The Cambodian community in Virginia, a state bordering on the United States’ capital, consists of just a few thousand residents. But Khmer-Americans here are active in exercising their democratic rights to elect U.S. leaders, and often wield influence among the Cambodian diaspora in other states.
Most voters in the state who spoke to VOA Khmer said they would not be casting their votes in the November presidential election based on allegiance to a party. Instead, they are concerned about the pressing issues for their community—right now that means the economy, healthcare and education, and foreign policy.
Rany Lushinski, 55, of Ashburn, VA, who works in the accounts department of a shipping firm, said she wants to vote for a candidate who doesn’t have an aggressive foreign policy, has sound economic plans, and—most importantly—will lower college tuition fees.
“I see that tuition fees at colleges in the U.S. nowadays are very expensive,” Lushinski told VOA Khmer. “I believe that a country can progress when people are better educated and highly competent through study in schools. If the tuition fee is too high and people cannot afford it, their competency is also weak.”
Lushinski used to be a republican, but has switched to the Democratic party. The Democrats are set to pick former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as their nominee, while the property tycoon Donald Trump is the Republican party’s presumptive nominee.
“I don’t stick to one party,” she added. “I look for a competent candidate with good manners. Then, I’ll vote for the candidate. I don’t stick to one party because I’m a member of, say, the Republican party and have to vote for Republican forever, even if their policy is not good. I’m not like that.”
Vibol Tan, 58, a former engineer who lives in the town of Clifton, said he had also changed his allegiance in the past, and now considers himself an independent.
“We don’t focus on only one party,” said Tan. “We look at the main priority for people in the country and if the unemployment rate is high, we will elect a leader who can create jobs. If the health sector is not good, we’ll look for a party that will spend the money on improving that area.”
The same principle applies to Yap Kimtung, president of the group Cambodian Americans for Human Rights and Democracy.
“I look at the characteristics of the candidate, too, and I don’t vote for only one party,” said Kimtung. “On the other hand, I don’t want to see one party holding power for too long because once their power puts roots too deep, the leader and their cronies would do bad things.”
Kimtung appreciated the freewheeling nature of the U.S. election cycle, especially Trump’s outspoken campaigning, he said.
“It’s marvelous that in this country each candidate enjoys so much freedom that they even use it to criticize their own party, but still don’t have an issue with it,” he added.
Primary election results in Virginia reflect the enthusiasm of voters in the state, and have tended to match the outcome of elections nationwide. In 2008, for example, few voters came out for the Republican primary, but the state voted for Barack Obama—who would go on to win the presidency—in the Democratic primary. The state has in fact elected the overall winner in all presidential elections since 2000.
This year, more Republicans (more than 1 million) than Democrats (fewer than 800,000) voted in the state’s primaries, in which Trump and Clinton were the respective winners.
For Cambodian-Americans, there is also the matter of their home country’s politics to think about.
“[The community’s] interest in Cambodia is surely bigger than in the U.S., because we have everything we need in the U.S.,” said Prom Saonora, the honorary president of the Cambodian American Alliance (CAA).
“We have freedom. We have money. We don’t lack anything, even healthcare. Therefore, the most important thing is to protect the interests and freedom of the people in Cambodia.”
The CAA has recently been active in lobbying the U.S. Congress to support Cambodian causes, such as the recent creation of a bi-partisan Congressional Cambodia Caucus. The group is now urging the U.S. to create a “Cambodia Contact Group” to push for free and fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power if the ruling loses in 2018.
Saonora said he would vote for Trump, brushing aside criticism of the Republican candidate’s controversial stances on immigration. Perhaps surprisingly, since Trump has not spoken publicly about the country, he believes the candidate would pay more attention to Cambodia than his opponent, due to his “aggressive” foreign policy.
“Mr. Donald Trump has his own way of speaking because he is a businessman, so his style is just like that,” Saonora said. “Business people are decisive, but there is no point at which they don’t make a change to their plan. If they find it beneficial to them, they’ll surely change it.”