Cambodians of Lowell in Local Politics and Society

Sociopolitical Background of Cambodians in Lowell

The Struggle to Belong

The Cambodian-American population within Lowell, although they began arriving in the late 1970's, and more steadily in the 1980's, cannot said to be well and truly settled in the city settled in the Mill City just yet. As a population struggling with economic, social, and personal barriers to successful assimilation into the demography and society of Lowell, they have relied heavily on socio-political institutions in the past, and continue to do so today. The issue with this dependence is that that institutions themselves are created and maintained by the people who need them. This leads to a vicious cycle of the creation, establishment within the Cambodian community, and successive degrading and ultimate failure of these necessary bodies. A considerable number of programs and organizations have been created within Lowell with idealistic hopes of changing the community for Cambodian-Americans; both settled and newly arrived, only to flounder when faced with a host of obstacles (Pho, 2007). The nature of these obstacles, while the specifics for each institution differ, follows several consistent trends. These trends are reflective of the ingrained social climate within Lowell, and of the mindset of the Cambodian population themselves. 


The Social Glass Ceiling

The first of these issues is that the Cambodian population has not yet broken through the social glass ceiling in Lowell that all incoming demographics face upon their arrival in the city. Indeed, in 1987, the "English Only" rhetoric came to dominate city politics, and was an incredibly effective tactic for ostracizing all non-English speaking ethnic groups, came to a head when a referendum that declared English the official language of the city was passed. Although it was non-binding, it sent a clear message to the citizens and residents of Lowell: 'You are not welcome here. Your diversity and uniqueness are not respected'. The students of Lowell public schools, and their parents, particularly the Cambodian students, who represented one quarter of the 4,000+ students at the high school, were effectively dismissed when they raised concerns over the unfair treatment they were receiving. The Minority Association for Mutual Assistance (MAMA) filed a Title IV lawsuit against the city for denial of equal educational opportunities and unlawful segregation. They also filed a 33-point list of demands designed to raise their concerns with the School and City Councils. The lawsuit was settled out of court as the city legislature began to truly feel the pressure being exhibited by the minority groups who were speaking out for their rights. The actions of the MAMA were a perfect example of the minority groups, many of whom, especially the Cambodians, were brand-new to America, utilizing the system they were attempting to assimilate into. These individuals were demonstrating a remarkable ability to adapt to and attempt to benefit from the legal system. Ultimately, as a result of the overtly racist tensions in Lowell, a young Cambodian boy named Vandy Phorng was thrown into a canal by another young boy, whose father was a very outspoken proponent of the "English Only" movement, and was drowned.  The Cambodian population, as well as the other Southeast Asian populations from places like Laos and Thailand had yet to find the economic and social niche, their true home within the social map of Lowell. Each demographic in succession has found a hole within the social fabric, and found a way to fill that hole and thus make themselves indispensable to the community at large, even though in the 1980's and 1990's the predominant sentiment among white Lowellians was largely racist (Walsh, 1996). Although the Cambodian individuals living in Lowell have been making strides in the right direction, in terms of politics and employment, the process is not yet complete. They have also suffered recent setbacks in terms of Cambodian-specific roadblocks that caused the backsliding that they have experienced (Bankston, n.d.)

The Battle for the Temple

One such setback was  the quasi-war started within the major temple in the region. The vast majority of Cambodians are of Khmer descent, which is a historically and currently Buddhist, distinct ethnic group. The arrival of a prominent Buddhist monk in Lowell was one of the major factors that drew Cambodians, Khmer especially, to the city in the first place. When the infighting between temples, began, it caused a rift in the already troubled population, a rift which has not yet been entirely repaired. The temple serves as a cultural center for Cambodian-Americans, and as a critical means of maintaining and preserving their culture and traditions, which were partially devastated by the Khmer Rouge regime, and were partially left behind when the immigrants left Cambodia for this new home. The maintenance of culture and traditions is a key part of helping to combat the overwhelming trauma of the genocide, and the subsequent, partially lesser, trauma of settling in a new country with vastly different social norms, as well as language and government. The battle for control of Trairatanaram Temple and Parsonage in North Chelmsford, MA (which directly abuts Lowell) was one that deeply and potentially irreparably divided the community, and quite literally divided the temple into "upstairs monks" and "downstairs monks". The legal battle centered around whether or not a real estate transaction was legal, or if it was fraudulent, and whether or not a board meeting was legitimate.The Venerable Sao Khan, who is a passionate practitioner of "Engaged Buddhism", and who is part of the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks (CKBM), and who, according to some, leads all the Buddhist  monks in the US, was the figurehead of one side of the conflict. Sao Khan's variety of Buddhism, Engaged Buddhism, is characterized by more active involvement in the community, and more active attempts to bring Buddhism to people who need guidance. Sao Khan was both celebrated and disparaged for his activism with gangs within Lowell, especially his ordainment of former gang members as Monks. Proponents of Engaged Buddhism argue that Buddha himself made a former mass murderer into a monk, and consequently, Sao Khan was following exactly in Buddha's footsteps, and acting as a model practitioner of Buddhism. The opposition to Engaged Buddhism argue that raising former gang members to being monks casts a negative shadow on the credibility and quality of the monks in the temple and community. Sao Khan argued that the other side of the conflict was comprised of individuals, such as Chek Choun at the Trairatanaram  temple, were utilizing the temple as a means of furthering political interests of groups like the royalist party the Funcinpec and the political problems and conflicts of laypeople, and that this political involvement was not the true purpose of the temple.

