Rotana Pin misses good steak and backyard barbecues. Living in Texas for 28 years will do that to a man.
“I haven’t had American food for six months,” Pin, 49, said in a phone interview from Battambang province where he is on his first-ever campaign for a parliamentary seat with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Pin is an American success story. Fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime that murdered his father, he arrived in the US as a teenage refugee via Thailand, speaking zero English, accompanied by his mother and five siblings.
He learned the language and graduated from college in 1985. Like his father, he became an engineer. Pin said years of hard work earned him a senior position at a microchip-manufacturing firm in Austin, the state capital of Texas, and a monthly salary of $10,000.
Short visits to Cambodia ensured a lasting bond. He donated money and helped organise for political parties, but the time to come back never felt right until now, with most of his children out of college and on their own.
As other members of the Cambodian diaspora have done in recent months, Pin left what was once the promised land and returned to what he used to know as hell.
Candidates from Canada, France, Australia and all over the US are taking part in this year’s national elections, throwing on campaign garb and hitting the trails. They are engineers, businessmen, teachers and former activists, all with one goal in common: drumming up votes.
“This is my dream. I always talk about Cambodia, Cambodia,” Pin said. “The majority of people think I’m crazy.”
Should he win, Pin will make $2,000 a month as a lawmaker, one-fifth of his monthly income at his day job. His company is providing him with six months of leave, he said, but the money is neither here nor there.
“I have no interest in my job any more.
I’m more interested in my country.”
Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodians fled the country at unprecedented rates. Escaping the Khmer Rouge, and simply surviving, was a priority. After the regime fell in 1979, Cambodians crossed or were pushed over the border into Thai refugee camps and went on to third countries, creating a diaspora that is estimated to number a million. Over the ensuing years, a much smaller contingent of Cambodian political refugees fled.
Slowly and in stages, some of those who left trickled back. Former Khmer Rouge cadres returned with the Vietnamese-backed government.
Others rode in on the euphoric wave of the UN-backed elections in 1993. The trend continued every couple of years – in time for the polls.
Today, countless high-ranking government officials, and lawmakers in both houses of parliament, hold dual citizenship. Nothing in the constitution prevents it.
“It’s normal,” said Chheang Vun, 62, a ruling Cambodia People’s Party MP and spokesman for the National Assembly. “We have the possibility to have multiple nationalities.”
Vun said he moved to France on a scholarship in 1970. He lived there for more than 20 years. In 1992, Vun returned to work for the Ministry of Finance. In 1993 he was elected an MP and went on to hold several ambassadorial positions.
A Council of Ministers spokesman could not say how many Cambodians had returned this year to run for the ruling party. The opposition has also not offered an accurate headcount, estimating that a dozen have made the overseas trip.
The numbers aren’t high, because of the personal costs associated with packing up and moving back to Cambodia. Lives have been established elsewhere. To many, Cambodia is the past.
“It’s a big step, you have to make a full commitment,” said Mu Sochua, a long-time opposition politician who first returned in 1989 and ran for office in 1998. “You have to associate yourself with the country and, psychologically, emotionally, have to readjust.”
Pin’s family is watching from back home; it’s unclear who will move where if he is elected. Third in line on the party’s candidate list, Pin is no shoo-in for a seat unless the CNRP takes a substantial chunk of the vote in Battambang on
CNRP candidate Chamroeun Nhay, 40, running in hotly contested Kampong Cham province, said he wanted to come back for the commune elections last year but stayed behind to take care of his toddler in Las Vegas. His mother-in-law is helping babysit now, while he pursues a political dream that ended abruptly after election-related violence in the late 1990s forced him from the country. He came to New York City a few days before 9/11.
After almost 12 years in Philadelphia and Las Vegas, in which he stayed abreast of news in Cambodia and became the head of the Human Rights Party in North Amer-ica, Nhay resigned from his job and came back for good in April.
He is getting campaign help from friends in Philadelphia, home to one of the larger Cambodian communities in the US, where Nhay first lived before moving to Nevada.
“Over there, everything is good. We had a nice house, nice car, nice government,” he said. “Everything is beautiful over there compared to this country. I feel obligated to do something for my homeland.”
“Even if I lose, I plan to stay here for a long time.”
For 57-year-old Siem Reap opposition candidate Seila Chan, who spent 16 years in California and eight in Tyler, Texas, settling down in Cambodia was a chance to play a bigger role in public life – and get back in touch with his family.
“Before, I just visited, but now I have decided to live in Cambodia,” Chan, who arrived in January, said. “First, I want to help my country to build democracy in Cambodia. Second, I want to reunite with my mum. She’s old now: she’s 87 years old. And my siblings, they are poor, so I want to help them to live in Cambodia.”
“[My mum] said that it’s okay, win or lose, but just to help our country, because she wants to see our country have a democracy. She hopes to see that before she passes away.”
Like his CNRP brethren, Chan, a self-described political junkie who has worked in education and real estate, has few kind words for the ruling CPP.
Watching the political process in America may give some of the candidates an edge when campaigning.
Pin says he is “blending the Cambodian and American way right now”, using text messages and social media, going door to door and meeting as many people as possible.
“[It’s] difficult for me. Texas is hot, but this is hotter. It’s very dusty. Conditions are not the same as the US. On the roads, it takes a long time to travel.”
The past is never far away for those who return. Pin tracked down the countryside village where the Khmer Rouge interned him, taking note of one small change.
“My house was built on top of a pond. A very small pond,” he said. When he visited the area “the house was gone and the pond built in. No more house, no more pond”.