Among those who do make it to the U.S., some return to Cambodia extolling their American experiences--even ones they didn't have--to get positions superior to anything they might dream of here. Several of Cambodia's top judges claim American university degrees they cannot prove they earned. When pressed, one offered a photocopied diploma with whited-out markings. Some returnees who previously worked only in menial jobs--driving cabs, cooking hamburgers and selling doughnuts--or who had no jobs at all have acquired high-ranking positions in government and grand pretensions in Cambodia. "A lot of people I see here who went back had no real career here and were not involved in the community," says Song Tan.
That is not to say that all returnees live solely for personal gain. Some have gone back at great personal cost, abandoning families, new lives and good jobs in exile to return and restore their country. Social pressures from the older generation within Little Phnom Penh actually push people to go back, like a tour of duty. Bunna Men, who has sponsored political fund-raisers for politicians sympathetic to the Cambodian exiles, says, "Some Khmer Americans are opportunists. Some say, 'Now I am here, I am comfortable.' But I am the opposite. I am physically OK, but not spiritually. I can't close my eyes. I came here, not just for myself, but for my country."
IN MANY WAYS, LITTLE PHNOM Penh functions at its core like a political organization, and like any political group, it has its extreme elements. In this case, it's personified by Yasith Chhun, an accountant who looks the part with his crisp white business shirt and prim demeanor. But when he speaks, he explains that the Disney movie "The Prince of Egypt" inspired him to lead a revolution to deliver his people from Hun Sen, as Moses did the Jews.
"I saw the movie," Chhun says. "It sounded great. I had to do something for the Cambodian people, to liberate my people who suffer, who are tortured, over there." So he started the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a California-registered nonprofit group. Chhun then took its leaders to Long Beach's most famous tourist attraction, the Queen Mary, where they swore an oath. "We raised our right hand to remove Hun Sen"--by any means necessary.
"Communist dictators are like cows," he says. "The cow never respects what we say. When we sing a song, the cow never listens, never understands, so we have to use force or guns."
Last June, Chhun and a small band of associates went to the Thai-Cambodian border on tourist visas to spur the overthrow of Hun Sen. Working from inside Thailand, they recruited fighters in Cambodia. In late November, a band of ragtag men wearing "Cambodian Freedom Fighter" T-shirts--some of whom were reportedly drunk on rice wine--shot holes in the walls of a government ministry and at least two other buildings in Phnom Penh before being easily repelled by government troops who had been tipped off weeks earlier. At least four of the fighters were killed and about a dozen were injured.
Seven weeks after the attack, Chhun was back in Long Beach to file his clients' tax returns. While the colossal failure hardly inspired confidence in his military vision, Chhun swore he would get back to his revolution, albeit with better execution.
"Even though I am in Long Beach, I can do it by remote," he says, gesturing to a cell phone. "All Cambodian people want Cambodia to be like the United States. There is a good chance that we can start building a freeway of freedom, so that the Cambodian people can walk on that freedom."
BUN CHHAY SIPS FRESH-SQUEEZED orange juice in the lobby of a Long Beach hotel. "I have had enough chaos," he says. "I continue to wish for Cambodia to be like this, to develop and have these freedoms."
After a quarter century of battles, why doesn't he simply remain in Long Beach, where he could retire as a folk hero? "Democracy is still not in place in Cambodia. I have so many friends, so many followers in Phnom Penh." Within the week, he was on his way home, the hopes of Little Phnom Penh following him.
"I still worry about him," Srey says. "I worry about all of them. I know too many people who died."
Rich Garella, who is writing a book with Pape on Cambodia, contributed to this article.