CAMBODIAN RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES: AID, DEBT, INFLUENCE AND CAMBODIAN- AMERICANS

CAMBODIAN RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES

Jackie Kennedy made headlines when she visited Cambodia in the early 1960s. Some think that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal for recomending the bombing of Cambodia in the 1970s.

Cambodia gets about $70 million a year in aid from the U.S. The United States provided Cambodia with around $200 million in aid between 2002 and 2008. Much of the money went to health and education programs. Of the $34 million granted in 2008, $32.2 went wairds fighting HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis, bird flu and improving health for women and children. The United States halted military assistance to Cambodia after the 1997 coup in which Hun Sen grabbed full power.

Murray Hunter wrote in the Malaysian Insider: “The U.S. pivot into Asia is unlikely to include Cambodia. It appears naval ship visits, joint military exercises, counter terrorism training, and cooperation on human trafficking have done little to warm up US-Cambodian relations. Cambodia receives aid from China, South Korea and even Vietnam with little in the way of conditions over the use of the funds or rhetoric about human rights. Murray Hunter, November 26, 2012, Malaysian Insider]

Since normalizing economic relations in 1992, U.S. investment in Cambodia has grown steadily to more than $144 million in 2011. The government Council for the Development of Cambodia says that is triple the figure for 2010. Cambodian exports to the United States top one billion dollars annually, mostly garments and footwear. In July 2012 Hillary Clinton lead the largest-ever delegation of U.S. business to Cambodia as part of an investment forum targeting members of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Participating firms include Boeing, Chevron, Coca-Cola, FedEx, Ford, General Electric, and Proctor and Gamble. [Source: Scott Stearns, Voice of America News, July 13, 2012]

See Trade, History

Cambodia’s U.S. Debt

Scott Stearns of the Voice of America News wrote: “Cambodia wants the United States to forgive more than $400 million in debt accrued by the US-backed military government of Lon Nol. He took power in a 1970 coup and borrowed money from Washington at three percent interest, in part, to feed supporters in Phnom Penh as they were surrounded and ultimately defeated by the Khmer Rouge. Prime Minister Hun Sen says that is "dirty debt" that Cambodia should not have to repay. [Source: Scott Stearns, Voice of America News, July 13, 2012 =]

In July 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about the debt following talks with the prime minister and said that under international law, governments are responsible for the obligations of their predecessors "even though that may seem unfair in many instances." Even so, she said she is personally committed to working with Cambodia to make progress in resolving the debt. "What we want to do is work with the Cambodian government to try to resolve these longstanding issues in a way that is fair, to help the Cambodian government enhance its credit worthiness, increase its access to international capital markets. We think it will be in Cambodia’s interest to be able to enter into international financial markets," said Clinton. "Not be dependent on any one source of funding, but be able to bargain and work toward real credit worthiness." =

One idea is to gradually convert loan repayments to domestic investments in education and the environment as a form of additional U.S. development assistance. That has been held up, in part, by the need to establish means of accountability to ensure that the money goes to help the Cambodian people. Clinton told reporters in Phnom Penh that U.S. assistance to Cambodia has more than doubled over the last decade, to more than $75 million. There is money to help fight HIV/AIDS, to meet the needs of nearly one-quarter of Cambodians who are food deprived, and to reduce maternal and child mortality.

"Sometimes it is a little frustrating, I will admit, for the United States, because we channel our aid, in so far as possible, to the people themselves. We want more people fed," Clinton admitted. "We want more people healthier. We want more men, women, and especially children to have a better life. So we cannot point to a big building we have built. But we can point to more children being alive."

