Fleeing the Khmer Rouge, ages of violence
By Robert Lowell Reporter, American Journal
BUXTON (Jan 24, 2008): Navan Leng came from Cambodia to the United States in 1991 seeking freedom and an escape from the violence and repression that had plagued his native country in recent decades.
“The night I escaped there was a big battle,” said Leng, who lives in Westbrook with his wife, Chantha Doeur, and four children.
Leng is president of the Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple, which is seeking permission from the Buxton Planning Board to hold celebrations and gatherings at the temple on Back Nippen Road. Leng's story is similar to many of the Cambodian refugees who have relocated in Maine.
Many of them have fled to the United States since the reign of Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge movement and the prime minister of Cambodia 1976-1979. An estimated 1.7 million to 3 million people died in Cambodia during the reign, and violence and war have plagued the country since that time.
“Most of the professional class was wiped out...it was an effort to eradicate western influence and institute a radical agrarian communist project throughout the country," said Harry Schnur, a senior at Bowdoin College who has been spending time at the temple to do research for his senior thesis.
U.S. Census figures from 2000 put the Cambodian population in Maine at 1,162. Many of the Cambodian refugees living in Maine now have lost at least one member of their family to the violence in their native country.
Sunny Brown Mao of Augusta is the treasurer at the Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple. He lost his parents, five brothers and a friend.
Mao, 62, who came to Maine in 1981, said he was in charge of a factory in Cambodia, but told persecutors he was a sugar cane worker. Still, he marveled that he wasn’t killed.