Thavy Srey knew her life meant little to the soldiers arguing over her. A 17-year-old bone-thin orphan, alone in Cambodia's parched and desperate northwest after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, Srey was a mere piece of property to the motley bands of men with AK-47s slung over their shoulders.
As the men's voices rose, her dreams of escaping evaporated. She had survived five years of U.S. bombings and then nearly four years under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. She finally fled toward the Thai border, through fighting, land mines and jungle. But now she seemed destined to become a soldier's slave, or be caught in the cross-fire of a fight over her.
Just then a stout young commander stepped in and claimed the girl. He was armed and possessed a burly frame and a confident, bulldog face. The others backed off--as did many who faced Nhek Bun Chhay in those days.
For the next 10 months, Srey helped nurse Bun Chhay's wounded troops near the border as his men fought Vietnamese invaders who had installed a new government. Then a Cambodian American visitor asked her to marry him, and offered to take her out of the country. Bun Chhay encouraged her to go. It might be her only chance to escape. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here now," says Srey, who married and eventually made it to the U.S., settling in Long Beach. "He saved my life."
But through the years, Srey lost track of Bun Chhay. His comrades fell in battles that raged for years against the outsiders, or died from malaria. Srey was certain the same had befallen Bun Chhay.
TWO DECADES HAVE PASSED. IT'S A LOVELY SUMMER EVENING IN LONG Beach. Teenage girls beautifully decked out as traditional Khmer dancers float gracefully through a gathering of Cambodian Americans. A comic speaking in Khmer works the delighted crowd with his Chaplin shtick. Men in stiff suits talk in hushed tones of politics, while women wrapped in their Sunday best, faux fur and crushed velvet, parade about, some talking business. A lineup of ladies in brittle and colorful Khmer silk eye each other's gold and pearls, and rubies from Cambodia's northwest.
The crowd is part of an often-nostalgic community of Cambodians in this neighborhood known as Little Phnom Penh--the world's largest Khmer population outside of Southeast Asia. This evening's festivities were organized by Srey, then an administrator at a Long Beach medical clinic. Four hundred people have turned out and, by most appearances, this could be an elite gathering in Phnom Penh. Perhaps the most authentic touch is the guest of honor, Nhek Bun Chhay.
He and Srey are at opposite ends of this restaurant for the event she staged to thank him for saving her for this suburban life, and to collect donations for his continuing campaign to reform Cambodia's political system. "I believe in God, so that is why I think he survived," says Srey, who is raising her two teenage sons essentially alone, her husband having returned to Cambodia in 1997 as an advisor to Bun Chhay.
Such are the ways of many of the approximately 50,000 Cambodians in Long Beach. They live in America, but their ties to their homeland transcend their roots here. Unlike many immigrants who settle in the U.S., this group bonds through its love of Cambodia and its work to reform the political system into an American-style democracy.
"When I am with family there, it feels like something wraps around me, gets into my soul, something that it is impossible to pull back out," explains Sakphan Keam, who works as an interpreter at the Los Angeles County courthouse in Long Beach. "That is why my heart and my soul are still the heart and soul of a Cambodian. I am more Cambodian than American."
Feeling truly American is especially difficult for many in Little Phnom Penh old enough to remember the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The virulent anti-Communists among them say they understand why the United States attacked North Vietnamese havens across the Cambodian border. But others recall that thousands of Cambodian civilians died in the bombardments, and they see them as the step that sucked Cambodia into a downward spiral of strife.
Few imagined at the time how much worse their lives would become. The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, led by the notorious Pol Pot, and began an agrarian reform so radical that it claimed the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians, nearly one in four, through disease, starvation and execution. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and installed their own leaders, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were finally able to flee the Khmer Rouge's clutches to refugee camps. Many eventually made it to Long Beach. But back home, the Vietnamese and the government they backed were seen as occupiers rather than liberators, and that image persists in Little Phnom Penh today.
The focus of the exiles' anger is Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander whom the Vietnamese installed as Cambodia's leader 16 years ago. Hun Sen ran the country until 1991, when the United Nations effectively took control to organize elections. When a majority of the votes in the balloting two years later went to the royalist party, elements in Hun Sen's party threatened civil war. Eventually, Hun Sen agreed to share power with royalist leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh, although in truth he controlled most government functions, including the military.
It was during that power-sharing period that Srey heard Bun Chhay's name on a radio broadcast in Long Beach. He was alive, and had risen to become a respected general--the top military representative of the royalists. Srey collected phone numbers of people she knew in Cambodia and called one after another, to no avail. Then she got a call at 5 in the morning. "He was at a wedding. He said, 'Is that really you?' And I said, 'Is that really you?' " He said he had been searching for her for years. Srey discovered that Bun Chhay had grown plump, a sign of prosperity in Cambodia, in his years away from the battlefield. She thought she could finally stop worrying about him. Not so.