During a Short, Tense Visit Obama Becomes the First U.S. President To Visit Cambodia

In November 2012, Julie Pace of Associated Press wrote: “On a history-making trip, President Barack Obama paid the first visit by an American leader to Cambodia...Cheered by massive flag-waving crowds, Obama offered long-isolated Myanmar a "hand of friendship" as it rapidly embraces democratic reforms. Hours later, he arrived in Cambodia to little fanfare, then pointedly criticized the country's strongman leader on the issue of human rights during a tense meeting. [Source: Julie Pace, November 19, 2012 ~]

“Obama had a private meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Unlike the arrangement after Obama's meetings with Myanmar's President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the U.S. and Cambodian leaders did not speak to the press following their one-on-one talks. They did step before cameras briefly before their meeting to greet each other with a brisk handshake and little warmth. In private, U.S. officials said, Obama pressed Hun Sen to release political prisoners, stop land seizures and hold free and fair elections. Aides acknowledged the meeting was tense, with the Cambodian leader defending his practices, even as he professed to seek a deeper relationship with the U.S. ~

“Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the president told Hun Sen that without reforms, Cambodia's human rights woes would continue to be "an impediment" to that effort. White House officials emphasized that Obama would not have visited Cambodia had it not been hosting two regional summit meetings the U.S. attends, a rare admonishment of a country on its own soil. The Cambodian people appeared to answer Obama's cold shoulder in kind. Just a few small clusters of curious Cambodians gathered on the streets to watch his motorcade speed though the streets of Phnom Penh. ~

Murray Hunter wrote in the Malaysian Insider: “There are many reports that Obama’s meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen upon arrival in Cambodia was a very tense one. The Obama administration, although not Obama directly, had previously criticised Hun Sen for his human rights record, political intimidation, imprisonment of opposition leaders, forced expulsion of peasants from the land, and the failure to hold free and fair elections.A report in The Cambodian Daily reported the meeting between the two leaders and gave a very different account to the version that Obama aides gave the media.According to Reuters quoting US deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes the meeting was almost totally devoted to human rights, but speaking at a press conference after the meeting, the Cambodian Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhon said that Obama had only raised human rights issues because of being asked to by US lawmakers. [Source: Murray Hunter, November 26, 2012, Malaysian Insider ++]

“Ahead of the meeting Obama was specifically urged to ask for a pardon for opposition leader Sam Rainsy so he could return to Cambodia without having to serve an 11 year jail sentence believed to be politically motivated. According to Prak Sokhon this matter was not brought up by Obama at all. According to Prak Sokhon, Hun Sen did request that a US$400 million loan with interest given to the Lon Nol Government back in the 1970s be converted to 30 per cent of that amount with a 1 per cent interest rate, where the Cambodian government could spend the rest of the loan amount on education and cultural projects. Sohkon remarked that this request was met with silence by Obama...Obama’s visit to Cambodia has benefitted Hun Sen who could bask in the photo and TV opportunities with the US President which were all displayed prominently on Cambodian television. ++

“A welcome sign did greet Obama upon his arrival – but it heralded Chinese Premier Wen Jiabai, not the American president. Human rights groups fear that because Obama delivered his condemnation of Hun Sen in private, government censors will keep his words from reaching the Cambodian people. And they worry the prime minister will then use Obama's visit to justify his grip on power and weaken the will of opposition groups. "If Hun Sen's narrative about this visit is allowed to gel, it will create a perception that the United States and other international actors stand with Hun Sen, and not with the Cambodian people," said John Sifton, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It will be a tremendous blow to Cambodians who challenge his rule." ~

Along with Obama, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made rare visits to Cambodia in November 2012 to attend a regional summit.Craig Whitlock wrote in the Washington Post: “Panetta and met one-on-one with Tea Banh, Cambodia’s defense minister, in Siem Reap. Afterward, Panetta told reporters that he emphasized the Obama administration’s support “for the protection of human rights, of civilian oversight of the military, of respect for the rule of law, for the right of full and fair participation in the political process, here in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.” His comments on human rights and democracy were apparently a late addition; they were not included in his prepared remarks.The decision to embrace Cambodia has prompted criticism from human rights groups and several U.S. lawmakers, who accuse the Obama administration of pursuing closer military and diplomatic ties with countries in China’s back yard at the expense of democratic reforms. “We’ve been yelling at the White House for a month and a half that [Obama] shouldn’t go because the human rights situation in Cambodia is so bad,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. This week, the group issued a report documenting a long list of unsolved political killings in Cambodia. [Source: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post November 15, 2012]

