Cambodians of Lowell in Local Politics and Society

The History of Cambodia

Before the Khmer Rouge

Prior to the onset of WWII, Cambodia was under the rule of the French, as it had been since 1863, and would be until the crowning of king Sihanouk in 1963. Although relatively quiet and untroubled, it still suffered a heavy burden of taxation from the French government as a protectorate. The population of Cambodia was somewhat diverse, with a mainly Khmer, Buddhist, peasant population, interspersed with various ethnic or religious minority groups, as is typical of most nations. The various ethnic, ethnolinguistic, and religious minority groups were composed of Vietnamese, Chinese, Jarai, Muslim Chams, Tampuang, and Kreung. 

                                                  Map of Cambodia                                                                           

It was the defeat of the Japanese after WWII and the subsequent re-imposition of strong French rule that prompted an uprising of what was to be called the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), comprised of a communist Cambodian government movement, sponsored by the Vietnamese. This movement protested the French control over the nation, and gathered increasing support from the Issarak nationalists, although their progress and support base was not entirely universal. This movement was, at its core, a nationalist movement protesting imperialism, and was very much in trend with the general global anti-imperialism sentiment of the 20th century. However, the revolutionary fervor was adopted by a group which identified themselves as "Democratic Kampuchea", and used the silhouette of Angkor Wat's five towers on a red background as its flag. This new title would later be adopted by Pol Pot as the official name for his Khmer Rouge regime. 

It was during this time, in 1949,  when the racially motivated massacres of indigenous Vietnamese began, at the hands of an anti communist splinter group. This marked the beginning of the genocidal era in Cambodia, eerily reminiscent of the genocidal era just ended in Europe under Hitler and his Nazi regime. At the same time, an anti KPRP group adopted a similar flag to that of the Democratic Kampuchea group, but using three towers of Angkor, rather  than five, which would become the official flag of the Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot. This individual, under his original name of Saloth Sar arrived home from Paris and served for a short time in the Issarak militant group, calling himself "the Original Khmer". 

This first Indochina War ended with the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the subsequent Cold War neutrality style rule of Norodom Sihanouk, whose policy of disengagement proved to be effective at keeping Cambodia out of the conflict in neighboring Vietnam for a decade. His goal was partially to avoid that escalating conflict, and partially to placate the communist sect of his population, keeping the country out of a pro-Western frame of mind in order to keep the communists from rising up in protest. However, even as a large portion of the radicals left, many taking up exile in Hanoi, or were imprisoned, or simply relatively content with  the Sihanouk governemnt, a communist radical movement was growing in the northeastern jungles of the country (Young, 2013). 

The veterans of the communist party, who were predominantly Buddhist, mollified by the current government, and pro-Vietnamese were replaced by a new generation of leadership who had been educated in Paris, and were violent, anti-Vietnamese, anti-religion and anti-Sihanouk. An armed rebellion and coup were planned. As the government sensed this uprising, the increased force against the visible moderates drove them, disgruntled and disenchanted with Sihanouk and his newer, more vigorous anti-communist policy, into the depths of the violent leftist movement.

The increased violence and magnitude of the Vietnam War being waged by the United States presented to the Cambodian people and government the imminent and unavoidable reality of the end of the period of relative peace. The exodus of Vietnamese communists into Cambodia led to the bombing of Cambodian border regions in 1969, signaling the end of the peace. Previously, in 1967, the  Communist Party of Kampuchea, led by Saloth Sar (later Pol Pot) was inciting civil war within Cambodia, exacerbating the stress and violence in the country.  These two violent entities, in conjunction with the economic crisis caused by extensive rice smuggling across the border and the subsequent bankruptcy of the Sihanouk regime, led to the overthrow of the king by General Lon Nol on March 18, 1970. The regime was renamed "the Khmer Republic" headed by Lon Nol as President, and the former king fled to the CPK led Khmer Rouge group. 

The new government under Lon Nol continued the trend of anti-Vietnamese genocidal warfare, leading to the "ethnic cleansing" of thousands, and mass exodus of hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese people in Cambodia. This conflict was dramatically exacerbated by the fact that both the Vietnamese and US forces saw Cambodia as part of their available warfare theater, and used it as a staging ground of sorts for both land and air maneuvers. These outside forces fighting within Cambodia, completely outside the control of the Lon Nol regime, led to the almost absolute loss of control over the countryside and other rural areas, and the Saigon forces maintained a presence in Cambodia until 1972, even after the United States forces had withdrawn, although they did continue with aerial bombings, killing tens of thousands of citizens, until 1973. The continued attacks at the hands of outsiders pushed many of the surviving Cambodians into the ranks of the Khmer Rouge, as they sought refuge and a sense of stability (Mount Holyoke College, n.d.). 

