The Cambodian community in the United States is fairly small when compared with other Asian expatriate groups, but when pressed they have demonstrated time and again the power to come together to address issues.
Community activists in America are, ahead of the November 8 US presidential election, working to pool their votes in large numbers for candidates who they see as strong on education, jobs and health care.
“We are conducting a campaign to encourage people to join us to elect representatives in their states,” said Prom Saonora, honorary president of the Cambodian American Alliance, a pressure group. “Whichever candidate who is willing to help us, we will support them.”
There are over 300,000 Cambodians living in the US, according to a report released by the Center for American Progress (CAP) in April 2015.
In the 2012 US presidential election, only 62 percent of registered Cambodians came out to vote, of which more than three quarters voted for the incumbent, President Barack Obama, according to CAP.
Nem Chhoeung, founder and president of Cambodia Town in Atlanta, Georgia, said that his community, while only boasting about 10,000 members, has a decisive impact on electing the local representative.
“Almost 70 percent of the Cambodian-Americans live in the same town in my community,” said Chhoeung. “Therefore, representatives in this district and even our senator depend on our support. We are able to vote them in or out.”
Chhoeung also urged the Cambodian community throughout the US to continue to unite to demand leaders address challenges they face and help their countrymen back home.
“We have to unite to show our strength that we don’t only have temples and associations, but other businesses behind us, too,” Chhoeung said. “These businesses have benefited us a lot such as employing workers. This is our undeniable contribution to the US.”
Most Cambodian Americans came to settle down in the US after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, as refugees. The US government accepted 150,000 and sent them in different states to settle. Most reside in California, Massachusetts, Washington State, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Before arriving in the US they had little knowledge of the West or the English language, which subsequently affected their income and education. If compared with other major Asian communities, such as Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Vietnamese, the Cambodian community has the highest poverty rate, at 18.8 percent, compared with 13.9 percent for Vietnamese.
Kuch Schenley, an analyst, said the traditionally reserved nature of the Khmer community in the US had meant their concerns often went unheard in political circles.
“US politicians really want to help Khmer, but if they don’t know what we want and what we are suffering from, how could they help?” Schanley asked. “That’s why I believe there should be activities organized in some US towns to express our concerns. Cambodian-Americans should change our habit from staying quiet to expressing our dissatisfaction if there is any, or requesting anything so that politicians know and work for us.”
Many Cambodian-Americans own businesses, such as restaurants, tour companies and grocery shops, while some have got directly involved in the political process.
In 2012, Sam Meas became the first Cambodian-American to run for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts.
The Republican’s bid was not successful, but he remains active in his community. He urges voters to focus on security, immigration and jobs, because these have affected the Cambodian community the most.
“I believe that nowadays the US citizens in general and especially Cambodians in Massachusetts face unemployment and difficulties to find a job,” Meas said. “They [have difficulties] to find a job because the tax is increasingly high, and secondly companies have shifted factory jobs … to other countries like Sri Lanka, Mexico and other countries.”
Sam urged people to vote for their preferred candidates. He said that on top of primary challenges the community faces as a whole, there are other issues that some of its members face, such as deportation of non-US citizens for violating the law. This requires a concerted effort from the community.
“Because in a democratic society those who make louder noise will receive support,” said Meas. “Therefore, I appeal and beg [the] Cambodian community in the US, especially those who suffer from deportation, to register to vote, apply for citizenship, and vote so that we can petition our representatives,”
Meas sees more Cambodians becoming politically active. They managed to elect the first Cambodian, Rady Mom, to the state legislature, he notes.
Democrat state representative Rady Mom acknowledged both the strengths and the challenges the Cambodian-American community faces.
“The reason why I’m here is because all people have united and put me to work for them,” Mom said. “Without their votes I would not be here. I’m now working for them. This is my job. When there is a request I accept and look at it from every angle, trying to find the best answer for them, or using any law to address the issue in our community.”