Book Review – We Didn’t Start the Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia by Joe Freeman

Book Review – We Didn’t Start the Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia

There is an impertinent question I have always wanted to ask Sam Rainsy, We didn't start the fire by Sam Rainsy leader of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) contesting this weekend’s elections. Why exactly did you name your previous political party after yourself? The answer to the question comes on page 98 of his new memoir, a personally revealing and persuasive book that bears the somewhat silly title of We Didn’t Start the Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia.

It was March 1998, a volatile time in Phnom Penh, especially for activists and opposition members mindful of the previous year’s bloody coup and political violence. In 1997, Rainsy, then head of the Khmer Nation Party – which was founded in 1995 after he broke with the ineffectual royalists of Funcinpec – had survived a grenade attack that killed almost 20 people.

The opposition accused prime minister Hun Sen’s security forces of the attack. But the following year Rainsy found himself the target of an altogether different type of assault: copyright infringement. In Rainsy’s telling, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had created a breakaway faction to counter-claim the “Khmer Nation Party” name. With the 1998 national elections looming, the courts would not make a decision on who rightfully owned the name before the polls, and Rainsy believes the delay was meant to sow confusion among voters who wanted to support him.

“This left us with no choice. Sam Rainsy was the only name that couldn’t be stolen,” he writes, quick to add the answer that pops up in any reader’s mind. “The fact that the party was named after me was not intended to imply a cult of personality.”

He had no choice. Much of Rainsy’s life, as told in this memoir, has this inexorable quality to it. He stepped up when no one else would step up. He filled the role of reformer when others in public life cowered in fear.

In recounting his youth, at least, this narrative has a ring of truth to it. His political education started early. Shortly after Cambodia’s independence in 1953, then-King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated the throne in favor of his father to establish the political movement Sangkum Reasr Niyum. In the 1950s, Rainsy’s father, Sam Sary (in Cambodia, family names come first and given names last), went from a judgeship to holding several ministerial positions. Eventually, he moved into Sihanouk’s inner circle.

However, the relationship didn’t last long. Sihanouk and Sary, to put it mildly, didn’t see eye to eye. Sihanouk brooked little dissent in his regime, and he “routinely used murder and repression against his opponents”, Rainsy writes. In a 1955 referendum, voters were asked, according to Rainsy’s recounting, to pick between a white ballot and a black one. White if they loved Sihanouk; black, well, you get the point.

He took home a laughable 925,667 votes, while a mere 1,834 opposed. “Readers are asked to judge for themselves how much has changed in the intervening decades,” Rainsy writes. A continuing theme of the book is that each successive regime has built on the repressive policies of its predecessor. In one form or another, he argues, the tactics have never changed.

Impressionable youth

Sary didn’t believe in the strongman style. In 1956, he brought home photos to show Rainsy, then seven years old, of Hungarian dissidents killed in a crackdown by Russian security forces. The photos made a lasting impression on him, he writes.

The fallout with Sihanouk started when Sary, who had moved his family to London to serve as ambassador, made the local papers in an embarrassing scandal. His “mistress,” who also lived with the family, had been beaten up and taken to hospital. Rainsy says his mother actually caused the injuries but his father accepted responsibility.

Continue reading “Book Review – We Didn’t Start the Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia by Joe Freeman”

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Political Paradigm of Pragmatism from the Khmer Youth part 42

This part (42), Mr. Sophan Seng continued to analyse on the Reform of Cambodia Education. After the wake of war, education has remained important factor for this country to leapfrog herself from post-cold war country to peace and developed country, or from revolutionary-socalled country to democracy country equipped by Rule of Laws and Fair Share of National Wealth according to sustainable development pragmatism.

Courtesy: Mu Sochua blog
Courtesy: Mu Sochua blog

Again, Mr. Sophan highly articulated on quality of education system and quality of school teachers. In Cambodia, besides of fundamental concept of “better knowledge persons to teach less knowledge person” has remained omnipresent presently existing in Cambodia modern school compounds, the teachers’ pedagogy is seen out-of-date omnipotently.

