CAMBODIA: Khmer diplomat dubs Hun Sen a fabricator of Khmer history

FOR PUBLICATION
AHRC-ETC-026-2012
September 1, 2012

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

CAMBODIA: Khmer diplomat dubs Hun Sen a fabricator of Khmer history

A Khmer proverb, Chaul stung tarm bawt, says if you travel a river you must follow its bend. In contemporary Cambodia, the behavior represented in the ancient proverb is cast aside in favor of conduct expressed through a saying, Thveu doch ke doch aeng, or “Do like others do.” If you don’t follow the bends in the river, you won’t get where you want to go, says the old proverb. But the current translation alters the meaning: If you don’t do as others do, you will look odd and be the subject of ridicule.

A classic psychological experiment found one in three persons would modify his or her own opinion to conform with that of others. Conformity is a human trait. But Cambodians are generally conformists by culture.

For two thousand years, Khmers have been taught to korup (respect), bamreur (serve), and karpier (defend) rulers and authorities. To deviate from this behavioral pattern raises a question of the transgressor’s smoh trang (loyalty). Such distrust, or min touk chet, is an opening toward an eventual charge of kbawt (treason).

Cambodia’s current autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen is employing this culture to maintain his rule. Many Cambodians today, like most in the past, are directly or obliquely coerced to obey the regime – or at least not to oppose it. Not wanting to be charged with treason, kbawt, one wants to be seen doch ke doch aeng – to do like others do.

Changing such a culture — attitudes, norms, ways of doing things of a whole people — is difficult but is necessary if the country is to change its destiny. In the Khmer nation of conformists, a change of such culture may be accomplished by Khmer Buddhists (comprising more than 90 percent of the population) who apply what their Lord Buddha teaches: Buddhists do not mind what others do or not do, but value an individual’s action to create a future of his or her own choosing. Humans are responsible for their own destiny. In the words of Khmer writer Bouawat Sithi, “with a wholesome state of mind,” humans can create “a heaven” — peace — for themselves and others; “with an unwholesome state of mind,” humans can create “a hell.”

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