Survivors: Cambodian Refugees in the United States / Edition 1

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252071799
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 5/27/2004
  • Series: Asian American Experience Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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By Sucheng Chan


Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Cambodia's Darkest Hours

THE WORD survivors in the title of this book refers not only to those Cambodians who survived a series of cataclysmic horrors before finding a haven of sorts in the United States and elsewhere in the world but also to the ability of Cambodia and its people to endure invasions, colonial rule, war, and revolution. Indeed, survival can be said to be a leitmotif of Cambodian history. During the last five centuries Cambodia's existence as an independent country has repeatedly hung in the balance as Siam (Thailand's name before 1932), Vietnam, France, Japan, the United States, and China all intervened in its affairs. Since the late 1970s, Cambodians in the homeland as well as those scattered in diasporic communities around the world have struggled to make new lives for themselves. Despite the unremitting assaults on their autonomy, the people, culture, and society of Cambodia have all managed to survive. That resiliency is a testament to the strength of the Cambodian people.

A Historical Sketch

A small country in mainland Southeast Asia, Cambodia was once a kingdom named Angkor (802-1431), which occupied a larger territory than Cambodia does today. The Khmer people have inhabited the area for some two thousand years. Their language, also called Khmer, belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of languages. Indian civilization strongly influenced Khmer culture, which is a unique mix of indigenous and foreign elements. Much of Cambodia's mythology is derived from Hinduism, while a vast majority of Cambodians today continue to practice Theravada Buddhism, a religion that also originated in India.

The Angkorian kings built magnificent stone temples, many of which remain standing. The most famous is Angkor Wat. Occupying an area measuring one square mile, it is one of the largest religious edifices in the world. Intricate bas reliefs decorate the walls of the temples. These monuments are not only mesmerizingly beautiful but also critical for reconstructing Cambodia's history, because what we know about the country's past comes mainly from the temples and the engravings on them, inscriptions carved in stone found elsewhere, and accounts written by Chinese envoys who visited Cambodia (Chandler 1992b; Coedès 1968; Groslier 1966; Groslier and Arthaud 1966; Higham 2001; Krasa and Cifra, 1963; Mabbett and Chandler, 1991; Mannikka, 1996). The historical record is sparse, because paper, cloth, wood, and palm fronds all rot easily in the warm, humid weather. Moreover, as Buddhists, the Cambodians cremate their dead, so there are few grave sites containing human bones, tools, utensils, jewelry, and other items of material culture that might give us glimpses of how Cambodians used to live.

The glory that was Angkor stands in stark contrast to the foreign encroachments that marked the next five centuries of Cambodia's history. The Thai began raiding the Angkor kingdom in the mid-fourteenth century and destroyed many of its waterworks. They sacked Angkor Thom, the capital, in 1431. Thai troops captured four of Cambodia's northwestern provinces in 1593 and reduced Cambodia to a vassal state of Siam by 1603. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Cambodia's other neighbor, Vietnam, sent tens of thousands of settlers to the Mekong Delta, which belonged to Cambodia, and gradually gained control over that region. To this day, Cambodians call the area Kampuchea Krom (lower Cambodia). The Khmer who still live there, known as Khmer Krom, form a distinct minority within Vietnam. Not to be outdone by Vietnam, Siam also took more Cambodian territory toward the end of the eighteenth century.

by the mid-nineteenth century Cambodia had become a vassal state to both Siam and Vietnam. Then, France appeared on the scene during the heyday of European imperialism. After the French colonized Cochinchina (the southern part of Vietnam) in 1862, Cambodia in 1863, Annam and Tonkin (the central and northern parts of Vietnam) in 1883, and Laos in 1893, they amalgamated the five territories into an entity called French Indochina. Even though the French allowed the Cambodian monarch to remain on the throne, they controlled virtually all aspects of Cambodian life. French rule ended in 1953 in Cambodia and Laos and in 1954 in Vietnam (Cady 1967; Chandler 1992b; Hall 1968: 436-43; Osborne 1969).

Between 1953 and 1970, King Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated the throne in 1955 and became Prince Sihanouk so that he could participate actively in politics, dominated Cambodia's political life. He skillfully played domestic political factions against one another and juggled the demands of the superpowers and their respective allies aligned on opposite sides of the cold war. But as the war in Vietnam escalated in the mid-1960s after the United States started sending ground troops there, fighting spilled over into Cambodian territory. After the elections of 1966, which brought politicians who were not beholden to Sihanouk to power, he lost his grip on the politics, economy, and society of his country. General Lon Nol, the prime minister, and Sirik Matak, one of Sihanouk's cousins who was serving as the deputy prime minister, deposed the prince in March 1970 while he was traveling abroad. From 1970 to 1975 Lon Nol's Khmer Republic, which the United States supported, and the Communist Khmer Rouge, which North Vietnam supported, fought a civil war that ravaged the country. Some half a million died, and at least three million people of a total estimated population of more than seven million were displaced from their homes (Corfield 1994; Deac 1997; Osborne 1994).

