Questions Linger Over Dancers' Defections

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Classical Dance Company of Cambodia ended its month-long US tour Sunday, but questions remain concerning the defections of four dancers and alleged death threats that nearly brought the tour to an early close. Three of the troupe's 36 members defected in St. Paul, Minn., last month and a fourth in Lowell, Mass, Oct. 7. All are seeking political asylum in the US.

Sponsored by the US-Indochina Reconciliation Project, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that describes its role as assisting the peoples of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, the dance tour was the first artistic exchange between Cambodia and the United States since the end of the Vietnam war.

Its organizers allege that Cambodian-American groups threatened and coerced troupe members to defect. But Cambodian-American groups and other observers counter that tour organizers themselves used threats to keep the dancers from defecting.

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Last week Eileen Blumenthal, executive director of the Reconciliation Project, told the Associated Press that one of the star dancers was the target of an attempted abduction by a Cambodian man who had followed her around the country since the tour opened in Los Angeles. Ms. Blumenthal did not return repeated calls from the Monitor.

Stephen Morris, a researcher at Harvard University who is completing a book on Cambodia, however, describes the situation as ``a politically motivated coercion going on by organizers.

``... As with all hard-line communist countries, the dancers have been subjected to intimidation from the regime, telling them that if they try to defect in the United States their families will be punished,'' Mr. Morris told the Monitor in a telephone interview. ``What is new is that the American tour organizers ... have themselves engaged in intimidation and deception ..., lying to them about their rights in this country.''

Morris, who attended the troupe's Lowell performance, views the tour as an attempt by the Cambodian government to dent the overwhelming non-communist support among Cambodian-Americans by showing them that Phnom Penh supports traditional cultural activities.

Bunthan Eang, editor of the Cambodian Press in Lowell, agrees. The purpose, he told the Monitor, was to boost public support for the government in Phnom Penh.

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