Lieutenant General Hun Manet, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s oldest son, wrapped up his 10-day US tour on Monday amid street protests from Cambodian Americans, leaving behind a community seemingly more divided than ever.
In Long Beach, CA, the annual New Year parade he initially planned to attend was met with lively demonstrations despite his withdrawal from the event.
“I’m protesting because I’m not satisfied with Hun Sen and Hun Manet for abusing and killing Cambodian people, selling land to the Vietnamese, and selling their consciences,” said Khim Any Yorn, a protester at the parade on Sunday. “We are not happy to let him join the parade in the US because the US is the land of democracy and his hands are stained with Cambodian blood so we don’t welcome him.”
Other protesters shared Any Yorn’s sentiment.
“I don’t support the government [delegation] to attend our parade,” said Kheng Song. “Everybody knows the regime is a dictatorship.”
Protesters held placards bearing anti-Hun Sen logos and messages against land-grabbing, corruption and deforestation.
In an exclusive interview with VOA Khmer, Gen. Manet, a senior military commander who heads the country's elite counter-terrorism unit, explained the reason for his withdrawal from the parade.
“What benefit do I get if I attend?” he said. “Getting thrown at with eggs and stones is not important, but the most important thing is our whole nation. Tens of thousands of people will go to see the parade and there will be cameras there to take pictures of what is Khmer [culture]. Our people take that opportunity to showcase what Khmer [culture] is. If there is a protest, it will dominate what will be shown... Therefore, it brings shame to the whole nation.”
When asked if he was angered by the protests, Manet said it was the people’s right to demonstrate “within the legal framework,” if it “does not cause violence to any member of the delegation or any participant at the ceremony to welcome [Khmer] New Year. This is their right. I’m not angry.”
When asked if there will be a counter protest by CPP supporters in Cambodia, as was the case after Hun Sen’s trip to attend the UN General Assembly in 2015, Manet said he would not encourage pro-government supporters to take to the streets.
A day earlier over 200 people also staged a protest at La Lune restaurant in Long Beach, where a private reception was held to welcome Manet.
“I want to tell Hun Manet that he does not need to unite Khmers in the US,” Samuel Samrech, a protester from Fresno, told VOA Khmer.
“Khmers in the US have enjoyed enough democracy. He needs to unite Khmers in the country first. Khmers have lost their land; got beaten up and imprisoned. They don’t have food to eat. Therefore, Hun Manet must organize Khmers inside the country first before coming to the US. Khmers in the US do not need Hun Manet.”
Astra Mam, another protester from Long Beach, also expressed his frustration.
“In fact, he does not come to unite Khmers in the US,” Mam said. “He is here to split Khmers, politically. Before the elections he needs to conduct a campaign among overseas Khmers to garner support for him. We who live overseas understand the value and suffering of Cambodians living in the country very well. It’s because of the Hun Sen government that our people live in misery, getting jailed and losing land.”
In addition to protesting against Manet’s visit, protesters also demanded the release of jailed political activists.
“If Hun Manet is truly a good guy, he should release those whom his father has thrown in jails,” said Navan Cheth, another protester from Long Beach. “Only doing so can Khmers overseas support him”.
Among those whom protesters demanded be released was Meach Sovannara, a US citizen and former press officer for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in relation to a protest following disputed elections in 2013.
“If he committed a criminal offense and is found guilty and was imprisoned, I don’t mind, but his only crime was to promote democracy, to educate people to understand their freedom,” said Sovannara’s wife, Jamie Meach. “Nowadays, I’m by myself working to raise three kids, and sending money to take care of my husband in jail.”
Dr. Sam Keo, a psychiatrist who attended the parade on Sunday, said the cultural memory of the Khmer Rouge atrocities were still prominent in the minds of Cambodian expatriates.
“Psychologically, they still remember their hardship during the Khmer Rouge regime that killed their siblings and parents, and the current leader is one of those leaders,” Dr Keo said. “Therefore, they are against the leaders.”
The parade in Long Beach went ahead without interruption.
Councilman Dee Andrews, who marched in the parade, said everyone should keep the spirit of the community and seek to understand Khmer culture. When asked about Gen. Manet’s presence and the protests, he said those wishing to partake in the parade should not be prevented by opposition supporters.
“I want to let them know that this is Long Beach, not Cambodia,” he said. “And we want to let the people who fought so hard to get here ... they want to be able to enjoy it. They should never ever turn away from that. Don’t let anyone take it from them. This is their parade.”
Manet made four stops in the US: Long Beach, CA, Olympia, WA, Houston, TX, and Lowell, MA.
His last stop in Lowell was also met with a protest before he headed to Canada.
“This is to show him that when he abuses people in the country, he does not have an easy time when he is abroad,” said Vannak Men, one of the protest organizers in Lowell.