United States Warms Up to Hun Sen

Craig Whitlock wrote in the Washington Post: “In recent years, the U.S. government has kept a careful diplomatic distance from Hun Sen, the prime minister who consolidated political control after a bloody 1997 coup and has forced opponents into exile. The Pentagon and the State Department, however, have embraced his three sons, all of whom hold influential posts in the Cambodian government and military. [Source: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post November 15, 2012 <>]

“U.S. officials have invested in their relationship with Hun Manet, the eldest son, in particular, giving him a free ride to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1999. He earned a master’s degree in economics from New York University. Today, the 35-year-old, widely seen as the heir apparent to his father, is a major general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, in which he serves as deputy commander of the army. “I’m sure that’s why he was sent to West Point in the first place,” said a government official from neighboring Thailand, which has closely monitored Hun Manet’s emergence. “Hun Sen would like to build up his credibility and career because he’s so young.” <>

“The U.S. military also paid for the prime minister’s youngest son, Hun Many, 29, to earn a master’s degree in strategic studies at the National Defense University in Washington last year. The U.S. military arranged for the middle son, Hun Manith, a senior intelligence official, to attend a counterterrorism course in Germany, according to an American diplomatic cable obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. <>

First U.S. Navy Ship in Over 30 Years Visits Cambodia

In February 2007, Voice of America reported: “The first U.S. Navy warship in more than 30 years has docked at a Cambodian port. The USS Gary, a guided-missile frigate, anchored at Sihanoukville port. Joseph Mussomeli, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, said the visit shows a deepening of relations between the U.S. and Cambodia. In July 2006,commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, visited Cambodia on what was called a "get-to-know-you" mission, designed to find out what the U.S. military could do to help the country rebuild its armed forces. The visit followed by United States concerns about China's military and economic influence in the region. Cambodian Admiral Uk Seiha, Sihanoukville mayor Say Hak, and U.S. Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli greeted the U.S. navy at the port on Friday. [Source: Voice of America, February 9, 2007]

For five days Sihanoukville and its surrounding areas saw plenty of the US sailors. These sailors helped with construction work, which they hope to attract thousands of people to medical and dental clinics. Their last U.S. major operation in the port was a mission to rescue the crew of a merchant ship captured by the Khmer Rouge, however, Cambodian waters hold unhappy memories for US forces. The rescue was successful but at a price of 41 US troop’s deaths, and it marked the start of a long period of US antipathy towards Cambodia.

In October 2012, Xinhua reported: “A USS Vandegrift frigate and two U.S. diving and salvage ships arrived at Cambodia's Sihanoukville Autonomous Port on Monday morning for a five-day naval exercise with the Cambodian Navy, said U.S. Public Affairs Officer Lt. Commander Clayton Doss. Approximately 500 U.S. Navy and 300 Royal Cambodian Navy personnel are participating in the third Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Cambodia exercise 2012, he said. Other U.S. participants include Marines from Fleet Anti- Terrorism Security Team Pacific, a medical training team from Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training, SH-60 Seahawk aircraft and the U.S. 7th Fleet band, he added. [Source: Xinhua, October 22, 2012]

The exercise will focus on enhancing maritime security skills through activities such as maritime interdiction, diving and salvage operations, maneuvering, and disaster response, according to a press release from the U.S. Embassy to Cambodia. In addition, it aims to increase cooperation, promote understanding, and build trust between the U.S. and Cambodian navies through sports and social events. The press release said that CARAT 2012 will also improve relationships with the civilian community through community service projects. In 2010, Cambodia participated in the CARAT exercise for the first time. Other CARAT participants include Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, and Timor- Leste, it added. Since 1995, the CARAT exercises have taken place on an annual basis in the Southeast Asia region.

