CAMBODIA: Building leadership for young Khmers

Posted by: | Posted on: June 4, 2013
An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

CAMBODIA: Building leadership for young Khmers
This article combines my keynote address and two lectures on political socialization and culture at the Cambodian Leadership Conference on May 18 in Tacoma, Washington, on the theme of Building Leadership for our Young Generation, organized by Khmer women’s organizations in Washington State, spearheaded by the Cambodian Women Networking Association’s Ms. Sinuon Hem.
I valued this time to share my thoughts on building leadership, korsang reu bangkoeurn chomness nae noam, in the company of a diverse audience of Cambodians and others, including the State lieutenant governor, the mayor of Tacoma, and distinguished legislators and officials from state and local government. The discussion was lively and thought-provoking.
Building leadership is a daunting task in a society muffled by hundreds of years of traditions and social norms derived in part from having lived entirely under authoritarian, even dictatorial, governments. In such an environment, building a leadership corps that will not fall into old patterns requires changes in values, kun’sambat, attitudes, ek’riyabot, and culture,voabthor. These are daunting changes many today acknowledge as necessary. But stepping outside a series of long-held traditions and patterns of behavior is not easy. Many talk about change, but few walk the talk.

A general framework

Political scientists, such as I, describe a framework of perceptions (kar yul kar deung), influenced by opinions (yobol), interests (phol proyaowch), values (kun’smabt), and beliefs(chumneur), which mold our attitudes (ek’riyabot). These attitudes lead to a tendency toward action (sak’kampheab), or to passivity (ak’kampheab). As those factors predominate in a population, a culture emerges.

Khmers say, Ches mok pi riean, or knowledge is acquired through learning. We learn throughout our lives. Sources of learning include family, school, peers, religious beliefs, occupation, and specific events. What we learn shapes our opinions, interests, values, and beliefs, which mold our attitudes. Our ethnicity (race) and social/economic/political classes as well as our national belief system (Americans’ self-evident truths; Cambodians’ mystical figure, Preah Bath Thormmoek) also help shape our perceptions, which further influence our action, or inaction.
Khmer society & culture revisited
For centuries Khmers lived in a tradition of subservience and acceptance. Khmer traditions teach us to obey Khmer cultural-societal demands to korup, respect; kaowd-klach, admire and fear (as opposed to kaowd-chet or kraeng-chet, or being mindful of others’ feelings);smoh trang, be loyal; bamreur, serve; karpier, defend.
Those characteristics are Khmer values. They are good values. But pledging to uphold those values on behalf of an individual — a political leader, a boss — cements our culture and society into a structure that is stratified — ruler-follower, superior-inferior, boss-servant. We reinforce feelings of subservience, inequality, and fear.
Better to apply those values to ideas, ideals and principles that live on through time to benefit our children and their children, rather than to individuals who will die and force us to reorient our allegiance again. Sadly, too, contrary to Lord Buddha’s teaching to think, act, and become, our culture tells us the Khmer kam, or karma in Sanskrit, is a diktat that cannot change.
Through history Khmer leaders have made use of our willingness to live within the bounds of a hierarchical society to advance their political ends. Behavior that deviates from the traditional is abnormal. This so-called abnormality becomes, in the language of political despots, a disloyal and treacherous act, eliciting fear that keeps people in line, even today.
To stay alive and safe in perilous times, Khmers lived a life our elders dubbed, M’neus kbal khsear or individual with head of a smoker’s pipe. The face carved on the pipe bowl smiles in all circumstances. The smoker forces tobacco into the hole on the carved pipe bowl, lights a match, the face still smiles. The smoker stirs the tobacco ash with a metal tool, removes the ash by hitting the carved bowl against a hard surface. The face still smiles.
Those characteristics enable the current regime to create a society ruled by the three Ks –Khliean, Khlao, Khlach, or hungry, ignorant, fearful – and to practice the four Ls – Luy, Leak, Lub, Luoch, or the god money, hiding truth, erasing evidence, and stealing. The regime further devises a system of Tinh, or buy – tinh sanleuk chhnaowt, buy votes; tinh kar smoh trang, buy loyalty; tinh kbal, buy heads; of Samlot or intimidating to attain a goal; and ofLuoch, or theft of what can be stolen.
I am not the only Cambodian to note that the prevailing Khmer culture flourishes because of certain social traits common among Khmers. Those of my generation should be familiar with Bunchan Mol, a political prisoner in 1936 during French rule, who in 1973 dedicated his bookCharet Khmer, Khmer personality traits, to “the soul of all Khmer combatants who sacrificed their lives for the Khmer Republic.”
Of more than 20 Charet Khmer cited by Bunchan Mol, three traits (with my English translation) should be examined: 1) Kumnit ‘Athma Anh’ or Idea of ‘I’ ism ranks top of the list by Bunchan Mol: “The habit of Khmer ‘I’ism is to look down on others as not good, not at one’s own level, as ignorant…” Though I don’t see this concept as distinctively Khmer, for “I”ism exists in other cultures, it is destructive when linked to other Khmer traits. 2) Kumnit Songsoek Suor Pouch, or Idea of Generational Vendetta or Revenge: “It’s not the end to imprison a man; his roots, his behavioral past, his relationships are examined for faults…” Bunchan Mol described a Khmer penchant to carry on a life-long vendetta or revenge against someone and his/her relatives, friends, acquaintances, close or distant, even if one has no direct knowledge of what the person has done. 3) Kumnit Ph’chanh Ph’chal means seeking to keep a person down indefinitely, as in annihilation. The concept of being a good sport is nonexistent. Bunchan Mol described two fighters: “In a fight, it’s not enough that one’s opponent is knocked down; one rushes to kick him, again and again, until he loses consciousness or dies. It’s not victory if a downed fighter is still breathing.” In Ph’chanh Ph’chal one seeks to denigrate, spread gossip, fabricate stories, dig up dirt, assassinate character to destroy a person’s name and honor.
These behavioral patterns are, individually and collectively, not at all flattering. Not one is a characteristic unique to the Khmers, but taken collectively, just these three characteristics comprise a deep-seated obstacle to societal change. Don’t know where to begin? Mother Theresa had a perfect answer: “Do what is in front of you!”

