Hun Manet’s tour of the United States has hit another snag.
Days after bowing out of a planned Khmer New Year parade in Long Beach, California, in response to a local backlash, the prime minister’s eldest son has seen Phnom Penh sister city Lowell, Massachusetts, home to the US’s second-largest Cambodian community, roll up the red carpet.
On Tuesday, the Lowell city council voted to “denounce” the impending visit. However, the council had yet to decide whether to accept the RCAF lieutenant general’s intended gift, a replica of a statue of Jayavarman VII.
Lowell Mayor Edward J Kennedy – who abstained from the otherwise unanimous 8-0 vote – will also decline to meet with Manet, an aide told the Post.
Images and video posted by the Lowell Sun online show hundreds of protesters gathered inside the city hall with signs bearing slogans such as “Dictatorship is not welcome in Lowell” and “Stop unlawful evictions”. While dozens of residents spoke against welcoming Manet, several dissenting voices spoke on his behalf, though they were met with boos.
“I fully support the sister city relationship between Phnom Penh and the City of Lowell,” said resident Chea Sarun in a video in which he addresses the city hall in Khmer with an interpreter.
In another video, Kay Kamara, a leader of the opposition to Manet’s visit, called for the rejection of the Jayavarman statue as it is a symbol of the Cambodian people’s “unity” and “strength”, while “there is no strength and unity in our culture in the motherland”.
“Isn’t it wonderful to live in Lowell where we have free democracy here? . . . That’s all you were asking for in Cambodia, is that too much to ask for?” City councillor Rita Mercier can be heard saying in a video circulating on Facebook.
“My philosophy is the majority rules, and I think more people are against this visit than for this visit,” Mercier continued, before then recounting a trip to Cambodia in which she visited Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. “I wanted to feel what you felt … it was horrendous what you people went through.”
“Since I know who is there and who is coming over here – I don’t like communism, I don’t like persecution . . . I will not honour this man,” she said, seemingly conflating the Khmer Rouge era with the current government.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan reacted to the news yesterday by accusing the Lowell City Council of politicising what should be a unifying occasion, and condemning the vote as “an uncivilised act”.
“They do not have any argument; they are against their own principles of democracy and open society,” he said.
As for the Cambodian expatriates of Lowell, Siphan said “Hun Manet’s father [Hun Sen] liberated those people, they have a choice to go anywhere they want, they have the option to come back and form a political party against Manet’s father.”
Responding to Mercier’s comments, Siphan dismissed the councillor as having an inaccurate view of history.
“The bad guys are on trial already [at the ECCC], she’s thinking of the 1970s.
“That white girl has no capacity to live with diverse people . . . she’s prejudiced.”
Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, yesterday said that while the cancellation was “unlikely to have much effect on politics back in Cambodia”, it did suggest that “the CPP’s charm offensive in overseas Khmer communities is yielding little for the party”.