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Lori Trahan introduces bill to remember Cambodian genocide

Lori Trahan introduces bill to remember Cambodian genocide

LOWELL — U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, with U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia of California, introduced legislation designating April 17, 2025, as Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day.

The date is the 50th anniversary of the day the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and marked the beginning of the Cambodian genocide.

“By dedicating this day as Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day, we commit to never forgetting the atrocities committed, to cherishing the lives that were ended far too soon, and to continuing the hard work necessary to ensure it never happens again,” Trahan said in a statement released by her office.

From 1975 until 1979, two million Cambodian people — almost 25% of the nation’s population — were tortured, starved and slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Thousands fled the killing fields for refugee camps in Thailand before being admitted to several nations, including the United States. Today, multiple communities are home to Cambodian-American populations, including Lowell and Long Beach, California.

Many of Lowell’s political leadership came out of that searing personal experience, including Sokhary Chau, the first Cambodian-American mayor; Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American elected to a state legislature; Vanna Howard, the first Cambodian-American woman elected as a state representative; and Rithy Uong, who was the first Cambodian American elected to a city council in the country.

Cambodian Americans and fellow refugees Vesna Nuon and Paul Ratha Yem sit with Chau on the City Council. Former School Committee member Susie Chhoun arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1980s after being born in a Cambodian refugee camp.

Yem remembers landing at Los Angeles airport in 1976 and being besieged by the press wanting to know about Cambodia, which had been in media blackout after the Khmer Rouge took over. Yem traveled to various universities in the U.S. to speak about the killing fields of Cambodia.

“It’s been forty-nine years since the fall of Cambodia on April 17, 1975,” Yem said in a statement. “The pain is still raw and the hurt remains of being the only survivor of my entire family. One consolation is that I continue to tell the story of what happened in Cambodia during the four years of genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge regime.”

Like many in the Cambodian diaspora, Nuon advocates for democracy in his homeland. In 2018, the council unanimously passed his resolution calling for free and fair elections, political freedoms and human rights in Cambodia, as well as passage of House and Senate bills imposing sanctions against individuals who undermine democracy in Cambodia.

“No words could do justice to show the depth of the horror of the Khmer Rouge Genocide,” Nuon said by text on Tuesday. “How does one speak of the unspeakable tragedy. We must remember. We can never forget. The City of Lowell, home to so many Cambodian Americans, including me, and my family, is an example of this shared humanity.”

As chair of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus, Trahan, along with U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and other congressional leadership, led the reintroduction of the Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act, bipartisan and bicameral legislation that would hold the Cambodian government accountable for abuses and corruption that undermine democracy and human rights in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s general election last July resulted in a landslide victory for the Cambodian People’s Party, whose candidate, then-Prime Minister Hun Sen, ruled the country for nearly four decades. The self-styled strongman and former Khmer Rouge commander steadily consolidated his power by threatening, outlawing or arresting away his popular opposition, effectively creating a one-party, one-man rule. Hun Sen transferred power to his eldest son, Hun Manet, that August.

Mom raised the idea of a federal bill with Trahan. He has often spoken publicly about his escape from the killing fields, and both he and Chau commended Trahan for taking the lead on filing the resolution.

The journey Howard, then known by her family name of Sok, made as a political refugee from the Kao-I-Dang Holding Center in Thailand to Lowell motivates her political activism on Cambodia. Howard lost her father, siblings and both maternal grandparents to the genocide.

In 2019, Lowell, Long Beach and Los Angeles passed resolutions proclaiming April 17 as Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day. In 2023, the Massachusetts Legislature passed legislation authored by Howard.

“While we recommit ourselves to never forget the lives lost, we must also remain dedicated to ensuring that such an event never happens again,” Howard said by email on Tuesday. “And that Cambodia will return to a free and fair democratic society, sooner than later. I’m pleased to see Congresswoman Trahan filing similar legislation at the federal level.”

Trahan’s legislation with both Markey and Garcia is the kind of political work that she believes is required to both remember past atrocities and commit to a democratic future in Cambodia.

“There is strong support in Congress for the Cambodian people, and we will continue to reaffirm America’s commitment to the upholding of human rights and democratic values in Cambodia,” Trahan said.