LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA - Lieutenant General Hun Manet, eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, wrapped up his 10-day U.S. tour this week amid street protests by Cambodian Americans, leaving behind a community seemingly more divided than ever.
Gen. Manet was forced to withdraw from the annual New Year's parade in Long Beach at the beginning of his visit when he was met with lively demonstrations.
“I’m protesting because I’m not satisfied with Hun Sen and Hun Manet for abusing and killing Cambodian people, selling land to the Vietnamese, and selling their consciences,” said Khim Any Yorn, a protester at the parade April 10. “We are not happy to let him join the parade in the U.S. because it's the land of democracy and his hands are stained with Cambodian blood, so we don’t welcome him.”
Other protesters shared Any Yorn’s sentiment.
“I don’t support the government [delegation] to attend our parade,” said Kheng Song. “Everybody knows the regime is a dictatorship.”
Protesters held placards bearing anti-Hun Sen logos and messages against land-grabbing, corruption and deforestation.
Protests 'bring shame'
In an exclusive interview with VOA Khmer, Gen. Manet, a senior military commander who heads the country's elite counterterrorism unit, explained why he withdrew from the parade.
“What benefit do I get if I attend?” he said. “Getting thrown at with eggs and stones is not important, but the most important thing is our whole nation. Tens of thousands of people will go to see the parade and there will be cameras there to take pictures of what is Khmer [culture]. Our people take that opportunity to showcase what Khmer [culture] is. If there is a protest, it will dominate what will be shown... Therefore, it brings shame to the whole nation.”
When asked if he was angered by the protests, Manet said it was the people’s right to demonstrate “within the legal framework,” if it “does not cause violence to any member of the delegation or any participant at the ceremony to welcome [Khmer] New Year. This is their right. I’m not angry.”
More than 200 people staged a protest at La Lune restaurant in Long Beach as a private reception was held to welcome Manet on April 9. Astra Mam, a protester from Long Beach, expressed his frustration.
“In fact, he does not come to unite Khmers in the U.S.,” Mam said. “He is here to split Khmers, politically. Before the elections he needs to conduct a campaign among overseas Khmers to garner support for him. We who live overseas understand the value and suffering of Cambodians living in the country very well. It’s because of the Hun Sen government that our people live in misery, getting jailed and losing land.”
Calls to release prisoners
Demonstrators also demanded the release of jailed political activists.
“If Hun Manet is truly a good guy, he should release those whom his father has thrown in jails,” said Navan Cheth, another protester from Long Beach. “Only [if he does] so can Khmers overseas support him.”
Among those whom protesters demanded be released was Meach Sovannara, a U.S. citizen and former press officer for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in relation to a protest following disputed elections in 2013.
“If he committed a criminal offense and is found guilty and was imprisoned, I don’t mind, but his only crime was to promote democracy, to educate people to understand their freedom,” said Sovannara’s wife, Jamie Meach. “Nowadays, I’m by myself working to raise three kids, and sending money to take care of my husband in jail.”
Dr. Sam Keo, a psychiatrist who attended the parade on Sunday, said the cultural memory of the Khmer Rouge atrocities were still prominent in the minds of Cambodian expatriates.
“Psychologically, they still remember their hardship during the Khmer Rouge regime that killed their siblings and parents, and the current leader is one of those leaders,” Keo said. “Therefore, they are against the leaders.”
Defends father’s record
Throughout his U.S. tour, Manet defended his father's record, saying people should remember the role the sitting prime minister played in bringing peace and national reconciliation to the country.
His U.S. trip included stops in Olympia, Washington; Houston, Texas; and Lowell, Massachusetts.
His last stop in Lowell was also met with a protest before he headed to Canada.
“This is to show him that when he abuses people in the country, he does not have an easy time when he is abroad,” said Vannak Men, one of the protest organizers in Lowell.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.