China and the United States Vie for Influence in Cambodia

John Pomfret wrote in the Washington Post: “Ignored by successive U.S. administrations, China's rise in this region is now causing alarm in Washington, which is aggressively courting the countries of Southeast Asia. The Obama administration has cultivated closer ties with its old foe Vietnam. It has tried to open doors to Burma, also known as Myanmar, which U.S. officials believe is in danger of becoming a Chinese vassal state. Relations have been renewed with Laos, whose northern half is dominated by Chinese businesses. In a speech about U.S. policy in Asia on Oct. 28, before she embarked on her sixth trip to Asia in two years, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used military terminology to refer to U.S. efforts: "forward-deployed diplomacy." During a recent trip to Phnom Penh - the first of a U.S. secretary of state since 2002 - Clinton, while speaking to Cambodian students, was asked about Cambodia's ties to Beijing. "You don't want to get too dependent on any one country," she told them. [Source: John Pomfret, Washington Post, November 20, 2010 ><]

“China's heft was also clearly on display in December when Chinese and American diplomats went toe-to-toe over the fate of 20 Uighur Chinese who had fled to Cambodia and were seeking asylum. China said that some of the men, members of a Chinese Turkic minority, were wanted for having participated in anti-Han Chinese riots in Xinjiang in July 2009. The United States said don't send them back. China threatened to cancel a trip by its vice president, Xi Junping, who was coming to Cambodia with deals and loans worth $1.2 billion in his briefcase. So Cambodia returned the Uighurs to China. Two days later Xi, who is on track to be China's next leader, arrived in Phnom Penh. In April of this year, the U.S. State Department announced that to punish Cambodia, it was canceling a shipment of 200 U.S. surplus military trucks and trailers. Less than three weeks later, China donated 257 military trucks.

Cambodia has also followed China's lead when it comes to the South China Sea, a 1 million-square-mile waterway that China asserts belongs to Beijing. In July, Clinton, speaking in Hanoi, challenged China's claims to the open seas and advocated a multilateral approach to divvying up the fishing rights and offshore oil and gas that the sea is believed to contain. China opposes multilateral negotiations, preferring to divide and conquer with bilateral talks. Last month, Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, backed China's approach. China's one-upmanship with the United States continued. A day after Clinton left Cambodia, Wu Bangguo, one of China's top Communist Party officials, arrived in Phnom Penh. During her visit, Clinton had raised the possibility that the United States might forgive a portion of Cambodia's debt to the United States; it owes $445 million. Wu was more forthright. He struck $4.5 million off Cambodia's tab; Chinese officials are considering forgiving an additional $200 million.

“For U.S. strategists, if you neglect certain ASEAN countries, you hurt U.S. interests,” the American scholar Carlyle Thayer, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, told Reuters. “There’s a price to pay,” he added, “because China’s economic dominance carries political influence, the U.S. has to compete across the board.” [Source: Andrew R. C. Marshall and Prak Chan Thul, Reuters, February 14, 2013 <>]

Cham Prasidh, the commerce minister, told the Los Angeles Times: If the United States has lost economic influence in Cambodia to China, Americans have only themselves to blame. "The investors from the U.S. say they want more transparency. They don't understand the Asian mentality; they are not flexible in negotiating," he said. "The Chinese feel very much at home in Cambodia." [Source: Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2006 ^^]

Cambodian Immigrants to the United States

There were 150,000 Cambodian refugees in U.S. cities in the early 2000s. Describing what happened after escaping from the Khmer Rouge, Mardi Seng said: “In January 1979, Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime and established a puppet government. Seizing this opportunity, my mother's mother took her family and us to escape into Thailand. While waiting for sponsorship, we lived in refugee camps in Thailand for one and a half years. [Source: www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day]

December 23, 1980, my family arrived in Michigan under the sponsorship of Millbrook Christian Reformed Church. The Church has provided an incredible amount of support to my family. With the Church's and family's support and direction, my three brothers, sister and I have thrived in this great country. We have been active and involved in our church, community, and school activities. Lundi and Theary, who did not know a word of English upon their arrival to this country, both placed in the annual National Spelling Bee for the city of Grand Rapids, and were mentioned in the United States Congress. Lundi also graduated from his junior high school as a valedictorian. Theary was her high school's class Salutatorian, while Sina, Dar and I placed in the top ten percent of our classes.

