CAMBODIA: Khmer Buddhist New Year 2056 is time for Cambodians to spark effective change

Posted by: | Posted on: April 17, 2012

April 15, 2012

An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Talking about the need for political change in Cambodia gets “old.” I write aplenty in this space and elsewhere on the topic, yet Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party persists and keeps piling on more reasons why change must occur.

It’s obvious a lot has changed in Cambodia, especially the mirage of development and progress seen in images of bustling metropolitan cities with high rises, latest model cars, crowded markets and restaurants, camera-toting tourists. Cambodia is a paradise for foreign investors who compete for her markets and resources. This influx of capital accelerates change, but these are the sort of changes that should be taken only after deliberation and consideration of their potential impact. This broad-based review does not occur in Cambodia today.

The more things change
An oft-quoted proverb of French origin by novelist Alphonse Karr (1808-90), later quoted by George Bernard Shaw and others, says, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” or “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Is this paradoxical?

I admit to being chagrined at reading a commentary by an editor of the Bangkok Post who in “Poor Cambodia not looking so ‘poor’ anymore,” (April 6) noted ironically that “billions of dollars in aid money” help make Phnom Penh visibly “clean” and “spotless” a la Singapore, “at least in those areas where (foreign) delegates (to the ASEAN conference) were either visiting or staying,” with “perhaps … the highest number of Lexus vehicles per capita” and “only three beggars” observed. “I personally don’t believe that the funding (from aid donors) ever reaches those Cambodians in real need in any case,” the editor writes, among other things.

Widespread concern among observers about the worrisome widening gap between those is confirmed by a longtime friend, a non-Cambodian professional with decades-long experience working with peoples in developing countries, who shared World Bank data that show the dramatic rise in economic inequality.

Statistically, poverty in Cambodia has been reduced between 1993 and 2007, but one-third of the near 15 million Cambodians still live below the national poverty line of 2,473 riel per day, or US$0.61; the Gini Coefficient moved up from 0.35 in 1994 to 0.40 in 2004 and 0.43 in 2007 (0 being perfect equality and 1 being absolute inequality); within the rural areas where some 80 percent of the people live, rural inequality rose from 0.27 in 1994 to 0.33 in 2004 and climbed again to 0.36 in 2007.

A precipice of no return
The Weekend edition of The Cambodia Daily of March 10-11 titled “Carving Up Cambodia, One concession at a time,” with maps, photos, and figures, is a must read. So is the April 2 Phnom Penh Post’s “China reaps concession windfalls” by May Titthara. Both, along with other published materials, reveal how Cambodia is being led by the regime to a dangerous precipice.

“Protected rainforests, endangered wildlife, rivers abundant in fish, villages, farmlands and urban neighborhoods — none are safe these days from the rapid growth of investment projects in Cambodia,” writes the Daily, which cited data accumulated by the civil rights group Licadho. Some statistics drawn from the CIA World Fact Book also are presented.

The Post also cited information and data from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights: Since 1994, 4.6 million hectares in concessions — of which 3.3 million hectares were forest concessions, 0.9 million, economic land concessions, and 0.2 million, mining concessions — have been granted by the government to 107 Chinese-owned firms.

Quoting CCHR data, the Post writes, “In all, more than 8 million hectares have been granted to 368 companies.” This total comprises nearly 50 percent of Cambodia’s total land area. According to CCHR land reform project coordinator Ouch Leng, “Chinese companies control about a quarter of the 17 million hectares of agricultural and forest available in Cambodia. Because of these concessions, many villagers have lost their homes and land.”

Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for Licadho affirmed: “There’s a direct link between economic land concessions and land conflicts.”

“Serious concerns are now being raised over the spread of concessions into traditional farmlands and rural villages, where companies over the past decade already have forced tens of thousands of Cambodians from their homes and disposed them of crops and land,” writes the newspaper.

Licadho’s record shows land disputes since 2003 involved 85,000 families, or about 400,000 people, in 12 provinces; and last year alone, 11,000 families were in dispute with companies over land.

Another rights group, Adhoc, recorded some 150,000 families, or about 700,000 people, nationwide, as involved in disputes over land since 2000.

Ouch Leng says the government granted so much land to Chinese companies because Cambodia received “a lot of loans” from China — between $2 billion to $6 billion depending on which government source gives the figure. Leng asked, “But who takes the responsibility for the payment of those loans?”

According to record, between 1994 and 2011, China, Cambodia’s largest benefactor, invested $8.8 billion in the country.

