The murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978 had forced millions to evacuate the Kingdom, in pursuit of better lives. More than four decades after, the Cambodian diaspora is now scattered across the globe with a majority choosing the US, France, Australia and Canada as their new homes.
Although present-day Cambodia is so much different than what these evacuees recalled, a huge portion were still deeply scarred to the point that they wish to close the whole Cambodian chapter altogether. This is mainly why Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly called upon them to ‘come home’.
With the last surviving Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan sentenced to life imprisonment just last month, Cambodia is evidently moving away from its dark history and creating new memories as a developing nation.
These calls, unfortunately, have been ignored by many except, perhaps, Canada. The country is taking the lead by educating the Cambodian community there on their roots and encouraging them to pay a visit to today’s Kingdom, where opportunities are aplenty and possibilities abound.
Good Times2 spoke to the Honorary Consul representing the Kingdom of Cambodia in Ontario, Canada, Chhat Chhour and former Canadian minister Michael Chan who both said that there has been a noticeable influx of Cambodians going home since they started a collaborative diplomatic effort since 2016.
Kingdom of Cambodia’s Honorary Consulate in Ontario
For two years now, Chhour has been organising educational events specifically for Cambodian-Canadians in Ontario. Thanks to his hard work, for the first time ever in Canada’s 150 years of independence, the national flag of Cambodia was raised during a special ceremony at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario last year.
This was of course with the assistance of Chan, on behalf of the Canadian government.
“With the great vision of our prime minister, the guidance from the government, we put together this honorary consulate. Before that, Cambodians were all over the place. I said that because they did not have real representative of the Kingdom,” said Chhour.
“When I took office, I start by getting them together in events. I know that events are how people create bonds. We showcase our heritage and culture for everyone, not just the Cambodians, to see. We host over 40,000 guests at each event, it is not a small scale.”
Some of the other events organised by the consulate earlier this year had also featured traditional Khmer clothes, food, history, culture, and entertainment.
Chhour said he plans to make these events, especially the flag-raising ceremony, a new tradition for years to come.
As how he sees it, he is the ‘messenger’ that carries the message of Prime Minister Hun Sen to the Cambodian community in Ontario and he takes great pride in it.
“Prior to this, never mind about the first generation but the second generation did not even know which part of the world Cambodia is in. Now, they know they have Cambodian roots and they cherish that. Some approached me and said they get goose bumps when they hear the national anthem in a foreign land,” he said, with a smile across his face.
“We have had some great outcome. This reflects in the number of those coming back to Cambodia to visit. After only two years, you can see the numbers creeping up. I don’t have the exact figure but I know this because people can come to my office to get visa and things like that,” he added.
Chhour forks out roughly 50,000 Canadian dollars out of his own pockets per event. And he does it without expecting anything in return.
“There is no funding from the government, and I don’t need it. You have to remember, this is a voluntary position. I use my own money to give back to the country. I worked so hard to be successful and I love my country. I want to set an example to other diplomats in all the other countries,” he said.Chhour, who is now 67 and running his own business, said the efforts matter most to him as he himself was a refugee back in early 1980s.
“Don’t get me wrong. I left not because of the political situation but I was more economically-motivated. My wife had just gotten pregnant then. With the economic tension and high mortality rates among newborns, I decided to seek better opportunity elsewhere.
“Now I am almost 70 and at this age, there is nothing I’d rather do and contribute back to my motherland. This is my way of doing it, making sure that Cambodians overseas go back and visit where they come from because in spite of everything, we have a beautiful culture and we should not forget our origin,” he said.
Chhour said he wished to see more Cambodia representation in other countries, adding that it would be the best way to propagate the message of ‘come back home’.
Members of Cambodian diaspora in Ontario, Canada
It is reported that Canada welcomed more than 18,000 Cambodia refugees between 1980 and 1992. In the 2016 Census, 38,490 people reported being of Cambodian ethnic origin.
Today, Chan, who has been involved with provincial politics for 35 years now, explained that there is close to 100,000 Cambodians in Canada, mainly concentrated in Montreal of the Quebec province and Toronto of the Ontario province.
“The number is very visible. Montreal (a French-speaking city) has a bit more than Ontario because the root of Cambodia is closely related to the French,” he said, referring to the Kingdom being a French colony between 1863 and 1953.
“You can see them in every aspect of the economy, they can be traders, work in agriculture, technology sector, a lot of professionals. It is very wide-ranged. They are now mostly in their second or third generation and they are educated so their capabilities are not limited.”
Citing many distinguished Cambodians such as actress Ellen Wong, journalist Chan Teap and graffiti artist funki, Chan said the people are the ‘real bridge’ between the two nations.
“Their achievements benefit Ontario, drive Canada’s economy and the beauty is it connects back to Cambodia. While we do have other immigrants from China, India or Pakistan, the Cambodian diaspora stood out the most in terms of nation-bridging,” he said.
Chan said he had personally witnessed the positive reactions of many Khmer-Canadians after seeing the changes in their own motherland.
“On the contrary, I think the first generation has more eagerness to come back. In fact, many had returned to witness the changes themselves. They literally went, ‘Oh my god!’ when they set foot inside the country again. Their minds are still linked to the past but being able to see the difference today – it is just mind blowing,” he said.
“So many went through a difficult history. At the same time for them to elaborate the current condition of Cambodia…you can see their eyes beaming. It sure is not the best now, but it is so much better than not too long ago.”
Echoing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s calls, Chan said Cambodians overseas should think hard about why they should come home.
“This doesn’t mean you’re abandoning your new country. Coming home does not mean staying forever. Just see for yourselves what and how much has changed. If you get better education elsewhere, go back to motherland with the skills you gained because Cambodia needs you to build back the country.
“Sure, Cambodia has its challenges but so does other countries. Don’t let those challenges deter you from paying a visit home.”