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Rebels With a Similar Cause : From California, Cambodian Guerrillas Fight a Commuter War

January 05, 1986|CYNTHIA KADONAGA | Cynthia Kadonaga is a San Jose writer

They gather, as they often do in San Jose, at a Cambodian restaurant with red linen tablecloths and enough party ice to sink a sampan. As waiters with bow ties ease through a crowd of 220 Cambodians seated around platters of shrimp in nuoc mam sauce, the click of chopsticks is a counterpoint to the singsong of table talk.

What sets this party apart isn't the culture, but the cause: The guest of honor is a guerrilla. Gen. Teap Ben is a compact man with a granite face. As he strides to a stage set up for the restaurant band, his sepia eyes look straight ahead, hard. He addresses the expatriate audience in a voice that, like his face, has rough edges. "Chum reap suor!" he says, the Cambodian salutation catching in a throat worn ragged from chain-smoking.

He coughs, then continues in English, his words lost on all but a few: "I would like to express my thanks to those coming to participate in this honoring banquet for me." The English-speaking guests nod politely while the rest continue to talk in Cambodian.

Teap Ben, 55, shouts, "On behalf of the Cambodian freedom fighters, I come to inform you that we fight for freedom!"

Like startled soldiers, the Cambodians in the audience abruptly snap to attention. Even in English, the three-star general's familiar message is loud and clear: "The Vietnamese troops must be withdrawn from Cambodia."

Every few weeks, in communities from Long Beach to Stockton, many of the state's 60,000 Cambodians gather at such banquets for news from the guerrilla front. It is delivered by any one of half a dozen expatriate "commuters," who travel between California and Cambodia, now called Kampuchea, to fight or deliver donations. Support continues, although the rebels concede that 57,000 poorly armed guerrillas have little or no chance of defeating 160,000 Vietnamese equipped with Soviet-supplied weapons.

In December, 1978, Vietnamese Communists overthrew the Khmer Rouge, under whose brutal 3 1/2-year rule at least 1 million Cambodians are thought to have died. Two non-Communist guerrilla groups totaling an estimated 22,000 rebels--led by former Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk and ex-Premier Son Sann--have joined the estimated 35,000 guerrillas of the Communist Khmer Rouge in trying to oust their common enemy, the Vietnamese. It's an alliance of convenience, not trust: If the Vietnamese are driven out, the non-Communists suspect that the Khmer Rouge will try to take over.

Although Hanoi has announced a plan to eventually withdraw from Cambodia, the guerrillas keep fighting, in part to stop "Vietnamization"--the destruction of their culture that they fear will come with new generations loyal to Vietnam.

As long as the fighting continues, so do banquets such as the one honoring Teap Ben, leader of Sihanouk's 8,000 troops. Since he, his wife and five children immigrated to Long Beach in 1975, Teap Ben has completed two combat missions to Cambodia. Shortly after speaking in San Jose, he left on his third.

His family understands this commitment. But, says his youngest son, 28-year-old Thorl: "It's real sad to see him go."

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