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Saluting the forgotten

Has Sam Seak, once a fighter alongside US forces
Has Sam Seak, once a fighter alongside US forces, poses in his security uniform yesterday in Phnom Penh. Vireak Mai

Saluting the forgotten

From 1971 to 1975, Has Sam Seak risked his life to serve the US armed forces in Vietnam. Now aged 74, the veteran Cambodian soldier struggles to make a living as a security guard.

Lawmakers in the US submitted a resolution to the House of Representatives last week that, if passed through Congress, would formally recognise the service of Cambodian “freedom fighters” like Sam Seak, who supported and defended US armed forces during America’s war in mainland Southeast Asia.

“The introduction of this resolution is a dream that has come true for our veterans as we would never [have] thought we would have this opportunity in our lifetime. It is truly historic,” Hoeun Hach, chairman of the US-based International Khmer Assembly, said in a statement yesterday.

But while veterans in the US marked Memorial Day yesterday, those in Cambodia said their efforts still seem all but forgotten.

“I am not sure how this resolution would be important to me,” Sam Seak told the Post.

Now earning a meagre monthly wage of $90, Sam Seak said he wanted more than ceremonial recognition.

“If the US is really recognising [the Cambodians who helped the war effort], it should be something important to us, such as if the US would give us a small salary.… I am poor here,” he said.

Sam Seak, who says he was working on a rice field in Svay Rieng province when he was forced to take up arms, said that while he worked under the US flag as a driver and soldier, he never came into contact with those in charge.

“The American soldier was the boss, I was only a soldier,” he said. “The Americans were commanders, and I received orders only.”

The proposed resolution, which was introduced by US Representative Sean Duffy on Thursday, calls on Congress to formally recognise “the Khmer and Lao/Hmong Freedom Fighters of Cambodia and Laos for supporting and defending the United States Armed Forces during the conflict in Southeast Asia and for their continued support and defence of the United States”.

Senator Marco Rubio is backing the resolution in the Senate.

In a statement released after the congressional session, Duffy highlighted the plight of soldiers who fought with the US in Vietnam.

“The Hmong and Khmer fought shoulder to shoulder with US troops during the Vietnam War. These veterans rescued United States pilots shot down in enemy-controlled territory and returned them to safety, provided intelligence, captured and destroyed enemy supply lines, and provided food and shelter to US Armed Forces,” the statement says.

“These men deserve the grateful thanks of our nation, and this resolution awards them the recognition that they’ve long deserved.”

But 60-year-old Chea Khai, who volunteered to serve the US between 1973 and 1975, said that while the proposed resolution is a positive step, financial compensation is crucial.

“[US veterans] have money to survive when they get old. The US has taken care of its veterans, but Cambodians get nothing,” he said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who served as a commando with US-allied forces in the early 1970s, said recognition has been a long time coming.

“It’s about time the US showed support to the Khmer people,” he told the Post.

Siphan said that he was drafted to join the American war effort along with many of his friends when US recruitment forces arrived at his high school in Phnom Penh in March 1970.

“It was more than dangerous, it was my life,” Siphan said, adding that most of the people he knew who joined the war were killed.

After the war, Siphan said, many were killed by Pol Pot because of their links to the CIA and the US.

While Siphan said recognition would be a “good thing”, he said that it alone would not be enough.

“The US needs to improve its foreign policy to Cambodia and respect us as a neutral nation. That is my wish,” he said.

Far removed from the politics of Washington, veterans like Sam Seak hope the resolution can pave the way for compensation, which could make a tangible impact on their lives.

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