The Khmer Rouge comprised the most radical faction among Cambodian communists. Communism had come to Cambodia via Vietnam while both were under French rule. The Cambodian communist movement began as a section, with only a small number of members within the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) that Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary leader, founded in 1930. The ICP dissolved itself during World War II but reemerged in 1951 as the Vietnamese Workers' Party (VWP). It also helped establish a Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP) and a Laotian People's Revolutionary Party. When the 1954 Geneva Accords settled the First Indochina War (1946-54), about half of the two thousand KPRP members went to North Vietnam. Sihanouk's police killed many of those who stayed behind. In 1960, twenty-one individuals who had coalesced around Saloth Sar-who later adopted the nom de guerre Pol Pot-changed the KPRP's name to the Workers' Party of Kampuchea and adopted a Marxist-Leninist platform (Chandler 1991b; Kiernan 1985; Kiernan and Boua, eds. 1982; Martin 1994).

In the 1960s, a three-way split emerged among those Cambodian communists who had gone to Hanoi, the ones who had remained behind but followed the revolutionary strategy laid down by Vietnam, and the Saloth Sar group, whose members had few ties to the Vietnamese and believed that the needs of the Cambodian revolution should not be subordinated to the Vietnamese one. After a few years of internecine warfare, the Saloth Sar faction emerged as the most powerful one, and its members became the core of the Khmer Rouge (Chandler 1992a: 69-90; Kiernan 1985: 167-246). Even though Sihanouk, while he was in power, had used repressive measures to control the Khmer Rouge, he formed a partnership with them after his ouster. He did not foresee that such an alliance would bring tragedy upon tragedy to the Cambodian people. The last three decades of the twentieth century were truly Cambodia's darkest hours.

Had these events not occurred, few persons of Cambodian ancestry would be in the United States today, for Cambodians did not have a history of emigration to the United States, unlike the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indians. The story of Cambodians in America, therefore, must begin with a discussion of the developments that propelled them to leave their homeland. This tragic history is a heavy burden that Cambodians everywhere continue to bear.

The First Cambodian Civil War, 1970-75

When the civil war began, the Khmer Rouge had an estimated four to fifteen thousand guerrillas and controlled about one-sixth of the country's territory. At war's end, they had some sixty thousand troops in their main forces and about two hundred thousand guerrillas (Carney 1989b: 26). Several factors help account for the Khmer Rouge's rapid victory: their mutually opportunistic alliance with Sihanouk, the aid they received from North Vietnam, the destruction caused by the American bombing campaign, and their growing military and political sophistication, which enabled them to defeat the poorly led and demoralized troops of Lon Nol.

Less than a week after his ouster, on March 23, 1970, Sihanouk broadcast a radio message from Beijing announcing the formation of FUNK-the French acronym for Front Uni Nationale du Kampuchea (National United Front of Cambodia)-composed of his own supporters and the Khmer Rouge (Grant, Moss, and Unger, eds. 1971: 105-9, 130-38). Although he had treated the latter as enemies before he was deposed, he now realized that he had to work with them if he hoped to retain any influence over developments in Cambodia. In his broadcast he called upon ordinary Cambodians to fight against the Lon Nol government and its American allies.

Residents of Phnom Penh, who had become extremely critical of Sihanouk by the late 1960s and were glad to see him removed, ignored his message. In the rural areas and some provincial towns, however, tens of thousands of people participated in pro-Sihanouk demonstrations after hearing cassette tapes of his appeal (Osborne 1994: 219). To quell the demonstrators, Lon Nol's soldiers fired into the crowds, killing more than a hundred people (Chandler 1991b: 201-2). The soldiers' behavior made it easier for Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese communist cadres to persuade people that the Lon Nol regime was their enemy. During this period Lon Nol's troops also killed thousands of ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia.

Concealing their ideology as well as their ultimate goal, and using Sihanouk's popularity as a cover, the Khmer Rouge quickly increased their ranks by telling potential recruits that they would be fighting to restore Sihanouk to power. As one peasant woman from Battambang told Kate Frieson, "The people were angry at Lon Nol for overthrowing Sihanouk.... They joined the revolution because Lon Nol had a lot of people killed.... And after that a lot of people ran into the forest to join the Red Khmers in order to help the prince come back again. The people in the villages and in the countryside loved Sihanouk ... when they overthrew him ... [we] were very sick hearted about it" (Frieson 1992: 83).

Sihanouk hosted a Summit Conference of Indochinese Peoples in Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China in late April 1970, during which North Vietnam, the National Liberation Front (the formal name of the "Viet Cong"-Communists in South Vietnam), the Pathet Lao (Laotian Communists), and FUNK pledged to cooperate militarily to fight against the government of South Vietnam, the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, and the United States. Then, on May 5, 1970, Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge formed a government-in-exile to be located in two places. Sihanouk and his handful of supporters would live in Beijing, play a diplomatic role, and lend political legitimacy to the Khmer Rouge; Khmer Rouge leaders, who monopolized control over the coalition's armed men, would continue to operate militarily from guerrilla bases within Cambodia (Chandler 1992a: 91-109; Norodom Sihanouk and Burchett 1973: 186-214).


Excerpted from Survivors by Sucheng Chan Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Cambodia's darkest hours 1
2 Seeking refuge 39
3 Getting resettled 81
Cambodian new year celebration in Long Beach, California : a photo essay by Manhao Chhor 123
4 Struggling for economic survival 129
5 Negotiating cultures 162
6 Coping with family crises 194
7 Transcending tragedy 227
App. A Interviews and oral histories 265
App. B Oral histories collected by other scholars 273
Selected bibliography 277
Index 313
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