The Khmer Rouge Regime

As the violent outside presence grew, so did the so-called ethnic cleansing of Vietnamese within Cambodia by the Lon Nol regime, accompanied now by his brother, Lon Non. The regime, which was becoming increasingly oppressive, exclusive, and narrow-minded, began including Thai individuals in the genocide, and began to heavily oppress any Muslim communities or entities within Cambodia, such as the Muslim Chams. On April 17th, 1975, the Democratic Kampuchea was established in Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, formerly Saloth Sar. The new regime ousted millions of citizens into the countryside from the capital, out amongst the rural "base people", in an attempt to create a "classless society" comprised entirely of peasants, and yet headed by the Angka government officials. It was not until 1977 that Pol Pot announced himself as the leader of the Khmer rouge.

Pol Pot

The new inhabitants of the countryside were forced to work in agriculture under slave-like conditions, and a huge portion of them died of starvation by 1976, particularly in the Northwest zone. The workers in the rice fields subsisted on only 180 grams of rice every two days. This was part of the "Four Year Plan", started in "Year Zero" to produce 3 tons of rice per hectare for the government. The goal of the regime was to create an entirely agrarian society, and it meant to accomplish its goal by taking nearly all the urban dwellers and forcibly relocating them far away from their homes, into deplorable conditions.


Khmer Rouge Entering Phnom Penh (BBC, 2015)

Religion and family ties were ruthlessly stamped out, and the children of the nation were brainwashed into reporting their parents for infractions such as worship, or for being intellectuals, who disguised themselves as peasants to avoid persecution. Parental authority was disposed of, since the only allegiance anyone was permitted to have been to the state. Any type of Western or outside influence was strictly prohibited. Cambodia became entirely cut off from the outside world. Money and businesses were banned, and all aspects of life were strictly controlled. Radio stations and newspapers were eliminated; healthcare and education were done away with.

This was accompanied by mass executions of Khmer Republic officials, supporters, intellectuals, or suspected sympathizers, as well as vast numbers of the "base people" who had been at all related to or affiliated with the executed Khmer Republic officials. This violence against the Cambodian people was accompanied by the continued and escalated violence against ethnic minorities, in the country, especially the Chinese populace, which lost over a quarter of a million lives. The Chinese were not the only group to suffer, however. The Muslim Chams were first rounded up and forcibly distributed into the rural zones, and when they were rejected by officials there, either ejected from the country, or simply killed. The remaining Vietnamese in Cambodia, approximately 10,000, were also systematically located and murdered, as were lingering Chinese, Thai, and Lao people. The detention center S-21 acquired its infamy during this time, and some experts say that only 7-12  of the nearly 20,000 known prisoners there survived (The History Place, 1999). 

In 1978, the ethnic Khmer in the Eastern Zone led another uprising, similar to the 1975 Cham uprising which led to their demise, and the Khmer were met with extreme violence from the Pol Pot regime. Efforts to round up regional administration were greatly increased. The regime came to an end however, in 1979, when Phnom Penh was taken by Vietnamese troops. This invasion of foreign forces was prompted by the military action taken against Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was established, later renamed the State of Cambodia, after the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops in 1989. 

The Aftermath

Overall it is estimated that some 1.7 million (approximately 25% of the population) people lost their lives in the "killing fields" warfare and genocide of this time in Cambodian history. Despite his integral role in the murder, torture, and relocation of millions of people, Pol Pot was never brought to justice, and died in 1998 (Yale, 2010). It was only in 1999 that all the surviving members of the regimes elite had been killed, captured, or died of natural causes. Cambodia is now a constitutional monarchy under King Norodam Sihamoni. The country is also now enjoying a period of strong economic and social growth, as it moves away from the dark years of the late 1900's (Leitsinger, 2010).

Khmer Rouge Timeline (CIA World Factbook)


Although the United States is now home to a huge population of Cambodians, especially in Long Beach, California, and Lowell, Massachusetts, the United States and Cambodia have not always enjoyed the warmest of relationships. 

During the Vietnam War, the United States used Cambodia as a staging ground for warfare against the Vietnamese, a factor which contributed largely to the destabilization of the Sihanouk regime, and its eventual collapse (The History Channel, n.d.). Even after the Vietnam War ended, the US continued bombing Cambodian border regions, and by the end of the bombings, nearly half a million tons of bombs had been dropped. Although never formally charged, this period of American history, beginning under President Lyndon Johnson and ending under President Richard Nixon, has been referred to as an example of what could potentially be American war crimes, and in 1967 all diplomatic relations with the US were severed during the new reign of King Sihanouk (Lum, 2007).


US Bombing Points in Cambodia, 1965-1973 (Yale, 2010)

Following that, the United States assisted Cambodia in becoming part of the United Nations, aided in brokering the 1991 peace settlement that officially ended the war, and in helped in reestablishing the country's economy and government after the eradication of the Khmer Rouge regime. However, after Prime Minister Hun Sen seized power in 1997, between 1998 and 2007 the relations between the US and Cambodia were highly restricted, and it was only in 2007 that the ban on direct, bilateral aid to Cambodia was lifted. 