In 1997, as opponents banded together to defeat Hun Sen in a new election, Hun Sen took military action against the royalists. Bun Chhay's outmanned forces were quickly crushed in street skirmishes in Phnom Penh. The general and most of his top commanders disappeared. Many were hunted down and their mangled bodies were found in shallow graves. His closest surviving bodyguards fled the country.
As for Bun Chhay, rumors were ceaseless: his corpse was burned, he swam across the Mekong River and boarded a helicopter to exile, he was shot in the back, fell and got up again--saved by a magic vest. He was becoming not only a martyr but a mythical figure--especially in Long Beach.
In truth, as Hun Sen's troops pursued him, Bun Chhay had marched 65 miles over difficult terrain for 15 days, then rode a motor scooter, evading land mines and gunfire, until he reached the safety of a remote region near the Thai-Cambodian border controlled by his resistance fighters. There his troops held out on a hilltop for months while international pressure grew on Hun Sen to end the fighting and find a political solution. Eventually, Hun Sen agreed.
In the bargain, Hun Sen made a tactical decision to forgive Bun Chhay his past "sins," but the former general remains on precarious ground. Although his royalist party made him a senator, in part to give him legal protection from courts controlled by Hun Sen, intruders broke into his house while he was abroad in 1999 and beat up his wife. They stole nothing and, as usual when opponents of the regime are harassed or assaulted, there have been no arrests.
Some who fought alongside Bun Chhay over the decades now make a decent living in the U.S., although others struggle to stay above the poverty line. They give what they can, and expect their donations to go either to Bun Chhay's former soldiers in Cambodia, most of whom live in misery, or to be used to advance political reform. Others simply want to make sure Bun Chhay is taken care of, and it seems he will be.
Long Beach donations to democracy advocates amount to tens of thousands of dollars a year--not much by U.S. standards, but real money in Cambodia, where most people earn less than a dollar for a day's labor. Without the assistance of Little Phnom Penh, Bun Chhay says his resistance would not have survived. "When I was in trouble in 1997, they helped me. We had no international assistance, so we needed their support." Other Khmer communities, from Seattle to Lowell, Mass., also contribute to the cause.
Tavy's $30-per-plate dinner raised about $12,300--about equal to Bun Chhay's annual salary as a senator. He also received gifts of cash in white envelopes. Although some of his political allies are believed to have squandered donations on gambling, mistresses or homes abroad, Bun Chhay's relatively large house in Phnom Penh is sparsely furnished, and it is far from luxurious.
Like Cuban Americans in Miami, residents of Little Phnom Penh also have learned the importance of political involvement in the U.S. "As you know, sometimes we can't speak up in our country, so they do it for us," Bun Chhay explains.
Many in the community support such politicians as Huntington Beach Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican on the House International Relations Committee who proudly calls himself Hun Sen's fiercest critic. Because Little Phnom Penh is outside his district, "they can't vote for me--and they don't have a lot of money to give," Rohrabacher says. "But they have had fund-raisers for me in which people gave $20 each, a small amount. It adds up." Most Cambodians support Republicans because they are viewed as tougher on Hun Sen. Arizona Sen. John McCain acknowledged the Cambodian democracy advocates during his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination last year.
LITTLE PHNOM PENH'S EFFORTS TO alter the course of their homeland add up to a kind of "doughnut diplomacy." The first Cambodian arrivals were able to gain economic footholds by investing in doughnut shops, later turning their attention to more lucrative enterprises such as mini-marts and jewelry shops and amassing the money to advance their convictions. "I am impressed that they went from doughnuts to getting involved back in their country," Rohrabacher says.
The congressman says his visits to the real Phnom Penh, which reminds him more and more of Long Beach, highlight the role that Little Phnom Penh is playing in business, politics, police and humanitarian affairs in Cambodia. "I can't tell you how many times I have been at the American ambassador's place in Phnom Penh and been introduced to someone from Long Beach," he says. "Cambodia is opening up and Long Beach is the doorway to Cambodia. The strong hand of Hun Sen is strangling a lot of the progress that they could have, but when prosperity comes to Cambodia, it will have Long Beach written all over it."
In front of a computer terminal, Lundi Seng keeps in touch with events in his tiny country across the globe. His life is oriented around trying to heal his people. He is a graduate of UC Irvine's medical school and he wants to study post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects untold numbers of Cambodians. But then Seng has his own affliction. He is a Cambodia junkie.
"I have spent way more time thinking about and living out Cambodia in my mind than I would like to. Like most Cambodians living here in the States, I think about Cambodia all the time--it's sort of like an addiction." That is why, he says, he is studying to cure his compatriots of their trauma.
Seng, 29, is part of a new generation of well-educated Asians, the "1.5 generation," who were born overseas but have grown up here. "I think we were spared for that purpose, and we want to help in the name of the memories of our parents and the 2 million innocent people who lost their lives, to make sure that we can do something to help prevent such things from happening again," he says. "Now all of us are professionals and our hearts have been burdened with this duty. Our lives would be empty if we didn't try to help Cambodia. In some ways; it's like a burden that God has put in our hearts."
