Straying from what’s been considered taboo in politics at the national level, the Long Beach City Council took time to recognize both the Armenian and Cambodian genocides at its regular weekly meeting Tuesday night.
Joining other cities, states and countries across the globe, the council officially recognized the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, one that saw upward of 1.5 million Armenians tortured, killed and deported as the Ottoman Empire sought to erase the people from existence over the course of 8 years between 1915 and 1923.
Last year, Governor Jerry Brown recognized the atrocities committed during that time period as the Armenian Genocide, carrying on a precedent set by former Governor George Deukmejian in 1986. Fighting back tears, Deukmejian testified to the extent that his family and countless others were affected by the genocide as he spoke before the council Tuesday night. “We both acknowledge and appreciate the few minutes you are allocating to this item in honor of our ancestors, many of whom did not make it, did not get through the genocide,” Deukmejian said. “It’s certainly our hope that people will take a minute or two to reflect upon it and when situations arise during the course of their lifetimes that they will maybe remember this and remember that yes, it is possible. A nation can be wiped out and so we have to be vigilant all the time.”
The council deviated from the path that the Obama administration chose to take in recognizing the massacre of the Armenian people. White House staff made it clear to Armenian-American activist groups this week that the President would not use the word “genocide” in addressing the matter in his annual statement.
“The denial of this atrocity and the willful ignorance of the historical facts for the purpose of geopolitical diplomacy does not diminish what most historians, countless countries, cities and states know to be absolutely true,” said Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal.
She added that the fact that the council was recognizing the Armenian Genocide on the heels of the Yom HaShoah—the Jewish Holocaust remembrance day—on the same evening that it was adopting an ordinance to make April Cambodian Genocide Awareness month was more than coincidence.
“All of this coming together at the same time reminds me that it is understanding the commonality of suffering that we actually rise and elevate ourselves as a human race," Lowenthal said. “And through tragedy we can do that. I’m grateful to live in a city like this where we can have such a strong multi-cultural presence and strong understanding of one another’s experiences.”
After approving the motion unanimously the council turned their attention toward adopting the ordinance on the agenda to make April Cambodian Genocide Awareness Month. The agenda item, which was also passed with a 7-0 vote, came just over a week after the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge led campaign that killed upward of 3 million Cambodians during the genocide between 1975-1979. An estimated 25 percent of the population died in the Killing Fields.
Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews, whose district is home to Cambodia town, took the lead on the motion. Andrews represents some 20,000 Cambodian-Americans, many of whom immigrated to the United States to escape the Killing Fields during the conflict in their home country.
“Tonight I am very very fortunate to be able to speak for a group of individuals who I show so much love for because of the fact that they show a lot of love for me, our Cambodian community,” Andrews said.
Eighth District Councilman Al Austin added that while the Cambodian people came here as the result of a tragedy, he’s hopeful that through increased education they can continue to honor what has become an integral part of the City.
“Unfortunately it happened, and that’s something that we will never change, but I think the city of Long Beach benefitted in some regard in a large way because we picked up an addition to the fabric of our City and community and that is the Cambodian people,” Austin said.
Like Deukmejian’s testimony to the Armenian Genocide earlier in the evening, several people in the group of public commenters gave tearful thanks to the City for recognizing the genocide that affected generations of their families.
Charles Song, a board member of the Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment board, recounted his attempted escape from Khmer Rouge which ultimately cost his older brother and friend their lives.
“Within the three years, eight months and twenty days of the atrocity, the genocide and other crimes against humanity the Khmer Rouge took more than a million lives and left millions of survivors with haunted memories and scars of horrific images that led to the suffering of post traumatic syndrome they are facing each and every day,” Song said. “You are looking at living proof of someone who lived through this ordeal.”
Song said that America has given his family as countless others an opportunity to live freely, but it has also provided him the ability to forgive. Like others that commented on their experience, Song said that he embraces the future but will never forget the past, and he is grateful that Long Beach is so willing to support the remembrance of this dark part of his people’s history.
“Today you have made history, you have made it official by passing this resolution to allow the city to recognize the genocide,” Song said. “On behalf of all the Cambodian genocide survivors, all my young fellow brothers and sisters and those millions who lost their lives, we thank you. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”