The Cambodian Community in the United Kingdom
For the Conference “Cambodia: Moving towards a Better Future”.
Refugees Studies Programme, University of Oxford, 5th June 1999
The Cambodian community in the United Kingdom is relatively very small
(about 800 persons) and scattered all over the country. A few of us have
started off our life in the early 70’s as students or as members
of the Cambodian Embassy Staff, caught out by the political change in
Cambodia in 1975. About 60 of us became refugees then, not by choice but
by circumstances. We have never thought or dreamed of living permanently
in the United Kingdom, let alone to be here today – perhaps the
fate or the karma of what we have done in our past life.
The majority of the community arrived in the early 80’s on the
basis of family reunion with the early settlers or via the Charity Organisations
from the refugee camps in Thailand; there were also some from Vietnam.
They have all experienced ‘the Killing Fields’ traumas.
Life in the UK, for all of us, was not as easy as it looks. On the one
hand, we would like to preserve our culture, and on the other, we would
like to normalise our life, to adapt and to adopt to the new society.
Unfortunately, the two cultures are in contrast to each other. For some,
we have nightmares of what we have come across during the bad time, either
through personal experience or learning about the loss of the parents
or brothers and sisters. We have, however, learned a lot from that experience
and we are very proud to say that we have weathered that stormy episode
quite well. This, in many way, has made us even more resilient than we
2. Cambodian Society in the United Kingdom (CASUNIK)
CASUNIK is the strength of the community, thanks to the few core active
members who always take the Cambodian interest at heart. The main events,
organised by CASUNIK, are the Cambodian New Year in Mid April and the
Pchum Ben ceremony in September/October (also election date of the new
Executive Committee Members). Both events are social and religious (Buddhist).
We have also organised to teach the Cambodian mother tongue language and
the Khmer classical dance, which provides a lot of appreciable interests
to our youth.
CASUNIK is a non-political organisation whose aim is to advance the education
of the public in the United Kingdom about any aspects of Cambodia, including
the people, history, culture and tradition. CASUNIK was formally formed
in October 1979, during the Buddhist Phchum Ben festival, from the ashes
of the Student’s Association of the Khmer Republic (SAKR) and some
of the Embassy staff, and their families who were left stranded in the
United Kingdom due to the political upheaval in 1975.
Following the discussion with the British Council for Refugees (BCR)
and with the help of the National Council for Voluntary Organisation (NCVO),
CASUNIK took a step further to become a full Charity Organisation in 1984.
CASUNIK registered with the Charity Commission under the Charity Act 1960
(registration no 292074).
CASUNIK remains as a registered charity organisation to the present day.
With the elected Members of the Executive Committee, CASUNIK has worked
extremely well among the Cambodian and British communities at large, in
preserving and exchanging cultural and other mutual interests amongst
its members in the United Kingdom.
We have organised the fund raising to help the people and to purchase
some traditional musical instruments in Cambodia.
3. Student’s Association of the Khmer Republic (SAKR)
SAKR, with a non-political status, was formed in March 1971 by a group
of 12 Cambodian students who came to further their postgraduate engineering
studies in the United Kingdom, under the Colombo Plan Scholarship administered
by the British Council. It was conceived at Colchester, whilst they were
studying their English language prior to joining the appropriate Universities
for their appropriate fields of study. SAKR hold their first General Meeting
at the Cambodian Embassy in St John’s Wood, London - Thanks to the
Cambodian Embassy who had put so much effort and interest in the Association.
I was elected as the first President of the Association.
Throughout their year, SAKR had produced the bulletins as well as organised
some outings and the traditional Khmer New Year ceremonies, which were
always held at the Cambodian Embassy in London - the good old days!
SAKR was dissolved in late 1975 (in Manchester), following the take over
by the Khmer Rouge regime in April 1975.
4. Life in the Early Years
The political change in Cambodia in 1975 really caught us unprepared.
The Cambodian Embassy was closed; there was nowhere to renew our Cambodian
passport and nowhere to seek for advice. To most of us at that time, the
grant and salary were no longer there, and worst of all we were not allowed
to work since we were on the visitor’s visa. Neither were we entitled
to unemployment assistance or to benefits based on pay-related social
insurance contributions. This was, partly due to the ignorance on our
part of not knowing the Social Security System, and partly due to the
fact that we did know where to get help. The British Council who was then
the Administrator of the Scholarship did not provide any assistance or
help. Were they not interested or they just did not want to know –
who knows? Somehow, we managed to survive!
I remember very well about the day when I did go to the Police Station
in Manchester, to report about the change of our status and that we were
not able to renew our passport. This was a routine requirement for an
‘Alien’ with the ‘green’ Certificate of Registration.
The advice from the Officer was ‘ Write to the Home Office and explain
your case. They are very sympathetic; after all you did not illegally
enter the United Kingdom ’.
My eldest daughter, the first Cambodian girl born in the UK, was born
3 weeks after the Khmer Rouge took control of the country.
We, our community, may be small but collectively we are very strong.
We listen and stay very close to each other, throughout the years.
5. Returning Home
Some of us decided to return back to Cambodia to search for their families
and their loved ones that they have left behind. They did not want to
go, but they thought that hopefully they would be accepted by the new
Regime, and there was some small chance of finding their relatives. After
all, we have been asked to return back to serve the country after the
bloody civil war. Obviously, the inevitable did happen - they all ended
up in losing their lives; none of them had survived. How wrong we were?