The other side of the conflict was spearheaded by Chek Choun, and Thel Sar, who Sao Khan argued was misusing the temple. Although Sao Khan objected to Chek Choun's methods, he claimed that he did not want to cast him out, only to remove the political influences and Funcinpec party members who were violating the spiritual nature of the temple, from the temple. Chek Choun supported the practice of the "donation" of thousands of dollars in exchange for the traditional sprinkling of water as blessing, allegedly as a means to fund the Funcinpec, while Sao Khan objected to this practice and decided that the water sprinkling practice should come to and end. Additionally, another aspect of the conflict was that Chek Choun sought to build temples in Cambodia with the  money they were sending overseas, whereas Sao Khan sought to build temples and safe places for refugees and immigrants in the US. Chek Choun also claimed  that Sao Khan was jealous of his abilities to attract followers and serve as a vastly knowledgeable, respectable leader, much faster and more widely than Sao Khan was able to.

Thel Sar and his supporters also argued, when the conflict exploded in 1998, that the CKBM, which was largely lead by Sao Khan, was undemocratic, and  therefore arrogant, and not truly serving the community. the CKBM resistors claimed that when Sao Khan appointed his close friend, the Venerable Samboon Kert to the role of board president, the move was what allowed Sao Khan to try to dissolve the board by force, thus attempting to eliminate the democratic mechanism of the temple, and then changed the deed to be under his name in secret. Thel Sar contested that in 1989, when  the community "gave" the monks the temple, that it violated a rule of Buddhism, which holds that monks cannot own property. Thel Sar's supporter's attorney Jocelyn Campbell claimed that in accepting the temple, the monks  were really stealing the temple.

The Temple Today

At present, Ven. Sao Khan has undertaken a new endeavor in his long journey towards an ideal temple for the Khmer people of Lowell and the surrounding communities to worship and connect in. His most recent project is to build a miniature version of Angkor Wat on the banks of the Merrimack. The plan is already well underway. 12 acres of land on the shores of the river, which acts as the lifeblood of the Merrimack Valley, and of Lowell, also holds a great significance to the Cambodians of Lowell. The river has a spiritual role in that it reminds the incoming refugees and immigrants from the home country of the river Mekong river, which has been historically a critical part of Cambodian commerce and culture. Thus, the banks of the river are the perfect place to construct the new temple, called Vatt Khmer Lowell. The Ven. Sao Khan has stated that he needs $10 million worth of donations in order to finish construction of the new temple. As of March 2015, he had reached a milestone of $840,000. As he said "We've had 84,000 donations of $100. Now we need $8 million". Although it is an ambitious project, it represents the revitalized desire of the Buddhist-Khmer community in Lowell to find a place of peace from which to worship, and to connect with each other and their traditions. A new temple would also represent a permanent solution to the upstairs-downstairs temple conflict  that caused such a deep, troubling division in Lowell area Buddhists. Construction of this new temple represents a huge step forwards in forgetting the past, and moving on towards healing and helping each other grow. 

Proposed Design of the New Temple Modeled After Angkor Wat


The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA) began in 1984, as the number of Cambodians entering Lowell started to increase dramatically. The CMAA was created in conjunction with other Mutual Assitance Associations (MAA's) all across Massachusetts, as part of Governor Dukakis' and his wife, Kitty Dukakis' plan to make MA a refugee friendly state. The goal of the CMAA in Lowell was to give the burgeoning Cambodian population of Lowell a place to go in times of need, a place to find friends, sympathizers, and other individuals who understood the struggles typical of the incoming Khmer refugees. The CMAA is not owned by the government, but instead is operated and "owned" by the people it serves, that is, the Cambodian citizens of Lowell. The CMAA serves as a place for businesses, groups, and other types of Cambodian institutions to gather and exchange camaraderie and ideas. The CMAA recently celebrated its 31st year as a fundamental aspect of the ever growing Cambodian community in Lowell. Not only does this organization operate as a meeting place for like-minded survivors of the genocide ordeal in their home country, it also serves as a place for these people to bring their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. The Cambodian members of Lowell's community are faced with the challenge of holding onto their traditions, religion, and culture, while simultaneously modernizing, and attempting to integrate into Lowell culture. By combining both equally important and vibrant cultures, the Cambodian migrants can make the best of their new lives in Lowell (About CMAA, 2016). 


Metta Health Center

The Metta Health Center is an offshoot of the CMAA, and appeared during a period of economic turmoil for the CMAA in 2002, and successfully split itself off before becoming too deeply embroiled in the financial difficulties which threatened to collapse the CMAA, when the board of directors found itself pitted one against the other, and Samkhann Koeun was removed from office. The Metta Health Center, named for the Pali Buddhist word for love and kindness, approaches the health of Cambodians and other Southeast Asian populations, with a unique East-meets-West technique. Aside from employing Western style doctors and practioners who are extremely culturally sensitive in their family-health oriented program, the Metta Health Center also employs Southeast Asian healthcare professionals who employ traditional techniques for whole-body, whole-family wellness. Mental health is also a primary focus of the Metta Health Center, which makes it especially crucial to the Lowellian Cambodians who experienced the horrors of their homeland's genocide, and also for the new generation of Southeast Asian Americans and Cambodians who are being raised by the adults who struggle with mental illness. This focus, along with behavioral therapy, primary medical care, chronic illness treatment, and traditional healing methods such as acupuncture, makes Metta a diverse and effective healthcare center within Lowell, and is one of the first of its kind in the US. The Health Center has received overwhelming support from organizations both great and small. Metta has received funding and support from the MA Department of Public Health, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the United Nations (; Bridging Refugee Youth and Children's Services, n.d.). 



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