Pheng Ang has lived in Lowell for nearly three decades. In all those years, the 71-year-old has not seen the local Cambodian-American community, the second largest in the US, as fractured by politics as it is today.
The US Presidential election is just weeks away, but the dispute here in Lowell is not between Democrats and Republicans. It is between supporters of two political parties many thousands of miles away in Cambodia.
“Before, there were some fractions,” Pheng Ang told VOA Khmer in a recent interview, explaining how politics in Cambodia casts a long shadow on life in Massachusetts.
“But when the Cambodian People’s Party [CPP] came to indoctrinate people here, there was a severe fracture in the community which, already, rarely had unity even among [Buddhist] monks,” he said.
Pheng Ang escaped as a refugee to the US from war-torn Cambodia in 1987 and has resided in Lowell ever since. The father of five said the deepening division among Cambodian-Americans in Lowell has intensified since a visit to the city in April by Hun Manet, a son of Cambodia’s long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Hun Manet, a senior military figure in Cambodia and often rumored to be his father’s choice of successor, was greeted by loud and angry protests who accused him of having a role in human rights violations and repression of the political opposition: the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Large numbers of Cambodians began arriving as refugees in the northeastern state of Massachusetts, and predominately in the city of Lowell, in the 1980s as war gripped the tiny Southeast Asian nation following the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
Lowell is now estimated to be home to more than 30,000 ethnic Cambodians.
Rithy Uong, a former Lowell city councilor, said the Cambodian-American community in Lowell was caring and unified when he arrived as a refugee in the early 1980s.
It is not that way now, he said.
“In the past, we could talk to each other easily. But now there are the CPP, the CNRP, the existing Sam Rainsy Party and other smaller parties,” Rithy Uong told VOA Khmer.
“We can still talk of course, but it’s just hard because the other party said if they are associated with us, they would be in trouble,” he said.
Importing division from Cambodian politics to the US has had consequences for local politics in Lowell, explained Rithy Uong, who served two terms in the Lowell City Council in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
He was the first Cambodian elected to the nine-member council.
His electoral success, however, has not been replicated in recent years.
Division among Cambodian-Americans over politics back in Cambodia has left them divided over support for candidates in Lowell local politics, Rithy Uong said.
Voting power has been split between competing candidates leading to an overall decline in the representation of Cambodian voices in the city council, he said.
Currently, there are no Cambodians on the city council.
“So how can we be hopeful?” Rithy Uong asked.
Cambodian-American Veasna Nuon was elected as a city councilor in 2011 but only held the position for a single two-year term.
Veasna Nuon and three other Cambodian-American candidates were all unsuccessful during the city council elections last year.
Two other Cambodian-Americans – Kamara Kay and Dominik Hok Y Lay – were unsuccessful last year as candidates running for election to Lowell’s school committee.
“Although there is a sizable Cambodian population here, the community itself is divided or fractured, I think, sometimes by the political issue back in Cambodia,” Lowell Mayor Edward Kennedy told VOA Khmer.
“Because of that, they don’t always vote as a bloc,” Kennedy said.
“So, maybe, their voice at the polls is not as loud as it would be if they vote in unison.”
Residents in Lowell said the first generation of Cambodians who migrated here more than three decades ago focused on building a better life.
Politics was not high on their agendas.
Eventually, Cambodian domestic politics followed the refugees to Lowell.
The community became factionalized even within religious institutions, which lead to the separation of Buddhist temples, division among physical structures used by the community, and separate local leadership roles.
Residents told VOA Khmer that newly arriving Cambodian immigrants have come with their political beliefs, which has, to a degree, exacerbated further divisions already present in the Lowell community.
Sovann Ou, the Cambodian government’s honorary consul general in Lowell, declined to comment for this article.
Tolayuth Ok, a representative of the ruling CPP’s youth movement in Lowell, said it was not the intention of Cambodia’s ruling party to shake up the unity of the local community.
“Most of the CPP members I know live here [and] also have families here, and they regard this city as their home too. So there is no intentions to break the community,” he said.
“We all love our society and our nation too.”
On the other side of the political divide, Sok Paul Pen, president of CNRP’s youth movement in the US, said it was time for stakeholders in the Cambodian-American community, especially the non-political Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA), to take a leading role in reuniting the “fractured Cambodian-American community.”
“I would like to appeal to the CMAA that they have to think of [the issue] and step into the political sphere to solve this,” he said.
That seems unlikely to happen.
CMAA Executive Director Sovanna Pouv said his association’s mission was focused on Cambodian people in Lowell, and not politics in Cambodia, or its local manifestation.
“If we focus a lot on what is happening in the country [Cambodia], which we have high respect for, and we respect everyone that is connected to the country, it pulls away from our true work here” in the US, he said.
What is taking place in Lowell is much like the weather, said Sidney Liang, a community leader, using the example of a storm, which would soon pass to make way for clear skies.
Cambodian-Americans might be in disagreements over different political viewpoints, but it did not amount to a fracture in the community, Sidney Liang said.
“Outsiders may think that the people in Lowell must be divided when they saw a protest taking place here, but in fact that’s not true,” he said.
The Lowell community will quickly recover and reunite after “the storm” has passed, he added.
Rady Mom, the Cambodian-born State Representative for the 18th Middlesex district in Massachusetts, also downplayed the talk of divisions and fractures in the community, saying it was simply the expression of different political views in a democratic country.
“If we often mention the fracture or division, that’s not correct,” said Rady Mom, who is running for a second term as a State Representative in November.
“We should get rid of that term,” he said, adding that the construction of two pagodas in Lowell did not mean the community was divided; it was just growing in size.
“If you just look at our pagodas we built, those came from our unity,” he added.
Political parties and their respective supporters need to focus on mutually beneficial debates rather than destructive political dispute, said Tararith Kho, a former Harvard fellow and current Khmer literature lecturer at Lowell Community College.
“I am aware of the division,” Tararith Kho said.
“But, I would just like to tell the Khmer community in this city that we should learn how to quarrel with each other in a constructive manner and not in a way [that] furthers their fracture.”