Sina is finishing up with his electrical engineering program at Grand Valley University in Michigan. Lundi, who is in medical school, graduated from the University of California at Irvine as a Biological Sciences major. Theary is in her third year in the International Relations program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Upon graduation, she plans to go on to law school. Dar is in his first year at University of California at Irvine, enrolled in the pre- med program. I am attending Northeastern University in Boston in an MBA/Co - op program. I have been given the honor of working for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) as a bank examiner for my co - op work period.

My work experience with the OCC has been a beneficial, functional, and practical experience. The people with whom I have worked are professional, capable, supportive, and amiable. I have enjoyed my OCC experience immensely. I hope to work for the OCC upon my graduation from Northeaste rn University. My most influential rationale to work for the OCC is to gain work experience and knowledge about the American banking system, so that someday in the near future, professional American - Cambodians like myself can go back to Cambodia to assist in rebuilding Cambodia.

Cambodians Deported from the United States

In 2002, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “On the basketball court, they seem like just a couple of young American guys in big sneakers and baggy shorts, part of a pickup game on the banks of the Mekong River. "Back to visit your homeland?" someone asks when they say they were born in Cambodia. "Are you going to stay or just passing through?" With all the shouting and shoving on the court, no one quite catches their reply and that's probably fine with them. The answer is: whether they like it or not, they are here in Cambodia to stay. Just a few weeks ago they arrived in shackles from the United States, deported along with four other men from the land they called home because they had broken the law. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, August 9, 2002 ><]

“Embraced 20 years ago as refugees from the massacres that swept Cambodia, they had grown up, found jobs and started families in the United States as American, it seemed, as any other immigrants. Cambodia was a dim childhood memory. But like most of the 145,000 Cambodians who found refuge in the United States during the 1980's and 90's, they had never gotten around to filing the paperwork to become citizens. "I just put it off," said one of the deportees, Sor Vann, 34, a heavy equipment operator from Houston. "Next month, next month. That was my big mistake, my real big mistake. I should, I should have done it. I should." ><

“In March, Cambodia became one of the last nations to agree to accept its citizens affected by a United States law that calls for the deportation of non-Americans who are convicted of aggravated felonies. Most immigrants affected by the law are not aware that it exists until they are found guilty of a crime and discover that they face deportation once they have served their sentences. In a tangled legal case, Mr. Sor Vann said he had been convicted of indecent exposure for urinating in public, then of violating his parole, and had ended up serving four years in prison before he was released. "The I.N.S. was waiting for me right there in front of the walls to pick me up," he said. "I called my common-law wife and told her, `They're going to deport me tomorrow.' She said, `What? Tomorrow? That quick?' She couldn't even come to see me before I left because it wasn't a visitors' day." He had no chance to say goodbye to his two stepchildren or to his own two children, who live with his former wife. "I told my common-law wife to tell them that I got deported to Cambodia and they can't do anything to help but feel sorry for me," he said. ><

There are 1,400 more Cambodians in the United States who have been marked for deportation, most of whom have already served their prison terms and have been released. Many had left Cambodia as small children and no longer speak the language. They may find the transition as difficult as it was for many older refugees in the United States who were unable to learn English or to assimilate in their new land. "These guys are not Cambodians," said Chhang Song, a former legislator who is part of an informal group of Cambodians and foreigners who are trying to help the newcomers. "They know life in the refugee camps. They know life in the United States. So coming back here is like coming as refugees again."

