Sam Meas, the first Cambodian-American to seek congressional office, talks about growing up in war-torn Cambodia, his move to the US and his outlook on the Kingdom’s political situation.
Sam Meas, a 36-year-old investment analyst from Haverhill, Massachusetts, is a Republican candidate for the United States congress in Massachusetts’ 5th District. He is the first Cambodian-American to run for Congress, or any other state or federal office in US history. Sam Meas and a cousin crossed the border from Cambodia into Thailand’s Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in 1983. He came to the US to live with a foster family in 1986, and went on to graduate from Virginia Tech University in 1996. Sam Meas recently took time out from working and campaigning to conduct an email interview with the Post.
What were the most striking things about the United States for you when you arrived in 1986?
Our flight arrived in New York City at night from Europe. The view of the city from the plane was the most incredible sight I have ever laid my eyes on. Bright lights were lighting up the city grids from the ground. I thought it was heaven on earth.
The second striking feature was the highway system. A group of us took the taxi from the airport to the hotel. We were driven through underpasses, overpasses and underground tunnels. I was just mesmerised by the wonder of it all. The tall buildings and modernity of everything in America were just incredible. I had never seen any of these things before in my life.
Last but not least, I was pleasantly surprised by the kind and welcoming people in America. True to their reputation, Americans are kind, compassionate and caring people.
What are your memories of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge?
I was very young when the Khmer Rouge took Kandal province; It has since been relayed to me that I was just 2 years old at the time. My father was arrested and never to be seen again, meaning that he, like so many other thousands of teachers and intellectuals, was executed....
My older brothers and sisters were drafted to be part of the Khmer Rouge’s new Army of Labour and sent to work far away. I never saw much of them after they left.... While my mother was putting in 12-hour days for Angka in the field, my brother and I spent our time between our mud hut and the day care centre at the communal kitchen. One of our jobs, besides fending for ourselves, was collecting cow manure....
I did witness individual murders and mass killing. My family was spared, I was told, solely because the local Khmer Rouge village chief attested that our family was part of the “liberated people” or “old people”.
What are your thoughts on the current state of politics in Cambodia?
Cambodia, like many other countries that are recovering from years of protracted civil war, is lacking much and needs rebuilding on so many fronts – the economy, education, healthcare, social justice, respect for the rule of law, respect for private property, human rights, independence of the judicial system and transparency and accountability at all levels of government – all at the same time.
Has some progress been made? The answer is yes. Can more be done and at a faster pace? Absolutely. Would the economy of Cambodia greatly benefit from an independent judicial system and greater respect for private property? I believe so.
On September 10, the US congress heard testimony from Cambodian witnesses who detailed a litany of human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by the Cambodian government, with Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Mu Sochua claiming that Cambodian democracy is experiencing “an alarming free fall”. Do you find these testimonies credible?
This is all the more reason why there is an urgent need for an independent and transparent judicial system in Cambodia – so that any allegations, as well as lawsuits and countersuits, can be brought forward in the Cambodian courts. Only in an independent Cambodian court can the truth be found by a Khmer judge and the Khmer people. As a US congressman, I will fight to right these injustices.
Many Cambodians who grew up in America find themselves back in Cambodia after being deported for committing felonies as noncitizens. What is your position on this issue?
While I am strongly sympathetic to their plight, everyone must obey the law. So, I first strongly advise all legal immigrants to apply for US citizenship as soon as they are eligible.... Many of these deportees who grew up in the US came with their parents when they were very young and had ample time to apply for US citizenship. In a free society, one must be held responsible for one’s actions. They committed the felonies and aggravated felonies or drug trafficking, and are therefore responsible for their actions.
However, as an elected official, I would also like to examine the different agreements signed between the US and Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.... It seems that there is variation in the agreements between the US and these countries.…Why is it that noncitizens from these countries are treated differently? The same crime must have the same punishment regardless of the perpetrator’s race or country of origin.
Have you been following the progress of the Khmer Rouge tribunal? If so, what are your thoughts on it and the role it is attempting to play in national reconciliation?
I have been following the Khmer Rouge tribunal. I think what needs to happen in order for the healing to begin is to model the tribunal on the truth commissions in South Africa. Those who committed the heinous crimes need to openly confess on record to the people and ask forgiveness from the victims and their families. No retribution or punishment.
What role does Buddhism play in your outlook on politics?
I am a Buddhist and believe in the teachings of our Lord Buddha. One needs to have compassion for human suffering. But each human being is held accountable and responsible for our actions. Therefore, there is a certain limited role of government in our daily lives. Each of us is responsible in ensuring that our government works for us.
Government should create a limited safety net for its citizens, but government should not be there to provide a handout and to take care of every need of its citizens. Citizens create and get the type of government they choose. Dictatorship and totalitarianism did not happen overnight. Be wary of a government that promises and gives too much, for that beneficence ultimately comes from what it takes from the people.
INTERVIEW BY JAMES O’TOOLE