LONG BEACH, California - They wait at the Naga, a trendy Khmer restaurant and bar
overlooking the river. The massive bridge that shades the restaurant could be Phnom
Penh's Japanese Bridge. The view, the river, the Khmer musical instruments on the
wall, the restaurant leaning over the water; this could be Phnom Penh itself.
They have crossed the bridge to meet a Prince. There are two girls dressed as Apsaras,
an airplane mechanic, a "donut king" and two dozen other representatives
of the local Khmer community who have come for a political update on the life of
Prince Norodom Sirivudh.
And for Sirivudh - who has spent three years dropping in on the Khmer diaspora to
boost morale and talk up the struggle in exchange for room, board, money and lobbying
- they have come through, again and again.
The Cambodian expatriates of Long Beach are the economic foot soldiers of Cambodia's
opposition, a source of wealth, organization and political pressure. They have bolstered
Son Sann, Sam Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh, now they are here to support Sirivudh
in the battle for their Cambodia Lost.
"We must applaud you," Sirivudh tells his Americanized supporters at the
restaurant. "You have fought for democracy. The struggle is long and you have
Here in the heart of Los Angeles's nearly 50,000-strong Khmer community, the wealthiest
of the expatriate Khmers, Sirivudh continues to fire up the troops for the long-distance
"He needs support from us," says Donut King franchise owner Sahak Vaun,
a cousin-in-law of millionaire businessman Ted Ngoy. "And we support him 100%."
Sahak, who survived the Khmer Rouge before escaping the Vietnamese-backed invasion
of 1979, was one of several who say they would take part in a Dec. 26 fundraiser
to keep local Khmers informed about the situation at home and "let them know
what to do next".
While Sahak claimed he was too busy to get directly involved in politics, he has
been Funcinpec's California president since 1996.
"They pay for my trips," Sirivudh says. "I tell them details about
their country. I ask them how many villages there are, how many districts. I tell
them to learn things seriously. I tell them, ëDon't say you hate the Vietnamese,
in the US that comes off as ugly.' Tell them we have a problem with illegal immigration.
Americans will understand that.
"My exile? I don't like it, it is a terrible suffering. [But] I have learned
to know the different parties better. I have grown to know the [Cambodian-]Americans."
Sirivudh noted many differences between the French-Khmers and the American-Khmers.
"French Cambodians are active and intellectual but they don't have the same
"How can a [Cambodian] politician work outside Cambodia without knowing the
US? There are enormous human resources in the US. I have also been impressed by the
development of Cambodians here. They have three newspapers and three TV channels.
They are in business. They are entrepreneurs. We [the French] can be very philosophical
but the old ladies are happier [in the US] because they can call home easier [with
Khmer-language phone cards]... It is not intellectual, but it works."
It seems to have worked for Sirivudh, who pushes his compatriots to stay involved,
learn about their country, and retain their cultural and political identity, while
they bankroll many of his lobbying trips around the world.
"I hadn't understood why politicians like Rainsy and [former National Assembly
Vice President] Son Soubert took trips to the US," Sirivudh said.
"Now I understand. I think the opposition would not have survived the coup d'etat
of 1997 without the support of the Americans. They did the right thing..."
Among those to be counted on is Bunna Men, another Long Beach resident who has not
forgotten his homeland even if he shuns political membership. "Some Khmer-Americans
are opportunists. Some say now I am here [in the US], I am comfortable. But I am
the opposite. I am physically okay, but not spiritually," he said.
"I am upset with the CPP but we have no choice. The international community
spent almost three billion dollars to get Cambodia on the right track. I know we
can't build it in one night but we can push for change. I can't close my eyes about
my own country. I came here, not just for myself, but for my country."
He said he has sponsored and attended numerous fundraisers for influential opposition-friendly
US Congressmen Bill Gilman and Dana Rohrabacher to introduce them to the Cambodian
community and raise money for "humanitarian causes".
"Because I am also a US citizen, I lobby to shape US foreign policy," he
Since reaching the US in 1981, he has played an active role in the Cambodian-American
community, working with newly-arrived Cambodians in the 1980s, before becoming a
welfare official, Khmer-language radio announcer and restaurant-owner.
After raising $10,000 in donations during a one-hour radio drive for flood victims
in 1994, he returned to Cambodia for the first time in 13 years to visit Takeo and
his hometown of Kompong Speu to distribute assistance with former Assembly member
"I got physically, morally, and spiritually disoriented, there are so many soldiers
and [military] stars at the airport I wondered if it was a battlefield or an airport."
That trip had a dramatic impact on his view of Cambodia, particularly his departure.
"When I reached Thailand I started crying because of the huge difference in
the landscape and the poverty."
The trip also made him question efforts of the Khmer diaspora to affect Cambodia
when many expatriate Khmer do not pay enough attention to the realities of their
"I blame Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge because of their ignorance. [But] if I
go back ignorant, I am no better. If we go there without the knowledge to lead the
country, we will destroy it," he said.
When he is ready to return and play a constructive role in Cambodia, he hopes to
go back a wealthy man so he will be able to contribute rather than take away from
the nation's wealth.
"If Hun Sen can be Prime Minister, why not me? But I want to do it, not for
greed, but for good.
"I have no Master's, no PhD [but] I look back at Ho Chi Minh. He had no degrees
but he did so much for his people.
"In Cambodia we have: what we want, and we want to do it, but the people at
the top want us to do something else."
Bunna said he became interested in politics during the nearly four years he spent
in the fields under the Khmer Rouge.
Despite his father's teachings that politics were only for people at the top, Bunna
came to believe that those who do not take part in politics are destined to become
"Every citizen must be involved. No one can avoid it. If we are under the storm
cloud, we will all get rained on. My father made a big mistake. If you aren't involved
in politics, don't complain."
His desire to inform people and get them involved led to his Khmer-language radio
show in 1995 during which he read his own translations of news wire articles, so
illiterate Cambodian-Americans could find out what was going on at home.
Bunna said it was through his radio show that Sam Rainsy - who was then in the process
of being ousted from his Funcinpec parliamentary seat - became well-known among ethnic
Khmers in Long Beach.
"I want my people to be informed," he said. Speaking of his ongoing commitment
to Cambodia since arriving in the US, he added: "If we don't beat the drum,
nobody will know."