Cambodian Gen. Hun Manet's visit to Long Beach this month was seen as a chance to build bridges with refugees who fled the country four decades ago amid a government-orchestrated genocide.
But the visit did more to inflame old wounds than heal divides in Cambodia Town, prompting protests as well as a violent confrontation that roiled the community.
The eldest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, Manet is seen by many Cambodian Americans as the heir apparent to a government that has been repeatedly accused of election fraud and human rights abuses. News of Manet's planned visits to Long Beach and Lowell, Mass. — two of the largest Cambodian enclaves in the U.S. — was met with denouncements from public officials and community leaders.
The general abandoned plans to march in a Cambodian New Year parade in Long Beach last week after hundreds planned protests, local activists said. He participated in a similar event in Massachusetts earlier this week, but was greeted by scores of opponents who urged him to go home.
The uproar underscores the deep divides between the Cambodian government and the American immigrant community scarred by Cambodian leader Pol Pot's murderous legacy.
Long Beach is home to about 22,000 ethnic Cambodians, the largest Cambodian population in the U.S. Refugees flooded into the city in the 1970s to escape the Khmer Rouge, which took the lives of more than a million people during a bloody civil war. The refugees created a vibrant commercial district amid the rows of shops in central Long Beach.
But they have struggled in ways other immigrant groups in the Los Angeles area have not. Studies have found that some Cambodian immigrants suffer high rates of mental illness, related to the violence they witnessed. The poverty rate among Cambodians remains higher than for other Asian immigrants, and gang violence has been a periodic problem in the community.
The community has been on the upswing, with Long Beach officially designating the neighborhood as Cambodia Town and its restaurants drawing foodies from around the region.
But disdain for the Cambodian government remains strong. Several years ago, a local community figure was convicted of masterminding a deadly attack on several Cambodian government buildings in an effort to overthrow the government.
While many in the community rejected that violence, local activists say the fierce opposition to Manet's visit should not have come as a surprise.
"We're trying to educate the community in Long Beach. You have rights. You live in a country with freedom of expression," said Bona Chhith, the California-based vice president of media relations for the Cambodian-American Alliance. "We can't have this in the U.S."
The low point in Manet's visit occurred outside La Lune Restaurant in Long Beach. A private investigator said he was hurled to the ground and suffered a severe spinal bruise April 9 while attempting to serve Manet with a lawsuit on behalf of a Long Beach man being held prisoner by Hun Sen's regime in Cambodia.
The investigator, Paul Hayes, said he was knocked unconscious by the blow and briefly lost feeling in his arms and legs. Hayes and several community leaders claim he was attacked by Manet's private guard.
The alleged assault has drawn condemnation from legislators and community leaders in Cambodia Town. U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who sits on the House Foreign Affairs committee, said the incident proved that Manet's presence here only served to cause panic and disruption in Cambodia Town.
"I'm outraged that a person who was just doing their job was subjected to this brutal attack. I am also outraged that Hun Manet's untimely presence brought this violence to what was a peaceful demonstration," Lowenthal said in a statement.
Hayes, 59, of Compton, said he arrived at the Atlantic Avenue restaurant around 5 p.m., hours before Manet was scheduled to appear for a gala. He informed several police officers he planed to serve Manet with the civil suit, which was filed earlier this month on behalf of a Long Beach resident who is being held prisoner in Cambodia for his role in election protests.
Manet did not arrive until 8:30 p.m., and by that time, approximately 100 protesters had arrived outside the restaurant, Hayes said. When Manet approached the entrance, flanked by suit-clad Cambodian men who Hayes believed to be bodyguards, Hayes extended the envelope and called the general's name.
Then someone grabbed him.
Wearing a neck brace inside his Compton home, Hayes said he has no doubts that Manet's private guard attacked him.
"They treated him the way they would treat a Cambodian protester in their own country," said Keith Rohman, president of Public Interest Investigations, the downtown Los Angeles firm hired to serve Manet with the court papers.
Calls to the Cambodian Consulate in Los Angeles were not returned. A spokesman for the Cambodian Council of Ministers told the Cambodia Daily newspaper that Hayes tried to attack Manet and was pepper-sprayed by a bodyguard.
Hayes told police he wants to press charges, but identifying his assailants could prove difficult, said Sgt. Brad Johnson, a Long Beach police spokesman. Hayes was unable to give officers any description of his assailants at the time of the attack, Johnson said.
If the attack was carried out by Manet's bodyguards, they may have diplomatic immunity, Johnson said.
The suit Hayes was attempting to serve Manet with involves a celebrated human rights case.
Meach Sovannara, a Long Beach resident and media director for the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was arrested and charged with inciting an insurrection for his role in election protests in Phnom Penh in 2014, according to court papers. Sovannara was sentenced to 20 years in Cambodia's Prey Sar prison, according to the suit.
As a lieutenant general, Manet oversees the soldiers responsible for crackdowns on protesters in Cambodia, including the one that ensnared Sovannara, activists say.
Manet left Long Beach last week. But many in the Cambodian community remain outraged by the visit.
"Hun Sen and his henchmen tried to paint a picture of peacefulness and unity in the Cambodian communities," said Bo K.S. Uce, a Long Beach resident and spokesman for the Steering Committee for Cambodia, an advocacy group. "In reality, Cambodian Americans have been jailed, like Meach Sovannara."