The government refutes rights group statistics. The Daily cited CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap’s defense of government policy approving the rapid increase of agro-industrial plantations as “a sound economic model to develop the country and reduce poverty.”

Corruption has become endemic in Cambodia, a part of the fabric of daily life. On April 10, a statement made during the Voice of America’s broadcast “Transparency International” referenced Cambodia’s “systemic” corruption: “People seem to have the automatic thought that they have to bribe” — “bribery on the street, … in high levels of government, in service sector exchanges, in false documents, embezzlement, nepotism and more…”

Recipe for survival
Cambodians are not on the same page as to how they would like to change the status quo.

Briefly, regime sympathizers and supporters argue patience and time to give peace and stability a chance to bring change. Regime opponents say 33 years of the Vietnam-installed CPP and 27 years of Hun Sen as premier are destroying Cambodia.

In international politics, friendship and compassion are trumped by national interests. Thus, the 1991 Paris Peace Accord that brought an end to the fighting in Cambodia and promised a new era of pluralism, democracy and human rights, lies dormant. Rhetoric abounds. A Khmer proverb says, “Samboeum tae pierk, trokiek slab s’doak,” or “Formidable are the words, the hip joints lie dead.” Not one country is willing to lead to “reactivate” the Accord.

Is there a Cambodian who still believes the United Nations and signatory countries don’t know what’s going on in Cambodia? The ship has sailed. Cambodians are responsible to change the status quo ante or leave things as they are.

Last month I presented a recipe for Cambodians’ survival that includes changes to old habits, a reexamination and application of Buddha’s teaching in order to develop and rebuild a new Cambodia, and an initiation of nonviolent action for change. All three elements are interrelated.

As Cambodians celebrate their “Chol Chnam Thmey,” or “entering the New Year,” on April 13-14-15, marking the Buddhist Era 2556, it’s appropriate to review Buddha’s teaching here. The purpose is not to preach religious principles. But as in all teachings, the fundamental purpose of Buddha’s teaching is to make better men and women of human persons.

Buddha’s teaching in brief
Lord Buddha teaches political activism: People’s destiny is not predetermined or determined by a God or any all-powerful force, but by their own action, “Kharma.” One creates one’s own “hell,” or suffering, and one’s own “heaven,” or happiness here, and now. Buddha preaches that one should not live in the past, which is gone, nor of dream about tomorrow, which is yet to come, but take action for change right here and right now. Humans are masters of their own destiny, not its slaves.

Whereas in Khmer practice and tradition Cambodians believe a person’s lot in life is the result of his/her accumulated deeds in the previous life, Lord Buddha tells humanity that “I do not believe in a fate that falls on human beings however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act”; “I never see what has been done, I only see what remains to be done”; “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may”; “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.”

Buddha’s sermon, the Ovada Patimokkha, or “the Fundamental Teaching,” outlines “the Buddhas’ teaching” — “Buddhas” in plural because there is more than one enlightened being, i.e., Lord Buddha never thinks of himself as the first nor the last Buddha, and all the Buddhas teach the same “Dhamma ca Vinaya,” or “Doctrine and Discipline,” a collection of eternal truths valid through the past, the present, and the future.

Briefly and in simple terms, the principles of Buddha’s teachings to be followed by all Buddhists — monks and lay people — may be summarized as 1) Do all good, 2) Do no evil, and 3) Purify the mind.

To attain these goals, the principle Khanti, or patient endurance/forbearance, is one of the 10 best qualities, including the seeking of “Nibbana” or profound liberation from all things impermanent that are causes of suffering. Buddhists do no harm, speak no ill, respect codes of conduct in line with the Patimokkha. Buddha suggests moderation, contentment with a quiet life, meditation, and commitment to a heightened mind.

We need to demystify and simplify deep and complex thoughts into easy lessons, not to make angels out of humans, but to draw what is good and beneficial in Buddhism for us to build a more harmonious, peaceful, and progressive country.

American President Theodore Roosevelt once advised, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

If Cambodians, who are Buddhist, follow and practice their Lord’s principles and instructions, they would train themselves to be better individuals.

It is those better individuals who lead and bring change to society. Individuals such as Suu Kyi or Mandela are humans like us, with all the human frailties, but they are those better humans whose character and personalities fit what Buddha teaches humans to be, regardless of their own faith.

Thus, as the Khmer New Year brings each a new soul, I pray Cambodians heighten their Buddhist consciousness and practice of their Lord’s teachings in order to change old thoughts and old habits and unleash nonviolent action against oppression.

Happy Khmer Buddhist New Year!

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at


The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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