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L.B.: A Base for Cambodia Rebels' War

March 21, 1985|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

For years, few outward signs betrayed the true nature of Tea Chamrath's new American life.

Having fled the turmoil of his native Cambodia, he found an apartment in North Long Beach. He got a job as a map-maker, practiced his English and saved his money. He brought his family over, a couple at a time.

He appeared to be building a future here. But Tea, who had been a marine commander in Cambodia, had other plans. He was getting ready to go to war.

The clues were there but were hardly noticed by those who did not know him well. He slept little--"mental preparation," he explained. He searched dozens of newspapers for dispatches about Southeast Asia, pored over maps and attended meetings with other refugees nearly every night.

Eventually, he knew, the call would come from overseas. When it did, he obeyed, returning to the nation he had escaped, leaving his parents and siblings behind in America.

Tea had joined the rebel troops fighting against long odds to topple the current regime in Phnom Penh, a government installed by Vietnam.

The resistance is receiving active help from Cambodians in the United States, who send money, medicine, even manpower, when they can. The hub of the American front--which includes Cambodian communities throughout the United States--is Long Beach. That is not surprising, in light of the 10,000 refugees who have settled here and the 15,000 more in neighboring cities in southeast Los Angeles County and northern Orange County.

Many of the refugees were high-ranking military officers or cabinet ministers in the governments of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and his successor, Lon Nol (now a Fullerton resident). They came here to escape the takeover by Cambodian communists in 1975 and then an invasion by the Vietnamese, who set up a figurehead government in Cambodia in 1979. (See story this page.)

Though the resistance movement, which is made up of three factions, is recognized by the United Nations as Cambodia's legal government, the refugees' non-Cambodian neighbors and colleagues know little about it. To them, the Cambodians are doughnut bakers, welfare counselors, owners of corner markets and jewelry stores--immigrants trying to make a living like everyone else.

"My co-workers don't even know where Cambodia is," said one Orange County woman employed by a bank. Her husband, Sak Suthsakhan, was Lon Nol's commander-in-chief before the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975; she does not mention that to outsiders.

Her husband, like Tea, is one of about 30 exiles who have been recruited during the past four years for leadership positions in the resistance. They visit their American homes only when they need to recover from illness or renew their U.S. residency documents.

The rebel commanders are not asking for foot soldiers; there are more already in Cambodia than can be armed and fed. It is skill that is needed--in military strategy, in radio communications, in medicine.

Preoccupied With War

Among the refugees here, a preoccupation with the war is evident. Everywhere in the Cambodian community around 10th Street in Long Beach, countertop cans are set out to collect coins for the rebels. Battle updates are provided in locally published Cambodian-language newspapers.

Hundreds participate in whatever ways they can: attending rallies in public parks to express support for the resistance; selling incense and popcorn to raise money; signing up to send a monthly stipend in the "Sponsor-a-Guerrilla" program launched by one of the three rebel groups.

In recent months, the effort has become even more visible. Harsh Vietnamese attacks upon the rebels along the Thailand-Cambodia border have heightened interest and concern among the local Cambodian community.

Retreat to Thailand

Overseas, most of the rebels have retreated into Thailand to regroup and decide on a new strategy after Vietnamese troops last week overran Tatum, their last major base.

The resistance is not without controversy here. In February, for example, 11 former military and political figures refused requests from the rebels to join the battle.

One was disillusioned by the squabbling among the leaders of three resistance factions, recruiters said. The others gave various reasons: Their health is poor or they want to stay in America to support their families here.

Still, since the Vietnamese offensive began in December, at least 25 others have approached the local resistance liaisons, offering to go back. More volunteers are expected to come forward after an upcoming visit by Norodom Ranariddh, son of the rebel coalition's president, Prince Sihanouk.

Their experiences will mirror those of the exiles who have already chosen to commute to war. For them and for their families, the separation means continued upheaval in lives that have been marked by turbulence for more than a decade--first in Cambodia, then in the United States, and now in both countries at once.

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