Some, like Touch Rin Svay, 22, a United States Marine in Portland, Me., were born in the refugee camps in Thailand and had never even seen Cambodia. In May, he was convicted of manslaughter for causing an automobile crash, while driving drunk, that killed his younger sister. Once he completes a term of 18 months in prison, he will join the deportation list. Immigration experts say it is unlikely that he will ever be allowed to re-enter the United States. That is a desperate feeling, Mr. Sor Vann said, adding, "I still feel like I'm an American." He was 11 years old and an orphan when he left Cambodia, tagging along with other refugees as they picked their way through minefields to cross the border to safety in Thailand.

"I'm just lost here," he said. "I haven't been back in 20-plus years. I don't know how I'm going to make it. I don't know nothing or nobody here. I'm just homeless. How am I going to get a job? How am I going to get a living?" When he was in prison, his common-law wife, who was also born in Cambodia, visited him every week, he said. When he was deported, she promised to follow and begin a new life with him. "This is the hard part," Mr. Sor Vann said when he was asked about these plans. "When I got here, I called her again and she said, well, she's sorry, she can't come down because of the kids. She can't do it. She told me, just go on with my life."

As the deportations continue in the months to come, the Cambodian government will find itself burdened with hundreds of people like this, lost, jobless, many of them unable to function in the Cambodian language, all with criminal records. The hard cases among them could become a menace, possibly joining criminal groups or forming their own gangs, Mr. Chhang Song said.

See Break Dancing

Cambodian in the U.S. with Green Card Faces Deportation Over Ecstasy Possession

Tara Bahrampour wrote in the Washington Post: “Lundy Khoy was brought to the US as a baby by her Cambodian refugee parents. She had a green card until she was convicted in 2000 of possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute. She has had a deportation order hanging over her head for 12 years. Although her deportation seems imminent, she doesn't know anyone in Cambodia and can't read or write the language.[Source: Tara Bahrampour, Washington Post October 3, 2012]

“Back in 2000, Lundy Khoy was just another young person who had made a stupid mistake. The George Mason University freshman, a green card holder, had a boyfriend who was dabbling in Ecstasy. He gave her some pills, and during a night of partying she was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute the drug. She pleaded guilty, served three months and was on probation for four years. End of story, for most people. But for Khoy, now 31, it was the beginning of a 12-year saga of incarcerations, deportation proceedings and the specter of being sent to live in a country she has never even visited.

The difference between Khoy and others whose youthful indiscretions led to criminal charges is that she was not born in America. The consequences can be catastrophic.“There is a misconception among some immigrants that once they have a green card they can no longer be deported, and that’s simply not true,” said Ben Winograd, staff attorney at the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy organization in the District. “All it takes is one criminal conviction. Regardless of whether it results in jail time, it can be the basis for deportation.”

In 1996, Congress passed laws that limited judicial discretion for immigration judges and broadened the scope of what is considered an aggravated felony for the purposes of federal immigration law. The category includes a wide range of crimes, from murder to nonviolent offenses such as theft or fraud. This presumption that they cannot be deported appears to be especially true of young green-card holders such as Khoy, who grew up here.

Khoy’s story is not unusual in Southeast Asian communities. Her Cambodian mother gave birth to her in a Thai refugee camp a year before they moved here. She and her parents received green cards; her siblings, born after they arrived, are U.S. citizens. Often, Southeast Asians who came in the 1970s and 1980s escaped war or genocide, and worked long hours in low-paying jobs. “They are traumatized, shell-shocked, and can’t understand how to effectively raise adolescents in impoverished America,” said Jay Stansell, an assistant federal public defender in Seattle who has defended many Cambodians in this situation.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that 1,894 Cambodians are in deportation proceedings. Since Cambodia started accepting deportees in 2002, it has taken only about 500. More were deported last year than ever before: 97 compared with 55 in 2010 and 48 in 2009.

Often the deportation proceedings don’t begin until years after they immigrants have served sentences and cleaned up their lives, getting jobs and starting families. “Years later . . . ICE would catch up with them and say, ‘Hey, you were supposed to have been deported years ago,’ and send them back to Cambodia, which many of these youngsters had never been to,” said Pang Houa Toy, deputy director of the D.C.-based Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. Many don’t speak the language, and don’t have friends or relatives in their parents’ homeland. They also face discrimination. “They’re stigmatized,” Toy said.

