LOWELL — Cambodians began arriving here more than four decades ago, fleeing the Khmer Rouge and establishing their second-largest diaspora in the US. But it wasn’t until recently that they gained significant power locally by winning six political offices, including the first Cambodian-American mayor elected in the country.
“It’s such a proud moment for our family and for all my Cambodian-American friends here that I know -- and across the country,” said Sokhary Chau, a city councilor who was chosen last month by his colleagues to be mayor. “We truly feel that it’s our time to join the ranks, join the groups of people who have built the city.”
Yet the milestone masks deep political divisions in this gateway city, where homeland politics still drives allegiances and where the Khmer community is conflicted over whether Chau’s election represents true progress. “The First Cambodian American Mayor in the U.S – to Celebrate or not Celebrate?” read a recent headline from an editorial in Khmer Post USA, a Lowell-based newspaper. The article asserted that Chau “does not share the same values that the Cambodian community cares most about.”
In December, more than 100 gathered at Lowell City Hall to rally instead behind Vesna Nuon, a Cambodian-American councilor with a broader base of support and a history of defending human rights in Cambodia.
Chau, conversely, does not speak out about Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen, a onetime Khmer Rouge commander, dissolved the opposition political party in 2017. Since then, Sen’s repressive crackdown on civil rights has spurred condemnation by human rights groups, members of Congress, and other politicians who represent the Cambodian community in Lowell.
In Chau’s silence, skeptics detect sympathy for the regime.
”I think people who sympathize with this regime shouldn’t be in government office,” said Soben Ung, editor of the Khmer Post, an independent paper that supports democratic causes.
Chau said he is not a supporter of Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) -- or any Cambodian party. When asked if he denounces Sen’s increasingly authoritarian regime, he replied in a message: “I condemn the growing trend of strong-man rule internationally. Whether it’s in Cambodia, in Turkey, and even here in the United States.”
Chau, 49, a refugee whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, speaks passionately about democracy and the American dream.
“My father, he fought the communist regime and he lost his life to protect his country, to protect his people,” Chau said. “I believe in democracy and without democracy I would not have been elected to this position, first of all. And human rights is very, very important to all of us. I believe in human rights everywhere.”
But he maintains his focus should be on municipal matters.
“I am a local elected official in Lowell,” Chau said. “My primary focus is to serve the residents of the city.”
That has rankled some Cambodian-Americans in Lowell, who feel an obligation to speak up for those left behind in Cambodia whose freedom — despite the 1991 international agreement that promised democracy in Cambodia — seems imperiled once again. After dissolving the opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sen’s CPP consolidated power in elections that were widely viewed as a sham, prompting international concern and spurring repeated efforts by the US House to impose sanctions.
“It’s about our family, our brothers and sisters going through what we did, again,” Ung said. “And you’re going to tell me not to talk about it?”
The active presence of both the CNRP and CPP in Lowell creates a dilemma for politicians who seek to represent the entire city.
“I can’t be discriminating just like the sun only shines on the CNRP opposition party,” said Councilor Paul Ratha Yem, who was elected in November.
Yem, who fled the Khmer Rouge as a refugee in 1975, said he is not affiliated with either party but has felt maligned for not speaking out vociferously against the regime. Though he opposes it, along with dictatorships in other countries, he told the Globe, he is focused on fighting discrimination against Asians in Massachusetts.
“I don’t want to get involved in the politics back home,” Yem said. “I’m in America.”
Many Cambodian-Americans feel the same, still scarred by the experience of their homeland. The genocidal Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and during the next four years evacuated cities and forced people into agrarian labor camps, ultimately killing more than 1.7 million people. The memory of retribution for noncompliance with the regime -- and the distrust sowed among families during years of civil war —has made many Cambodians wary of speaking out politically, even in America.
The lingering effects have long discouraged Cambodian engagement in American politics, said Phitsamay Uy, co-director of the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Even now, fears of reprisal are not farfetched.
“There is a risk when you make a public statement,” said Uy, noting that many Lowell residents have relatives in Cambodia. “It puts them in danger.”
The mayor’s new visibility has put him in a delicate position, she said. As a Cambodian hub, Lowell draws considerable attention from Phnom Penh, as do its leaders, Uy said.
“People are watching you,” Uy said. “He now has a global presence.”
Chau was 9 when he fled the Khmer Rouge with his mother and siblings for America, originally settling in the Pittsburgh area with the help of a Catholic mission, he said. A graduate of Phillips Academy and Macalester College in Minnesota, he is a married father of two who works for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. He believes Cambodians should try to move beyond their country’s tragic past.
“We’ve been victims,” Chau said. “But I think now we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our community. We really have this opportunity to take on a challenge to show that we can succeed, that we can rise, and become a positive contributor and a positive influence to our community.”
Critics such as Rithy Uong, a former city councilor who is president of CNRP North America, believe that approach overlooks current concerns about democracy in Cambodia, which many politicians — from the Lowell City Council to Congress — have been willing to defend.
”He never showed up with us on human rights, to support the cause that we have,” Uong said of Chau.
In 2018, before Chau was elected, the Lowell City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for free and fair elections in Cambodia and for passage of a US House measure imposing sanctions against the Cambodian government for undermining democracy.
The resolution was sponsored by Nuon who, this past November, won his fourth term on City Council, running citywide and claiming more votes than any other candidate. Chau is more junior, elected only to his second term, to represent a much smaller segment of the city as a district councilor.
But the outspoken Nuon had also alienated some colleagues on the council, while Chau has not. Most notably, Chau aligned himself with several white city councilors in the summer of 2020 by rebuffing the demands of Cambodian residents and other people of color to declare racism a public health crisis.
Chau defended his stance on racism, saying he did not want to paint a city that has welcomed refugees and supported his political career with a broad brush.
“I did not believe that Lowell is racist as a whole,” he said. “It does not mean that racism doesn’t exist in the city or anywhere.”
And, he said, if the council considered a resolution today calling for free and fair elections in Cambodia, he would vote in favor of it.
Other politicians who represent Lowell on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill have used their platforms to call for democracy in Cambodia. US Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Lori Trahan have championed the issue and state Senator Ed Kennedy recently sponsored a bill that calls for the state to support free and fair elections in Cambodia.
“Elected officials are elected to make tough decisions,” said state Representative Vanna Howard, who is a cosponsor and the state’s first female Cambodian-American legislator.
Howard is one of six Cambodian-American officials who now represent Lowell in city or state politics. State Representative Rady Mom is silent on Cambodia, while the two city councilors and mayor are divided, and School Committee member Dominik Lay is more outspoken.