An image taken from the 2014 Cambodian New Year's Parade. Photo by Nicholas Noell.
Hundreds of Cambodian-Americans gathered inside and outside Long Beach City Hall last night to protest the possible inclusion of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's son, Hun Manet, in the city's 10th annual Cambodian New Year parade, set for April 10.
Speakers were given time during the city council meeting last night to denounce the visit from Hun Manet, son of Hun Sen, who, in addition to being the country’s prime minister, also served as a commander during the Khmer Rouge. The potential for Manet to take part in the parade was not only insulting to the Cambodian community, but has the potential to reopen old wounds of those who fled the Killing Fields of Cambodia, which wiped out nearly a quarter of the country’s population.
“To cause us further harm and to damage the home that has already once been broken and to divide us even more deeper the Cam CC (Cambodian Coordinating Council) has managed an outrageous decision to invite the prime minister’s son to come and join the parade this year knowing ahead that it’s against the will of the people and will cause the community to oppose,” said Charles Song.
Song was granted an extended period of comment time from Mayor Robert Garcia, as the mayor noted it was an important issue and Song was representing a large group of people, many of whom were left standing outside of the council chambers due to capacity restrictions.
Song said this was not the first time the organizing body has made a gaffe that’s led to unrest in the Cambodian community. For example, the inaugural parade was initially scheduled for April 17, 1995, which drew sharp opposition from the community, because April 17 marked the anniversary of when the Khmer Rouge began its genocide that resulted in millions of deaths, and many others to flee the country.
He called on the council to join him and the hundreds of others gathered outside to denounce Manet’s visit and to prevent his involvement in the parade marked for a celebration of a culture, not the visitation of political figure.
"If you have to shut it down, please let it be,” Song said. “We are not here to ask for you to fight for us; all we ask is that you do what is right for all. This is no longer just a Cambodian issue. This is your issue, this is our issue.”
“The majority of our Cambodian-Americans are embedded with psychological and emotional scars from the Killing Fields in Cambodia,” added another protestor, his voice beginning to break. “Although it was many years ago, we are still experiencing the trauma of its effects daily. We don’t want them here. We don’t want them here.”
Several members of the council threw their names into the hat of those who would not be attending the parade if Manet is indeed part of it. Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews said this would be the first parade he will be absent from, but the invitation to Manet, given the political ramifications, was something that “should not and can not be done.”
A separate celebration—The Cambodian Culture Festival— held on the same day and co-sponsored by Andrews along with Cambodia Town Inc. put out a release today to distance itself from the parade. The eighth annual celebration will remain "non-politcial and non-partisan" the statement said and will continue to promote the Cambodian community and culture. It also sought to reinforce the organizations opposition to Manet's visit while promoting the safe, protest-free atmosphere that it expects at its event.
"Cambodia Town, Inc. wishes to inform the public that Hun Manet was not invited to participate in the Culture Festival at MacArthur Park," the statement said. "Although there is concern about protests at the parade, we do not anticipate the same since Hun Manet is not attending the Culture Festival."
Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal gave an emotional testimony in which she tried to focus on the positive of the situation—the fact that so many people from the community had rallied behind the issue peacefully—but added that she too would not be attending this year’s event as a show of solidarity with the community. She said the establishment of Cambodia town in Long Beach, the second largest population of Cambodians outside of Southeast Asia, was a proud moment for the city and the country, but stated that the “fight is not over”.
“I’m looking at older people in the audience that I know survived the Killing Fields,” Lowenthal said. “You’re wiping tears away and I want you to know this council feels deeply for that. None of us will go to this parade.”
Garcia added that it was "disheartening" to see the division that the issue had raised in the community and urged that any demonstrations that might occur at the parade remain as peaceful as the one last night at city hall.
Manet graduated from West Point in 1999 and has served in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces since 1995, currently as a three-star lieutenant general. While he hasn’t publicly committed to succeeding his father as the country’s prime minister, it's believed that he's at least among the candidates to replace him. In an interview with ABC's The World, Manet said that the country's constitutions say that elections are to be held every five years, "So the choice, the decisions of who and when to be leader is up to the people of Cambodia," he said.
His father, Sen, has ruled as the country’s prime minister since 1998 and has earned the reputation of a dictator who uses force and intimidation to destroy "his political opponents." He came to power through his role in the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge.
Manet was invited to participate in the parade by the Cambodian Coordinating Council (Cam-CC), an non-profit organization in charge of hosting the New Year celebration. At the time of publication, a representative from the Cam-CC had not responded to a request for comment on why the council felt it was appropriate to invite Manet or whether the public's reaction had changed its plans.
Vaesna Roeun, a Cambodian-American military veteran who flew in from Connecticut to speak before the council, echoed the remarks some council members made earlier in the evening that his inclusion in the parade would be akin to members of the Ku Klux Klan participating in the Million Man March, or members of the Nazi Party taking part in a Memorial Day Parade. His family survived the Killing Fields by fleeing to Thailand before ending up in the United States.
“There is no difference,” Roeun said. “This is who’s coming; this is the face of evil.”
Above left: Screenshot posted by user in comment on Cambodian New Year's Parade & Park Celebrations Facebook page.