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The opposition's American foot soldiers

The opposition's American foot soldiers

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

achieved it."

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

battle.

"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

dimension [wealth].

"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

said.

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

Kem Sokha.

"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

home.

"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

its victims.

"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."

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