Ambassador Murphy Visits Lowell, Mass.
LOWELL — Hundreds of Americans were on the Westerdam cruise ship but with fears of the novel coronavirus, also called COVID-19, gripping the region, the boat was turned away from dock after dock.
Patrick Murphy, the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, stepped in, the diplomat told a group of students at Stoklosa Middle School on Monday.
“I went to the government of Cambodia and said, could you help this cruise ship and Cambodia said yes,” he said. “1,500 passengers arrived in Cambodia. They had no idea where Cambodia was. They didn’t expect to be in Cambodia, but our embassy team worked around the clock for ten days to help every single passenger find an onward flight to get home.”
The school visit, which he opened with a few words in Khmer, was one of several stops on the ambassador’s visit to Lowell this week. Monday afternoon, Murphy visited the Sun for an editorial board meeting and expanded upon the role of his diplomatic post in the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’re already working with the Cambodians to improve their capacity to fight infectious disease,” he said. “And so this virus arrives at a time of increased collaboration and some public health success stories in Cambodia.”
As of Monday afternoon, Cambodia had only one confirmed case of COVID-19. Murphy said the U.S. is working to ensure Cambodia can respond to the virus and to protect American citizens.
Back in the United States, deportations of Cambodians living in the United States, including Lowell, have been on the rise. These removals jumped from 29 people in 2017 to 110 in 2018, according to stats provided by the Asian American Resource Workshop — a nonprofit agency in Boston that works with the Asian Pacific community.
Murphy described deportations as an obligation facing all nations, including Cambodi, which he said deported about 2,000 people last year.
“A number of those deportees (from Cambodia) were American citizens,” he said. “I think we probably saw more deportees from Cambodia to the United States than Cambodian nationals deported back to Cambodia, which is kind of interesting.”
Some Lowell residents facing deportation — like Vibol Sok, who has a felony aggravated assault conviction from over 20 years ago — have lived their entire adult life in the United States and don’t speak Khmer.
Murphy said the United States is not required to offer support, but does help fund a nongovernmental agency in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital, that helps people transition when coming back to Cambodia.
“These very kind and capable people, some of them who were deportees themselves years ago, have an operation to help people transition when they come back to Cambodia,” Murphy said. “A place to stay for a few months. A place to start learning some language skills. Some job skills to get credentialed, to get their identification card.”
Murphy, a career diplomat, was appointed to his current position in August 2019. During this time, he said he has advocated for the Cambodia government to “re-embrace the basic fundamentals of democracy and human rights.”
“The message I’ve been very consistent in delivering to the government is that the country is better off with dissent and criticism,” he said. “And democracy we know in the United States can sometimes be very noisy, even a bit messy, but at the end of the day as citizens we are more likely to embrace the final products and support government positions and policies if we feel we had a chance to make our views known and our voices hear.”
Is the United States pushing for a future regime change in Cambodia?
“Well, absolutely not, I think is my short answer,” Murphy said.
Murphy referenced a letter from President Donald Trump to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Murphy and said he sees no evidence of foreign countries trying to interfere in the Cambodian government, despite accusations that have circulated in the country.
“The United States has no intent to pursue regime change or interfere in Cambodia’s political system,” he said. “We think this is a process and a question and an issue for Cambodian nationals, Cambodian citizens.”
The full interview is available at lowellsun.com.