CAMBODIA: Building leadership for young Khmers

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…