Former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk Dies, and Why Asian America Should Care

“The king is dead. Long live the king” goes the old proclamation. Cambodia’s former king Norodom Sihanouk was reported to have died on 15 October 2012, which to the Kingdom of Cambodia symbolizes more than just the loss of their old monarch, but–love him or hate him–the end of an era.

Sihanouk was the man who led Cambodia to independence from France without bloodshed, was a prominent political figure as both prime minister and foreign minister after abdicating in favor of his father, and tried to keep Cambodia out of the Cold War until the U.S. backed a coup that installed Lon Nol as leader, forcing him into exile in Beijing. While there, he struck a deal with the Khmer Rouge who ascended to power in 1975, and although he was appointed head of state, he was subsequently detained and remained inside the royal palace for four bloody years as Pol Pot’s brutal rule brought the death of over 1.7 million Cambodians, systematically destroying everything in his Year Zero campaign. It is as a result of this bloody time that led to the Cambodian diaspora that brought refugees to destinations that include Canada, France, and America as they fled for their lives.

Sihanouk would go on to condemn the Khmer Rouge regime, especially after it had led to the killing of several of his own children. He would return to Cambodia to be crowned king again in 1993 after the United Nations and Vietnam withdrew in 1991, which, in spite of criticism for his former endorsement of the Khmer Rouge (twice, because he supported them against the Vietnamese after the genocide), was a symbolic return to the zeitgeist of the time before the Kingdom was drawn into the horrors of the Cold War by Nixon’s bombings and Pol Pot’s savage rule. Though he abdicated in favor of one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni in 2004 and frequently spent his time in Beijing and Pyongyang (to much criticism), his influence remained strong in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Cambodians and Asian America

The population of Cambodians in North America counts 276,667 United States (as of the 2010 census), up from 206,052 in 2000, where 231,616 (84%) are Cambodian alone and 45,051 part-Cambodian, with the majority in Long Beach, CA, Tacoma, WA, Lowell, MA, with large pockets in Rhode Island and Northern California. As of the 2006 Canadian census, there are 25,245 people of Cambodian descent residing in Canada, the majority in Quebec and Ontario.

Though the numbers are small, as a community, our raison d’etre is much in tune with the phrase found on Seal of the United States, E pluribus unum, which means “Out of many, one”. In spite of being Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and more, Asian America is where our parallel experiences become a tradition of collaboration that crosses the ethnic and linguistic boundaries as we homogenize into one collective group striving for community. Ignorance and discrimination characterize our collective identity, from those who confuse one ethnic group for another, Chinese for Japanese, Korean for Vietnamese, Filipino for Cambodian, Pakistanis for Iranians– it’s the misplaced identification that inspires us to collaborate out of necessity, lest we have more Vincent Chin incidents (where a man of Chinese heritage was murdered by disgruntled auto workers who mistook him to be Japanese). The contributions of one group–large or small population–benefit us as a whole.

So why should Asian America as a whole care about the passing of the former monarch? Why should even Americans and Canadians of Cambodian descent care about a man as many as two generations removed from their heritage after settling on the North American continent? Or a bigger question: why should Asian America care about big international issues from the Asian region beyond the pop culture news and Internet memes?

Short answer: our overseas heritages have been a huge driving force that has shaped many of our significant contributions to the community and country as a whole.

Invisible Hands, Invisible People

Visibility is one of the common topics in Asian American dialogues, whether it is in academia, entertainment, or politics. A recent piece on NPR about more Asian Americans in American politics is rising as the community grows exponentially, academic programs are striving to go beyond being an esoteric focus, and entertainment (outside of YouTube) is getting more Asian faces.

Again, the question: why should people care about overseas Asian issues, particularly about Sihanouk, or about the small population within the community?

Much of the foundations for our community is found in the resettlement in North America, things that we overlook today as part of our benefits. Cambodians have a presence in entertainment and politics that can not be denied today, and they are tied to not just the means that brought their families to North America, but the history that continues.

The most recent face people think of (hopefully not the only one) is our own beautiful Ellen Wong from Canada and a daughter of refugees, who stole the show in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and has gone onto be featured in The Carrie Diaries. There is also Haing S. Ngor, whose debut in The Killing Fields where he portrayed Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran marked the first time an Asian actor won an Academy Award for supporting and debut performances, which itself paves the way for more individual, community, and global achievements, including founding the Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping rebuild the devastated country’s infrastructure and care for war orphans.

In politics, there is Sam Meas, the first Asian American to run for U.S. Congress (albeit unsuccessfully) which itself signifies as mentioned in the NPR article above that Asian America is rapidly moving towards being ready to step out of the shadows and be more than just a silent community occasionally found in movies and television. There is Loung Ung, who has made enormous contributions, from being spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World, supporting causes to build more schools and fight sex trafficking, Khmer Rouge tribunals, and strong support for the Cambodian communities in America.

Let us not forget Bhante Dharmawara, who, although not American himself, founded the first Cambodian Buddhist temples in Washington D.C. and later in Stockton, CA.

How do these individuals and their contributions to the community answer the question about why we should care? Because as the problems still exist, their response and efforts affect Cambodia and America, Asian America, and as we have seen in the efforts of Dr. Ngor and Miss Ung, the world at large.

So let’s recap those accomplishments, how it ties in to why we should care, and the king: Dr. Ngor and Miss Ung have made contributions because of their ties to Cambodia and America, which has benefited not just Asian America, but the world at large for giving us good art and foundations that fight against trafficking and landmine usage. The Buddhist temples are not just symbols of culture and religion, but a gathering for the community, akin to a town hall that is open to all, not just the Cambodians. Political ambitions from Sam Meas shows how quickly a young community can quickly integrate and move to center stage instead of remaining a state of perpetual abeyance and parochial stagnation. The presence of Ellen Wong and her own talents as opposed to the role she landed has indicated there is a place for Asians in mainstream entertainment after her rapid rise in the industry, which is uncharacteristic for many Asian entertainers. Besides being Cambodian, what do they have in common? The conditions they came from is what inspired them to strive to reach their highest potential.

Beautiful daughter of refugees in Toronto? Be her best in her art. Son of immigrants in Massachusetts? Head straight for Congress. Surviving the death of loved ones and end of a life and career because of the Khmer Rouge? Star in a film about the killing fields and found an organization dedicated to righting the wrongs of the past. A child who escaped the Khmer Rouge? Philanthropy and activism addressing the issues that plague her motherland and the rest of the world affected by the same problems. Not bad for what is still a relatively young and small population in North America.

Conclusion: Invisible Waves

There are going to be plenty of people who remain unconvinced by this call to be more global-minded and care about events like Sihanouk’s passing. There will also be a few people who are keeping informed, Asian or not, and seizing the moment to make their mark. It is the latter who will create benefits for both groups. Those who choose to write off this message calling for awareness as “boring” can continue living their lives, but full participation in any community you call your own is what leads to greater rewards–you reap what you sow. However, in this case, you can get the material and cultural benefits, but you won’t feel the zeitgeist from being connected to the community–the very same invisible wave ridden by the few pioneers from Carlos Bulosan to Ron Takaki to Iris Chang to make their mark on us.

King Sihanouk’s passing is the end of an era, and the end of a memory for the families who were brought to the North American continent. In spite of the sharp divide in opinions–both violently hostile and in respectful deference–his influence remained strong to Cambodians domestically and overseas.

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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