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Conversation With Chanthan Chea : ‘We Have Grown Addicted’ to American Freedom, Democracy

Question: Are members of the Cambodian-American community here having any effect on Cambodian ideas about democracy and human rights?

Answer: There was a lot of hope among the Cambodian community here during the peace process and election. And there is still hope about Cambodia’s future. But when the monarchy was restored it was seen as a real setback. The younger generation and the intellectuals especially got very depressed, asking: Of all countries in the world, why is Cambodia going backward? Because having lived in America, we have grown addicted to the American brand of freedom and democracy. It would be hard for us to do without it.

When you have been educated in an American school, or have lived here, you can’t help but be influenced. When I first came here and watched TV, Gerald Ford was President. He stumbled on the plane, on the steps, on the floor, and American people laughed heartily and made fun of him. At first that was shocking; Cambodians seeing this said: “Americans are so rude, they have no pride to criticize their leader that way!” But now I understand. We Cambodians have absorbed American freedom and democracy just by living here. It has come to seem very natural to us.

When we go to Cambodia we have to be very careful. We have trouble with the new Cambodian constitution which says the King is sacred, he cannot be criticized. And Cambodian Americans who have gone to Cambodia have had an effect on those around them, by talking about America and by the way they behave.

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Q: What kind of effect?

A: For example UCSA, which grew out of a 1987 Long Beach festival and now has members all over the United States, is in touch with the Khmer Students Assn. in Cambodia, led by Lim Sour, a student at Phnom Penh University who came here for the first time in January. He says he is learning a lot about democracy from the CANDO volunteers and from students here. When the new Cambodian constitution was being drawn up after the election some members of his group were among those who demonstrated against restoring the monarchy. And some have demonstrated against government corruption.

Q: Are there other ways Cambodians here are helping?

A: Yes. One way is through the UCSA Books Project. When I was in Cambodia last summer . . . I visited the University of Phnom Penh library. It was just a room, not a building, and all the shelves were empty except two.

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When Pol Pot took over Cambodia in 1975 he burned all books and killed everyone who had been educated, even anyone wearing eyeglasses. I asked, “How can students here find books to read?” I was told they can’t. It touched me very much. When I came back we set up our Books Project. The response so far has been wonderful, from Cambodian Americans and many others as well. People and groups have given medical books, books on agriculture, books for children--everything is needed.

Q: How else can people help?

A: About a year ago the UCSA and the Cambodian Network Council and others got funds from U.S. AID (Agency for International Development) to send 25 Cambodian American volunteers to Cambodia for a year to work on projects for CANDO, the new development agency for Cambodia. The first year was very successful and we have funds to send 42 volunteers in the coming year.

The volunteers must speak Khmer, have useful skills, and be flexible and open-minded. Not only young people here are applying. Applications have come from doughnut shop owners, social workers, assembly line workers, even a doctor. Many sacrifice financially, or by leaving their family for a year. Last year more than 100 people applied for the 25 positions.

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