For instance, this likely pro-violence country has not yet trained teachers to be anti-violence agents at schools at all. Teachers, in Cambodian concept, they are the second parents of all Cambodian children. While children are affected by violence-parenting style of ingrained traditional home-raising parenthood, teachers are not well trained in handling domestic violence in schools at all.

Recent incident of a school teacher commanded a male student to unclothe a female student in front of the roommates in the way to punish her because of her inability to answer assignment question, is one of the thousand punishment ways Cambodian teachers have always used to teach them in schools.

This sexual violence is among other four domestic violences ie. physical violence, verbal violence, financial violence, and emotional violence. School teachers are not taught to handle with all these violences and most of time they are the violence perpetrator rather than a violence stopper/investigator/observer.

Those teachers are not different from public politician figures whose education credentials are not counted to getting their way into those important public servants and high prestigious public posts. As the matter of fact, Cambodia education has been mocked by the no education or less education persons have become a player of role model in the public eyes of Cambodian people. Currently, many top officials including Premier are not graduated high school. Currently, majority of teachers are counted by training teachers graduates, they have not completed post secondary education at all.

When this important strata of social fabric are remained weak, the future of Cambodia is deems murky.

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Book Review by David Chandler about Sam Rainsy

We Didn’t Start the Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia
By Sam Rainsy. Chiangmai: Silkworm Books, 2013. Softcover: 210pp.
We didn't start the fire by Sam RainsySam Rainsy is the French-educated leader of Cambodia’s political opposition to Hun Sen, the self-styled “strong man” who, except for a two-year interlude in the 1990s, has been Cambodia’s prime minister since 1984. This campaign autobiography was originally published in France, where Rainsy lived in exile between 2010 and mid-2013. It was timed to precede the July 2013 Cambodian national elections, which occurred soon after Rainsy returned to Phnom Penh. In the elections, the opposition unexpectedly won at least 55 seats in the National Assembly. After the elections, Rainsy claimed on patchy evidence that the opposition had won them outright and was prepared to govern the country. Hun Sen rejected these claims. Rainsy also refused to allow the elected members of the opposition to take their seats. As this is written (July 2014) they still have not done so. Like many Cambodian leaders in the past, and like Hun Sen, Rainsy has no respect for such imported concepts as a loyal opposition or sharing power. In Cambodia, politics is a zero-sum game.
We Didn’t Start the Fire covers Cambodian history since Sam Rainsy was born. The book is short, and history is often scrappily presented, but Rainsy is a well-trained economist and a courageous, intelligent patriot. For these reasons his memoir is worth reading. The chapters about his early life (pp. 1–22) are poignant and revealing. Similarly, his account of his tumultuous time as Cambodia’finance minister in the 1990s (pp. 63–88) is of interest, because Rainsy’s Quixotic failure to clean up the country’s system got him dismissed from office while his description of the 1997 grenade attack that almost killed him and did kill 20 of his supporters(pp. 93–97) is vivid, clear-headed and scary. Although it is clear that the attack emanated from Hun Sen, no charges were ever laid and the murders remain unsolved. The rest of the book is padded out with details of Rainsy’s marriage, his career as a banker in France, the support he has gathered in Western countries and the ups and downs of his political life. The memoir closes with a withering (and to my mind accurate) indictment of conditions in Cambodia today, followed by Rainsy’s utopian proposals for “putting out the fire” once the opposition under his leadership might come to power.
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Political Paradigm of Pragmatism Paris Peace Agreement 1991

Since 1991, Cambodia has been desperate as this country is remained led Poster 2015by the longest Premier Hun Sen whose leadership has focused on self-centred style than rule by law style. The Paris Peace Agreement has encouraged the Rule by Law leadership but this attempt has been disarrayed impregnably.

For this 24 years of PPA Anniversary, the CMN broadcasted the speech by Mr. Sophan Sent who was a keynote speaker during the gathering to commemorate the Paris Peace Agreement organized by Khmer Youth Association of Alberta (KYA).

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