California Becomes First US State to Declare a Cambodia Genocide Memorial Week

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California Senate Resolution SR-21 was passed Friday in Sacramento. Photo by: Silong Chhun

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The US state of California has officially recognized April 13 to 17 as Cambodian Genocide Memorial Week. The State Senate passed a resolution in a unanimous vote of 38-0 in Sacramento, California. Illinois was the first state to declare the first Cambodian Day of Remembrance in 2013.

The Senate resolution, SR-21, was pushed by Senator Ricardo Lara, whose district includes Long Beach, home to one of the largest Cambodian-American communities in the United States. His field representative in Long Beach, Suely Saro, worked closely with the Cambodian-American community to make Memorial Week a reality. 

“Today I am proud to be joined by Cambodian Americans to mark the fortieth year anniversary since the tragic event in Cambodian and human history, the Khmer Rouge seizure of Cambodia and the beginning of what is known as the Cambodian genocide,” said Senator Lara, a Democrat.

In one of the bloodiest genocides in the 20th century, nearly two million Cambodians were executed, tortured, starved and subjugated to inhumane conditions and diseases by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. 

“About 140,000 Cambodian refugees fled their homeland and relocated to the United States,” the senator remarked. California is home to about 90,000 Cambodian-Americans, the largest state concentration of the 280,000 who live in the United States.

Noting that April 13 to 16 is usually a time to celebrate Cambodian New Year, the Senator publicly reminded people that April 17 is a time to honor those who passed and those who survived.

“April 17 is the time for somber reflection; it has been long overdue to properly memorialize the Cambodian genocide in the Californian State legislature,” the Senator said. “The resiliency, the perseverance of the Cambodian community in overcoming this tragic history should be recognized and admired. This resolution is about solidarity, about remembrance and of course, about healing.”

The resolution was backed by the team behind the Cambodia Music Festival, a one-day concert in July that celebrated Cambodian culture in Hollywood, last year. The festival team includes Seak Smith,  Brian Smith,  Sorany Var,  Silong Chhun, and Shawn Chan.

What started with a casual meeting with Suely Saro from Senator Ricardo Lara’s office in January led to a full Senate vote on the resolution, Ms. Seak explained on her Facebook page.

On the 40th anniversary of Cambodia’s genocide, Ms. Seak wanted to pay tribute to the estimated two million lives lost, as well as honor the survivors. Her goals were to honor victims and survivors through art and music, to educate and bring awareness to those who do not know about Cambodian history, and to involve politicians and media to gain a wider audience.

California is the only US state to pass such a resolution, reserving part of the calendar to memorialize Cambodia’s genocide.

Ms. Seak said she hopes to help inspire Cambodian-Americans elsewhere in the United States to take this up to their own state legislatures. 

Focusing on Massachusetts, Washington and Minnesota, which have large Cambodian-American populations, Ms. Seak is working with an organization called Moving Beyond Witness. They plan to launch a national campaign for Americans to observe April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention month.

“The work doesn’t stop,” Ms. Seak told Khmer Times, “we need to create awareness programs and events that people can participate in throughout California, specifically in high schools and college campuses.”

 On April 17, city officials including Council member Al Austin, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Senator Ricardo Lara attended the remembrance event at the EXPO Arts Center in Long Beach. Cambodian Americans from across the US attended and performed to a standing crowd before ending the night with a candlelight vigil.

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