My remarks to the Lowell City Council regarding the proposed reception for Lt. General Hun Manet.
Good evening Mr. Mayor, Mr. Manager, Councillors and fellow residents of Lowell. My name is Joseph Boyle and I live at 54 Lura Street. I’ve held a couple of different positions with the City, a couple of different positions in local unions and other non-government organizations, but I’m here tonight speaking only for myself. I’m just Joe Boyle, who lives in the Highlands.
I am here tonight to register my deep concern about the warm welcome this City is preparing to give General Hun Manet. General Manet is not an official in the municipal government of the City of Phnom Penh, Lowell’s Sister City. Hun Manet is a Lieutenant General in the Cambodian Armed Forces, which is commanded by his father, former Khmer Rouge commander and current Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen is, to put it bluntly, a major violator of human rights; in particular, of the rights of workers to organize into unions and engage in activism for higher wages, better working conditions, and dignity for the working people of their country. And General Hun, as commander of a military unit trained to crush internal dissent, is his strong right arm.
For the City of Lowell to honor someone like this is profoundly troubling to me. Lowell’s history is eternally bound with the history of labor. This city is the home of Lucy Larcom and the Lowell Female Laborer Reform Association. This is the home of Benjamin Butler, who crusaded before the Civil War for the 10-hour workday. This was one of the first cities to which the Bread and Roses Strike spread. We congratulate ourselves on this history all the time. We have Lucy Larcom Park, over by the canal, behind St. Anne’s Church. It’s very pretty. General Butler has a middle school named for him, and a bust in the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. You can walk into the National Park Visitors Center or the Tsongas Industrial History Center and find out about the strikes and the struggles of the mill girls, and the subsequent waves of workers in Lowell, to achieve a little piece of dignity and security and decency for themselves and their families – to not just be crushed as low-wage labor for the industrial companies selling people like us our nice shirts.
We say we honor those people, but do we mean it? Or is that just something from the old days that we show to the tourists?
The industrial workers of Cambodia have spent the past several years doing the same things the workers of Lowell did. They organize into unions, and they take to the streets to protests their low wages, their dangerous factories, and their abusive overseers – just like the workers of Lowell. And when they do, they are often met by the clubs, and the water cannons, and sometimes even the assault rifles of the Hun Sen government. Of men like Hun Manet. For this city to applaud General Manet, to tell him what a great guy he is and how much we want to be his friend, would be a betrayal of our history, our identity, and our honor.
This is not just about an intramural fight between different segments of the Cambodian-American community in Lowell. This is about who we are as a people, and what we say about the abuse of workers. I call on this Council, this administration, and on the unions and the political organizations of Lowell who purport to stand with working people, not to give General Hun that warm welcome, but to stand with these brave citizens who spoke here tonight – and they are brave. Let me tell why they’re brave. Many of these people have family back in Cambodia, and could face consequences if they were to go back and visit them because of their activism here, but here they are. Those are the stakes for them, but they came out here tonight.
Again, I urge you to stand with them, and with the garment workers of Cambodia.
This post is dedicated to Senator Bernie Sanders, and to Professor Erik Loomis of the University of Rhode Island. They woke me up.