6. Settlement of the Cambodian in the UK
After the hard initial start, those of us who stayed behind had learned
to cope with the situation. Some of us had to abandon their studies, whilst
the others were fortunate enough to have the Universities helping them
to complete the studies. We later applied for refugees status and began
Life went on, they started to get married, one by one, among the members
of this small community, as well as to other nationalities.
The second group of Cambodian refugees arrived in the early 80’s.
They were a little more fortunate than the first group in starting their
new life in a strange environment. They had been looked after by the Charity
Organisations who brought into the country, and/or from their relatives
who have already settled over here. However, all of them had gone through
the experience of the Killing Field, which none of us would not like to
7. Primary Schooling
Before they left the refugees camp in Thailand, some parents had reduced
the age of their children, normally by 5 years, in the believe that the
children can have good education in catching up the lost time during the
war. It was quite usual and legal in Cambodia to do just that, at one
time. Unfortunately, it does not work over here, just imagine a 16 years
old child sitting and learning next to an 11 years old child! They soon
For the children who were born here, there were not much of problems.
Sometimes, it was very emotional and hard for us as parents to answer
to the children’s question, when they asked about the where about
of their grand parents.
8. Secondary Schooling
It was extremely hard to catch up for the children who went direct onto
the secondary school. The parents could not help because of the English
language as well as the different education system. Moreover, they had
lost the latest stage of the primary school life. Some of them managed
to pass the GCSE and the ‘A’ Level examination, through their
sheer determination and intelligence.
With the exception of the students who came to the United Kingdom in
the early 70’s to do the postgraduate studies, only the students
who pass the GCES ‘A’ level examination in the UK have been
admitted to go to the university.
The younger generation, whether they were born in Cambodia or were born
in the UK, have done very well at the University. They have succeeded
in obtaining their qualifications with the First degree as well as Master
degree and the PhD degree.
Perhaps due to their hard experience in life, the parents are striving
to encourage their children to work hard for their education.
Most of the Cambodian in the United Kingdom are Buddhist. Apart from
the celebration of the Cambodian New Year (in April) and the Phchum Ben
(in October), as mentioned above, some of us have also been to various
British Buddhist Monasteries:
· Amaravati Monastery, Great Gaddesden, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire
· Aruna Ratanagiri Buddhist Monastery, Harnham, Belsay, Northumberland
· Cittaviveka Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, Chithurst, Petersfield,
· Hartridge Buddhist Monastery, Upottery, Honiton, Devon.
Obviously, some of our country fellowmen are practicing Christianity
as well as other religions.
11. Contrast of the Cultures
It is hard enough for us as the first generation, who were born and
bred in Cambodia, to adapt and adopt our life to the new and strange culture.
To make the matter more complicated, we were not amused when the children
told us that they have their girlfriend or boyfriends. There was nothing
wrong in that but the words ‘girlfriend and boyfriend’ did
not exist in our Cambodian vocabulary, let alone the Cambodian dictionary,
in our time, of course. It took us quite sometime to accept the fact –
we can now sit back and laugh, at hindsight but not then. It took my wife
2 months to overcome the shock when our daughter, proudly, came and told
us that she had a boyfriend. We did not tell her off or force her to stop,
but just walk upstairs/downstairs. At hindsight, what was the heck of
it all about?
The spouses of the Cambodian living in the UK have come from over the
world – multinational: English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Indian,
Taiwanese, French, Polish, Italian, and others as well as Cambodian, of
There is still some existence in the arranged marriage (but not forcibly)
within the younger generation who was born in Cambodia and came with their
parents or relatives to live in the United Kingdom.
However, there is none from the first generation of the Cambodian children
who were born in the UK. They are now in their 20’s and are just
about to settle down and start their families.
None of the Cambodian living in the United Kingdom is actively involved
with the British politics, locally and nationally. However, some of them
have very strong bond with the Cambodian politics. Fortunately, they never
show their full colour into the ring, except those who did go back home.
Obviously, Khmer is still the communication language within the community.
However, it has been corrupted to the Khmenglish or Khmanglais, in a similar
way to the Franglais. It is rather sad to see the younger generation who
was born and bred in the UK (including my own children - no exception)
does not speak our mother tongue language.
15. Social and Welfare
There is a very deep concern among the Cambodian community living in
the United Kingdom. We all know that we are not getting any younger.
The elderly people need someone to look after. In Cambodia, their sons
or daughters (and/or in-laws) would look after them. But over here, we
are all aware of the problem and practicality of it.
Also, perhaps due to the scar of the Khmer Rouge regime, there were 3
Cambodian committed suicide and 4 with mentally illness – a very
high percentage for a community of this size. CASUNIK is seriously looking
to find solutions for both problems.
Our Community would only be so pleased, if you, as reader of this article,
may be able to provide any suggestions and generosity to help us solving
the problems. It will, obviously, be very much appreciated.
The view that has been mentioned in this article is expressed from my
personal experience and from what I have seen, heard and known from all
sources. It does not represent all of the aspects of the Cambodian community
living in the United Kingdom.
We know that each of us is unique, but the Cambodian living in the UK
is more unique than most.
I hope that the above would be of some useful to whom it may concern.