As tensions have eased in Cambodia, more people have begun traveling home. "A lot of [older Cambodians] are nostalgic," says Dr. Song Tan, chairman of the pediatric department at Miller Children's Hospital in Long Beach. "We want to go back. A lot of us want to live there."
Yet his wife, Teri Tan, sees a byproduct of those desires. "I feel that there is an idolization of Cambodia," she says. "There are so many things that one can do here. This is our life, we are not living over there, we are living here," says Tan, an Australian-born scholar whose PhD dissertation focused on Cambodian ethnic issues in Long Beach, where young Cambodians often get lost between impulses to assimilate and parents who cling to tradition and their former homeland. As a result, many youngsters are doing poorly in school, joining gangs and running afoul of the law.
Her husband shares some of her concerns. He is working to create a Cambodian American Chamber of Commerce to consolidate community influence in local, business and political affairs. "Those people have some money and that would be a force to reckon with. Political candidates would have to come," he says, noting the power of the Cuban American community in Florida.
The longing to return to Cambodia is not without irony. While many in Little Phnom Penh dream of their homeland, countless Cambodians want to move to Southern California. Almost everyone in the real Phnom Penh seems to have some connection to Long Beach, which is far better known in Cambodia than the city of Los Angeles or even the state of California. "Lon Beek" as it is pronounced, is represented as a paradise of economic opportunity, freedom and safety that is out of reach for most because of financial limitations and visa restrictions.
Among those who do make it to the U.S., some return to Cambodia extolling their American experiences--even ones they didn't have--to get positions superior to anything they might dream of here. Several of Cambodia's top judges claim American university degrees they cannot prove they earned. When pressed, one offered a photocopied diploma with whited-out markings. Some returnees who previously worked only in menial jobs--driving cabs, cooking hamburgers and selling doughnuts--or who had no jobs at all have acquired high-ranking positions in government and grand pretensions in Cambodia. "A lot of people I see here who went back had no real career here and were not involved in the community," says Song Tan.
That is not to say that all returnees live solely for personal gain. Some have gone back at great personal cost, abandoning families, new lives and good jobs in exile to return and restore their country. Social pressures from the older generation within Little Phnom Penh actually push people to go back, like a tour of duty. Bunna Men, who has sponsored political fund-raisers for politicians sympathetic to the Cambodian exiles, says, "Some Khmer Americans are opportunists. Some say, 'Now I am here, I am comfortable.' But I am the opposite. I am physically OK, but not spiritually. I can't close my eyes. I came here, not just for myself, but for my country."
IN MANY WAYS, LITTLE PHNOM Penh functions at its core like a political organization, and like any political group, it has its extreme elements. In this case, it's personified by Yasith Chhun, an accountant who looks the part with his crisp white business shirt and prim demeanor. But when he speaks, he explains that the Disney movie "The Prince of Egypt" inspired him to lead a revolution to deliver his people from Hun Sen, as Moses did the Jews.
"I saw the movie," Chhun says. "It sounded great. I had to do something for the Cambodian people, to liberate my people who suffer, who are tortured, over there." So he started the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a California-registered nonprofit group. Chhun then took its leaders to Long Beach's most famous tourist attraction, the Queen Mary, where they swore an oath. "We raised our right hand to remove Hun Sen"--by any means necessary.
"Communist dictators are like cows," he says. "The cow never respects what we say. When we sing a song, the cow never listens, never understands, so we have to use force or guns."
Last June, Chhun and a small band of associates went to the Thai-Cambodian border on tourist visas to spur the overthrow of Hun Sen. Working from inside Thailand, they recruited fighters in Cambodia. In late November, a band of ragtag men wearing "Cambodian Freedom Fighter" T-shirts--some of whom were reportedly drunk on rice wine--shot holes in the walls of a government ministry and at least two other buildings in Phnom Penh before being easily repelled by government troops who had been tipped off weeks earlier. At least four of the fighters were killed and about a dozen were injured.
Seven weeks after the attack, Chhun was back in Long Beach to file his clients' tax returns. While the colossal failure hardly inspired confidence in his military vision, Chhun swore he would get back to his revolution, albeit with better execution.
"Even though I am in Long Beach, I can do it by remote," he says, gesturing to a cell phone. "All Cambodian people want Cambodia to be like the United States. There is a good chance that we can start building a freeway of freedom, so that the Cambodian people can walk on that freedom."
BUN CHHAY SIPS FRESH-SQUEEZED orange juice in the lobby of a Long Beach hotel. "I have had enough chaos," he says. "I continue to wish for Cambodia to be like this, to develop and have these freedoms."
After a quarter century of battles, why doesn't he simply remain in Long Beach, where he could retire as a folk hero? "Democracy is still not in place in Cambodia. I have so many friends, so many followers in Phnom Penh." Within the week, he was on his way home, the hopes of Little Phnom Penh following him.
"I still worry about him," Srey says. "I worry about all of them. I know too many people who died."
Rich Garella, who is writing a book with Pape on Cambodia, contributed to this article.