Khoy says she was obedient and responsible while growing up as the eldest child of strict parents who forbade nighttime events during high school. By the time she started college, she was thirsting for more freedom and took up with a “bad crowd,” she said, adding that because she didn’t want her mother to think she was using drugs, she falsely told the arresting officer that she planned to sell the pills to her friends, a statement that resulted in a more serious charge. Because her crime was an aggravated felony, she lost her green card and was put into deportation proceedings. “I didn’t believe it,” said Khoy, a delicate-featured woman perched on her living room couch in the Southwest Washington townhouse she shares with three roommates. “I was like, ‘There’s no way that my country could just kick me out.’ ”

Her entire adult life has been colored by the arrest and its consequences. Men she dated were often scared off by her situation. She was arrested again in 2004, as her probation was ending, during a sweep targeting “removable aliens” on probation, according to ICE records. After several months in jail, her request for voluntary departure, asylum or withholding of removal was denied by a judge, who ordered her deported.

Cambodia accepts only a few requests for travel documents each year, however, so she was released from prison and put on an order of suspension, reporting regularly to the ICE office in Fairfax. She did so for the next eight years, while studying at Northern Virginia Community College, getting a job as an enrollment adviser at the University of Phoenix’s Northern Virginia campus and working toward her bachelor’s degree in communications and cultural diversity there. She moved to the District in December because it was easier there for someone in her situation to get a driver’s license.

From the outside, her life seemed normal. Few people knew about her situation — until April, when she went in for a routine visit to ICE. There, she said, she was told to re-apply immediately for a travel document from the Cambodian embassy. She was also fitted with an electronic ankle monitor. She had to stay close to an electric outlet for hours at a time to keep it charged. With the help of her sister, Linda, a U.S. citizen, Khoy has gotten more than 3,000 signatures on a petition to stop her deportation. She has letters of support from Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and from longtime friends.

California Man Found Guilty in Cambodian Coup Bid

In April 2008, Jill Serjeant of Reuters wrote: “The head of a California-based Cambodian resistance movement was found guilty of orchestrating a coup attempt in 2000 against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's government. Yasith Chhun, 52, an accountant from Long Beach and the self-styled president of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, could face life in prison without parole. Chhun, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was convicted by a federal court jury in Los Angeles on four federal counts against him -- conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, conspiracy to destroy property in a foreign country, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction outside the United States, and engaging in a military expedition against a country with which the United States is at peace. [Source: Jill Serjeant, Reuters, April 16, 2008]

Prosecutors said at the two-week trial that Chhun held meetings with former Khmer Rouge members in Thailand, organized fund-raisers aboard the Queen Mary in Southern California and planned the "Operation Volcano" plot in November 2000 that ended in three deaths and an unknown number of injuries. Chhun's lawyer, Richard Callahan, said his client's only goal was to "to bring democracy to his homeland" and said he never intended to kill or injure anyone. Callahan portrayed Chhun and his followers as naive but "desperately concerned about the people of Cambodia and their future."

Chhun was arrested at his Long Beach home in June 2005 after returning in the wake of the failed coup. U.S. prosecutors say he orchestrated the 2000 assault on Cambodian government buildings from a safe base in Thailand. According to Cambodian media reports at the time, a heavily armed group attacked a police station and several government buildings in Phnom Penh in the predawn hours of November 24, leaving at least four dead and more than a dozen wounded.

The Cambodian Freedom Fighters claimed responsibility for the shootout and dozens of suspected members were arrested in Cambodia. Three are already serving life sentences in Cambodian prisons. Some of Chhun's co-conspirators gave taped testimony to the trial. Callahan said Chhun founded the Cambodian Freedom Fighters in a "noble effort" to save the impoverished nation from the rule of Hun Sen after deciding that speeches and diplomacy would not be enough to unseat Cambodian leader Hun Sen.

