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Returning Cambodians Run for Office

July 21, 1998

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Ted Ngoy was one of tens of thousands of Cambodians who fled war in their country 20 years ago to start a new life overseas.

He ended up in Long Beach, Calif., opened a doughnut shop and used the profits to start a second. Eventually, he had a chain of 60 stores staffed by Cambodian refugees. Cambodians don’t eat doughnuts but Ted Ngoy, the Doughnut King, knew how to make money off them.

After some bad real estate investments, he is ready to hold less exalted office back in Cambodia, contesting parliamentary elections Sunday as leader of his own Free Development Republican Party. It has little chance of gaining even one of the 122 National Assembly seats at stake.

Neither do about 35 other minor, often quirky groupings. But Ted Ngoy and other returning expatriates who account for a sizable number of the small party candidates feel their time abroad can provide an important lesson for their countrymen.

``Elections first, then doughnuts,″ Ted Ngoy jokes. ``Hard work, determination, integrity, and know-how, those things are not enough. You need a good system, a free-enterprise system.″

The election is seen as a three-way race between the Cambodian People’s Party led by strongman Hun Sen, the royalists led by the co-prime minister he deposed in a coup last year, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and the liberal Sam Rainsy Party, headed by the popular dissident it is named for.

Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development, said there are so many parties participating in this year’s elections because people are frustrated by the system. Hun Sen called the election in an effort to regain legitimacy and international aid lost through his coup.

While most of the smaller parties claim to be independent, ties to Hun Sen’s party are believed to keep many afloat. Chea Vannath, whose organization has put out a voter’s guide to all the parties, believes that fewer than a quarter are not tied to the big players.

Ted Ngoy acknowledges signing an alliance with Hun Sen’s party but claims he is ``nobody’s puppet.″ He denounces communism _ an indirect jab at Hun Sen’s past _ and campaigns as if he were an American running for mayor: American flags. Stars-and-stripes banners. Red, white and blue bunting.

Ted Ngoy is passionate about his adopted country, even praising President Richard Nixon, who bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam War, thereby helping to fuel the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

``I love Richard Nixon so much because he opened the door to China in 1972,″ Ted Ngoy said. The ``bombing, bombing, bombing of Cambodia″ was justifiable since it was ``part of a bigger parcel″ to halt communism in Southeast Asia.

Other minor party candidates include Len Kep, a weatherman returning from Australia whose party logo pictures a white rabbit reading a book, and Cambodian-American Doung Sokhoeun, who claims that Pope John Paul II visited her Angkor Wat restaurant in San Francisco.

Doung Sokhoeun knows she has little chance to win anything, but through her Khmer Snake Lady Party she believes she can use the vote to advocate women’s rights.

``I want them to know that there is at least one woman who will represent them, who will talk about their legal rights as merchants, civilians and farmers,″ she says after talking to women selling fruit in a local market.

Len Kep, president of the White Rabbit Party, is not optimistic about his chances of winning a seat in parliament.

``We don’t even have the resources, the means to tell people our platform,″ said Len Kep, whose 6,000-member party has spent less than $10,000.

Len Kep said he chose the white rabbit as a symbol because in local folklore it represents something Cambodia now lacks _ wisdom and justice.

``I hope people will start to ask what is the white rabbit, what is the holy white rabbit,″ he says.