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Five Degrees of Exile

California Is Haven to Many Political Figures Forced to Flee Their Native Countries

July 11, 1999|ERIC PAPE | Eric Pape's most recent foreign reporting posts were with the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post. He now lives in Venice, Calif

Call it the curse of the exile: dislocation, the breaking of life into two unequal parts. There is the first life, the one the exile took for granted--extended family, close friends and perhaps influence in their homeland. Then there is the makeshift existence of exile, built on fabricated foundations and nurtured by the prospect of return. It's the dream for many, though as the years pass, going home can be unexpectedly disorienting, for it again means leaving a relatively familiar place to return to one that has changed. Home is, in a sense, always somewhere else.

Los Angeles is a renowned receptacle for those escaping the jaws of history. A sense of familiarity draws them most, because exiles, by nature, are forced into an alien world. "People look for something close to their own countries," says Chilean-born emigre Jose Quiroga. "Anything you want, from anywhere, you can find it here."

Many live in silence. One African man details a horrific escape from his country. Later, he calls the interviewer and says he's afraid to have his story told--even anonymously. A Vietnamese American woman tearfully explains that her intriguing experiences as a student here in the' 60s protesting the Vietnam War is "not worthy" of publication because it paled in comparison to those of millions back home. Four Iranians who wielded power until the 1979 fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi refuse interviews for fear they would endanger themselves and their families in Los Angeles.

Five exiles, however, do share their stories. For them, Los Angeles is at once a symbol of their rootlessness and their haven. They remain determined to overcome linguistic and economic travails and adapt to a world of new rules. This is not easy, particularly as they continue to listen for echoes of their former lives.

Royalty in Exile

Cambodian Prince Norodom Sirivudh's quest to promote reforms to Cambodia's authoritarian government often leads him to Cambodian Buddhist temples, such as the simple two-story structure just west of downtown on Beverly Boulevard. At the temple's resplendent shrines, the prince is handed an envelope stuffed with cash, and a saffron-robed monk offers moral and spiritual support. A flock of elderly widows with shaved heads and angelic white gowns adoringly shadows the prince's movements like some geriatric secret service group.

Minutes later, as Sirivudh, 48, heads to the freeway, the women remain in the parking lot, still waving to where he was. Those silent matriarchs transposed from the swamp-grass meadows of Cambodia's lush countryside to the City of Angels are like guardians for the prince's wandering soul. For three years, such rites are the closest Sirivudh gets to home.

If exile were a job, Sirivudh would be a pro. Few princes would spend weeks at a time in a cousin's spare bedroom in the suburbs--which he good-naturedly refers to as the "Fontana palace"--while courting their Americanized compatriots. But that deliberately un-royal approach serves him well. "I prefer to adapt myself because that is what Cambodians here are waiting for," he says. "If you act like a prince, really prince-like, they will say, 'What the hell do we care?' " Even if some of the estimated 50,000 Cambodian-Americans in Long Beach wonder whether royalty remains relevant on the cusp of a new millennium, they offer support for his efforts to return to Cambodia and effect change. At one fund-raiser, more than 300 supporters, few of whom are wealthy, donate a total of $5,000.

If Sirivudh is good at being in exile, it might be because it's not new to him. His first exile lasted more than 20 years, beginning soon after the 1970 U.S.-backed overthrow of his half-brother, King Norodom Sihanouk. That time, Sirivudh fled to a working-class existence in France, where he studied, washed dishes and became a member of a leftist political party. Eventually, he focused his activism on Cambodia and returned. His royal ties and charisma soon propelled him to a top spot in the Royalist political party and to the post of foreign minister in an unruly coalition government in 1993. Then strongman Hun Sen, now prime minister, began consolidating his power. In 1995, tanks surrounded Sirivudh's house and government officials threatened the prince with prison on a trumped-up charge of plotting to murder Hun Sen. Once again, the prince fled.

He spent much of last year using Los Angeles as his base in the States. On one flight back to Los Angeles, he was greeted by two teenage girls wearing traditional Khmer garb, with purple flowers streaking their hair. Yet when they spoke, the voices were those of Valley girls. So quickly had the prince adapted to the Cambodian American cultural hybrid, however, that he seemed not to notice.

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