Cambodians in America Today

Since the 1980 census, which was the first to officially tally the Khmer population of the United States, the journey of the Cambodian immigrants and their families has been one both typical of and strikingly dissimilar to the stories of other migrant waves throughout US history (Chhim, Lai, & Arguelles, 2003). At this point in history, immigration policies were more liberal than they had been in the past. This, combined with the efforts of individual state governments like that in MA (see The History of Cambodians in Lowell tab) eased the way for the refugees to enter the country. However, the non-citizen Cambodians living in the US, as well as their children, are under threat from migration reform policies that target "aliens". Cambodians in the US tend to live in larger-than-average households with lower-than-average literacy rates, which places them at a significant disadvantage both socially and economically (The Advocates for Human Rights, 2011).



As of the 2010 US Census, there are approximately 244,000 Cambodians living in the US, although this number has certainly increased in the 4 years since then. Almost 160,000 of these are the refugees, immigrants and "humanitarian parolees" that arrived in the US between 1975 and  1994 as they escaped the brutality of their homeland. These citizens, permanent residents, and individuals presently on various types of visas occupy a myriad of jobs within the US, the majority of which are blue-collar jobs. The Cambodian population of the United States, which can be found in all 50 states, keeps its heritage alive through revivals of Cambodian dance, music, food, and tradition (US Census Bureau, 2015). The exact numbers of  citizens and residents are up for debate however, due to a myriad of factors. As with any immigrant population, some illegal individuals are to be expected. Other issues with counting stem from language and cultural barriers. The literacy rate amongst Cambodian-Americans is quite low when compared to the overall American literacy rate. This is due largely to the fact that the majority of Cambodians who immigrated during the 80's had very little to no formal education whatsoever. The Khmer Rouge made extermination of any educated elite part of its modus operandi, and as a result, very few people with higher education made it to the US. These individuals struggle with the cultural differences that make attaining higher education here in the United States quite difficult. Typically, the Khmer culture is more reserved, which compounds with a distrust for strangers and governments borne of their traumatic shared past to significantly complicate the process of obtaining a GED or college degree (The Advocates for Human Rights, 2011). 

It has been a struggle for the Cambodian population in the US, particularly for the households headed by women, most of whom had seen their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons killed or stolen away by the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of these women are the sole breadwinners for their families, and for many, arriving in the US was the first time they were ever responsible for find wage-earning jobs outside the household.  It was only the first wave of immigrants, in 1975, who have been largely successful in finding white collar jobs as social workers, interpreters, and the like. The rest of the refugees and immigrants have had a difficult time finding work outside the blue collar, often menial labor force.

Compounding  this struggle is the fact that the majority of refugees suffer from PTSD, or at the very least are deeply troubled by the atrocities they were forced to witness and undergo. The children being raised in these households are also in danger of developing mental health issues, as they are being raised by troubled adults. Despite these struggles however, the Cambodian population is beginning to stop merely subsisting, and start thriving. The immigration rate from Cambodia is very low, compared to other Southeast Asian countries, so the majority of new Cambodian-Americans are being born and raised here, which makes the population better adapted and more poised for success (Pho, Gerson, and Cowan, 2007).

Symptomatic of this upswing in sociopolitical fortunes is the increased and more effective participation of the Khmer population of Lowell in politics and municipal society. The last decade saw the elections of the first Cambodian-Americans to local seats, and to a state office. Presence and influence on any level of political involvement is critical for the immigrant and second-generation Cambodian-Americans to solidify themselves as immutable, vital parts of Lowell, and of America as a whole (Murphy, 2014; Cambodian-Americans elected to Lynn and Lowell City Councils, 2015). The Cambodian population of Lowell has also created cultural and social mechanisms for maintaining their culture and celebrating their heritage. The Water Festival held on the Merrimack River every year, the Ankor Dance Troupe, and the vast number of Khmer restaurants and shops inside the city of Lowell all serve to advance the Cambodian population socially, while aiding the transition into American life (Pho, Gerson, & Cowan, 2007).

Angkor Dance Troupe in Action

About CMAA - CMAA Lowell. (2016). Retrieved from

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Murphy, S. P. (2014, December 8). Cambodian-American becomes a first in Lowell - The Boston Globe. Retrieved from

Pho, T., Gerson, J, N., & Cowan, S. R. (2007). Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants in the mill city: Changing families, communities, institutions-- thirty years afterward. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press.

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Center for American Progress. (2015, April). Who are Cambodian Americans factsheet. Retrieved from

Chan, S. (2015, September). Cambodians in the United States: Refugees, Immigrants, American Ethnic Minority - American History: Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Retrieved from


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Leitsinger, M., & S. (2010, July 26). A timeline of the Khmer Rouge and its aftermath. Retrieved from


The Advocates for Human Rights. (2011). Cambodian Immigration to the United States. Retrieved , from

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Hume, T., Coren, A., & Luu, C. (2015, April 16). How Cambodia is healing from Khmer Rouge genocide. Retrieved from

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Young, L. (2013, November 31). Cambodian Political History by Luke Young • Monthly Review. Retrieved January, from


Tony Sampas MLIS, MFA's picture
Tony Sampas MLIS, MFA
Archivist and Special Projects Manager

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