPP, it is only the overseas members that bring up issues like corruption, illegal logging and separation of powers, he said.

CPP hard-liners don’t see the value of having a public discourse, so anyone who strays from the party line between now and the 2003 national elections can expect the same fate, Savath Poeu claimed.

“They are worried about a split in the party,” he said.

It also may be true that having dual nationals within the CPP is no longer important for the party’s image, Savath Poeu said.

Lao Mong Hay agrees. After the 1998 election, he said, “those senators became a spent force.”

Chhang Song said he plans to stay in Cambodia and continue to push for democratic reform. With his university degree in agriculture, he may seek ways to help Cambodia’s farmers, he said. “There is life after power,” he said.

Outside of politics, integrating overseas Cambodians into society will continue to be a serious challenge facing national reconciliation, Kek Galabru said.

More overseas Cambodians want to return, she said. But their first priority is to support their family and send their children to school.

Today, there are 300 Cambodian doctors in France, Kek Galabru said. Their expertise would go a long way in helping Cambodia’s public health system. But as long as civil service salaries are so low, it is impossible for them to come here. For now, the most that many overseas Cambodians can do is send an occasional donation to family members or NGOs.

In the future, Cambodia will see overseas Cambodians coming home to retire, Thida Khus said. But only if the security situation remains stable.

For most Cambodians living abroad, Cambodia is their “home at heart,” said Kassie Neou, a Cambodian-American from the Washington DC-area who has done human rights work here and serves on the National Election Committee.

“I think we are seen as Cambodians now. There has been a process of assimilation… We cannot deny one or the other,” he said. “But from time to time, I feel like a stranger.”

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