Connecting the dots…

With some 74% Cambodians 34 years of age and younger, the majority of Cambodians are relatively free from the centuries-old cultural-societal diktat and from the personality traits of their elders. As such, it’s possible for young Khmers to bring change. But you must know change from what, and to what. The first one you should endeavor to change is the one who stares back at you in the mirror every morning.
In today’s world we can learn and know so much, and our brain can store millions of data points. But these data are like rocks in a box, domthmar knong pro’ob, unless we can compare and relate them to other things in our environment.
To have information is good but it’s not enough. We must know what to do with the information we have. We must apply. We cannot apply without thought; our thinking must be reflective and analytical – high quality thinking. What we know is less important than how we think. How we think determines everything we do, and determines our future. Fortunately, quality thinking is a skill that can be taught and learned.
Reproductive thinking – repetitious recycling of old ideas and information – should be discarded. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We need to change. We must develop productive, quality thinking.
Productive quality thinking comprises creativity, or creating something that did not exist before, and critical thinking, which assesses if that which we created has led us toward our goal.
Advice from America’s youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt, is worth remembering: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” For Khmers, of whom some 96% are Buddhists, Lord Buddha’s teaching should resonate: You are what you think, so, think, act, become!
Thinking smart and acting smart are the best ways to make our destiny.

Fundamentally, a leader is a person who leads others. But, anyone who is a catalyst, whose activities make things happen, is demonstrating leadership. Leadership, of course, can be exercised to achieve outcomes that benefit the common good or harm it. For the purposes of this discussion, I suppose that the goals to be achieved are in the former category.
I subscribe to the philosophy that “leaders are rarely (if ever) born”; that leaders are made; that a leader’s developmental process is circumstantial; that persistence helps; that one’s own leadership capacity can be cultivated; that one’s leadership skills can be learned through training and experience.
Leadership is one’s ability or capacity to do something using natural talent or acquired skills to get others to follow willingly. It is a process of social influence through which one enlists aid and support of others to fulfill a common task. Leadership is an art employed to motivate and guide others in the pursuit of a common goal. An effective leader will be visionary, purposeful, and goal-oriented. The leader’s drive and commitment influences and motivates others to believe in and to strive toward achieving that vision.
Leadership is about solving problems through closing gaps between things as they are and the desired state. It’s about using creative imagination to motivate yourself and others to move forward.