‘The Accidental Terrorist’: a California Accountant’s Coup

Adam Piore wrote in Daily Beast: “On April 18, after receiving an anonymous tip about another potential attack, Phnom Penh Police approached a grassy knoll along the Mekong River, passing wobbly canoe-like boats tied up along the muddy banks. Five men clad in civilian clothes stood facing an oil-storage depot. These large containers of gasoline rested on a riverbank behind locked metal gates. Owned by an ethnic Vietnamese friend and financial supporter of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, they contained potentially millions of gallons of highly flammable fuel. One of the five men held a powerful East German antitank weapon. He had been trying for more than a half an hour to figure out how to fire it. [Source: Adam Piore, Daily Beast, May 2, 2012. This piece is an excerpt from The Accidental Terrorist by Adam Piore. The full ebook single is available for sale from The Atavist, through Kindle Singles, iBooks, The Atavist app, and other outlets via The Atavist website::]

“The police arrived just in time to thwart the attack and arrested all five men. Back at the police station, the men admitted they belonged to an obscure revolutionary group. The next day the name of the group that these men belonged to “the Cambodian Freedom Fighters” was featured prominently in the newspaper. The leader of the group went by the code name “the Thumb.” In reality, the Thumb was an affable, bespectacled California accountant, a cousin of one of the men arrested on the Mekong. His name was Yasith Chhun, and although he would later deny involvement in these specific attacks, his struggle to launch a revolutionary movement in Cambodia would take him to the limits of American law—and possibly his own sanity. His unlikely journey from suburban climber to international dissident would eventually attract the attention of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, exposing the sometimes thin border between passionate politics and unhinged extremism. ::

“Chhun liked to think of himself as more than just an accountant, and in a way he was. People told him their problems and brought him their green-card applications. They had him translate American bureaucratese into Cambodian. They asked him what to do when their sons joined local gangs. Eventually, all of his visitors handed over their financials, looked across the desk at the Cambodian-American with the thick glasses and gold rings on his fingers, and asked if he could get them a refund.At the end of tax season, Chhun found himself alone, boxed in by lonely rows of file cabinets stuffed with paper-clipped tax returns. His thoughts returned, as they often did, to his birthplace, and atrocious images of his homeland flashed through his mind. He’d shake his head and ask “Why?,” addressing the God he’d embraced in a refugee-camp baptism 16 years before. Why couldn’t the people back home have democracy, capitalism, and peace, like his adopted country? ::

“One afternoon at lunch, Chhun sat in his office watching the latest violence unfold in his native Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen had taken power in a bloody coup in July 1997. Tanks had rolled into the streets of Phomn Penh, and gun battles raged for three days. The prime minister had recently held new elections, which were marred by bribes, voter intimidation, and killings. During protests in the aftermath, four people died and scores more were injured. ::

“Watching the broadcast of these demonstrators being brutalized, Chhun was suddenly transported back in time. Memories of different oppressors, clad in the black pajamas of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge army, filled his mind. He remembered slaving with massive work crews digging irrigation ditches, eating leaves and grasshoppers to fill his empty stomach. He thought of the skulls and bones he’d seen in a muddy pond where he’d stopped one scorching day for a drink of water. He flashed back to the murder of his father. ::

“These thoughts stayed with him as he locked up his fluorescent-lit office, climbed into his white BMW 745i, and headed home to a two-story house on the other side of town...That night, the 42-year-old accountant made his decision, one he later explained was inspired in part by Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the skirted William Wallace, face streaked with war paint, sword glinting in defiance as he charged English oppressors in the movie Braveheart. It was a choice that would enrage one of Asia’s longest-serving strong men, cause countless headaches for U.S. diplomats, and culminate in a pitched early morning battle in the streets on the other side of the globe. Chhun decided that he would overthrow the Cambodian government. He would become a man who ran the typical immigrant journey in reverse, and unmake the American dream he'd struggled to create.” ::

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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