Mayor Sokhary Chau, image courtesy of Sokhary Chau.

Historic Election: 1st Cambodian American Mayor

ASEAN The Mekong Asia

In January, Sokhary Chau, a city councilor in Lowell, Massachusetts became the first Cambodian American mayor in the United States. Like many other Cambodian Americans, Sokhary Chau was a refugee who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge Genocide was a genocide conducted by the Marxist dictator Pol Pot from 1975-1979, where over 2 million Cambodians died due to starvation, forced labor, and mass killings. January 7, 1979, is the commemorated date when the Khmer Rouge Regime was overthrown by Vietnamese forces. On October 23, 1991, the Comprehensive Cambodian Peace Agreement, also known as the Paris Peace Agreement, was signed to officially end the Khmer Rouge War and initiated the first post-cold war peace-keeping mission. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia was the peacekeeping operation administrated by the United Nations to reconstruct Cambodia.

In his inaugural address, Chau discussed his family’s dangerous migration story from Cambodia to Lowell, Massachusetts. His father, a captain in the Cambodian army, was killed during the 1975 Khmer Rouge regime. When Sokhary Chau was 9 years old his family was resettled in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, which influenced his family’s conversion to Christianity. His family later moved to Lowell, Massachusetts with the promise of job opportunities.

In an interview with Vannary Kong, Project Assistant at the East-West Center, Sokhary Chau gave his sentiments regarding his historic election," “I am proud, blessed, and humbled, to become the first Cambodian-American mayor in the United States history. However, it’s not about just me. It’s about all citizens of Lowell coming together for everyone in their city. It doesn’t matter your color, culture, race, or gender; we seek to make everyone feel welcome and valued. For me, I am standing on the shoulders of all the immigrants who came before me. I am here because of their generations of hard work and their families. We must always remember: As elected leaders, it is now our turn to build our city into a better place to live, work, and raise families. When we hand it over to the next generation, we must make sure that we made a positive change and build to a better position.”

Lowell, Massachusetts is home to the second-largest Cambodian community in the United States, the first being Long Beach, California. According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2019 there is over 250,000 Cambodians living in the United States. Massachusetts hosted the second largest number of Cambodian refugees (14,000), followed by California (70,000), which explains the large Cambodian American populations present today. Cambodians moved to Lowell because of textile and high-tech industry work, as well as language and cultural connections.

Today, there are roughly 30,000 Cambodians in the Lowell, Massachusetts area. Several Cambodian centers are located in Lowell to support the community such as the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, Cambodia Town Lowell, Angkor Dance Troup, Lowell Alliance -Khmer Community Group, Cambodian Community Health, Khmer Linguistics Access Program at The Center for Hope and Healing, the Lowell Health Community Center, and the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association. These local organizations provide a multitude of resources including translation services, community advocacy, access to healthcare, cultural inclusiveness, and legal services, with the highlight event of the Water Festival.

Sokchary Chau’s election is a representation of the important leadership of the Cambodian American community in Lowell and adds to the developing list of Cambodian American officeholders in the United States: two state lawmakers, a school committee member, and two other city counselors.

His election as mayor also follows the election of Michelle Wu, daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, who is the first woman and person of color to be Mayor of Boston. Sokhary Chau’s election shows the resilience of the refugee community and follows the trend of Asian American and Pacific Islanders increasing political representation as they become the fastest growing population in the United States.

Vannary Kong is a Project Assistant at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at Harvard University pursuing International Relations with a Certificate in National Security.