Characteristics of Leadership
There are as many personality traits of a leader as there are lists of what makes a leader. Here are some: integrity (inner values conform with outer actions, authenticity); dedication (doing what it takes, leading by example); magnanimity (teamwork, spreading credit to all); taking ownership and responsibility (but not credit); humility (recognizing the worth of others); openness (listening to new ideas); creativity (ability to think differently and outside the box); fairness (dealing consistently and justly); holding a positive outlook (encourage, reward).
Those traits make well rounded good persons. One who demonstrates those qualities is not necessarily a good leader, but it would be hard to find a good leader who doesn’t demonstrate most of them. In building Cambodian leadership, Lord Buddha’s teaching, has demonstrated its value for more than 2,500 years: 1) do all good, 2) do no evil, and 3) purify the mind. Buddha’s eight-fold path describes qualities that are foundational to good leadership.
I am conscious some aren’t inclined toward religious connotations. So I present here some great principles developed by Steven Ventura of the Leadership and Learning Center, who cleverly coined the acronym RESPECT for seven principles:
Recognize the inherent worth of all human beings.
Eliminate derogatory words and phrases from your vocabulary.
Speak with people – not at them… or about them.
Practice empathy. Walk awhile in others’ shoes.
Earn respect from others through respect-worthy behaviors.
Consider others’ feelings before speaking and acting.
Treat everyone with dignity and courtesy.

Leadership skills
Leadership should be more about the needs of the people one strives to lead than about the leader. A successful leader asks the question: “What can I do to help you be more successful?”
We are humans with certain “buttons.” If those buttons – those deferred dreams and aspirations – are acknowledged and genuinely addressed – supporters will come forward. A leader must communicate his/her vision effectively to inspire others. Our discussion this afternoon should shed more light on this.
Of the three most important leadership skills, one is a leader’s ability to inspire, energize, motivate people to participate; another is an ability to communicate effectively to move people; and a third skill is the capacity to plan and organize.
Planning is essential, as the most long lasting goals a leader defines will not be accomplished quickly: democracy, justice under law, civil rights. These goals will be eventually attained through the achievement of many short term objectives: legislative remedies, political parties, CNRP programs, fair elections. At each step along the way, a leader must strategically advance toward the ultimate goals by taking into account the general situation one is in, the capabilities (manpower, materials, money, management) at one’s disposal. Proponents of nonviolence have identified nearly 200 methods (tactics) to advance democratic goals. National leaders can study their sources of capabilities (national core, national infrastructure, national economy, national military) and consider communication, diplomacy, economic, military strategies and tactics.
Clearly, we are talking about not one leader but hundreds and thousands of leaders.
The book, Primal Leadership (2002), presented six leadership styles. A leader may want to adapt a style to meet a situation’s particular demands. One adapts the setting to enable people to contribute to achieve the goal.
1) One with a visionary style articulates where a group is headed, and people are left to innovate and take calculated risks to get there. People must have the skills and knowledge to thrive under this style of leadership.
2) A leader with a coaching style focuses on developing individuals one-on-one. This style backfires and undermines self-confidence when perceived as micromanaging.
3) In an affiliative style, one emphasizes teamwork through connecting people. It helps team harmony, increases morale, improves communication. But persistent group praise can breed uncorrected poor performance and mediocrity.
4) One with ademocratic style seeks people’s input through participation and group commitment, draws on people’s knowledge and skills. It can be disastrous in times of crisis when immediate decisions are required.
5) A leader with a pacesetting style sets high standards for performance and expects excellence from everyone. It can undercut morale and make people feel as if they are failing. More often than not, “pacesetting poisons the climate.”
6) A commanding style describes military style leadership that demands immediate compliance. It is effective in a crisis; most often used but often is the least effective.

Building Leadership for Young Khmers
Khmers say, Kro avei kro chos, tae kom kro kumnit, or it’s all right to be poor but to never be poor in ideas. Khmers also say, Toal dob, toal m’phei, tae kum toal kumnit, or One may be thwarted 10 times or 20 times but one’s ideas must never be thwarted. The rich Khmer culture that dates back more than 2,000 years is not lacking in the love of ideas. Ideas live on, leaders die.
I urge aspiring young Khmer leaders to read, read, read, to ask questions, and to develop productive quality thinking. Bunchan Mol called on Khmers to hold on to those distinctive Khmer qualities that are viable in this century. Khmer elders tell us to think smart and act smart. A vieach york mok thveu kang; A trang york mok thveu kam; A sam ro’nham york mok thveu os dot: Make a wheel out of bent wood; make a spoke out of straight piece; make firewood out of twisted and crooked wood. Everything and every being has a place.
Leadership personality traits can be developed and improved. Leadership skills can be learned. But no one can be pushed to learn unless one is willing. Leaders are made. Anyone can be one.
I ask young Khmers to establish as core values the concept of humility and of being courteously respectful of others. You can practice Ventura’s principles and live them as a way of life. When you walk the talk, and think smart and act smart, you motivate people to join forces to work toward a brighter future.
That is how trust is built and a leader is made!
The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.
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 reached at 

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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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