CAMBODIA: Something is happening among Cambodians on which democrats can build

November 15, 2011

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

CAMBODIA: Something is happening among Cambodians on which democrats can build

In my column in this space in August, “A look at the future of Cambodia’s youth and education,” I posited that, “If youth is the future of the country and education is a sine qua non element of a country’s development, without change in the status quo ante, Cambodia’s future will be anything but bright.” In my concluding sentence, I suggested that, “Broad-based application of Buddhist values and principles can help Cambodian society make its way to a future those on the current path may never find.”

Then last month, in my column, “Perhaps Cambodians’ soft power will advance their struggle for rights and freedom,” I noted with relief that I may have overlooked what could be a promising trend in Khmer behavior.

The 2000-year-old Khmer tradition in “smoh trang, korup, bamroeur, karpear” (“to be loyal to, to respect, to serve, to defend”) the divine leader (king) that has boxed in Cambodians’ creative thinking, has not disappeared. Rather, more Cambodians are developing self-awareness; find ease in speaking openly, even if what they say is not popular; and are demonstrating analytical, rational, and thoughtful voices in their writing.

I noted this apparent “new trend” stands opposed to the existing profane “free expression” that has polluted public discourse among Cambodians. In my September article, I referenced an e-mail from a Khmer reader, Samreth, who is disgusted at the lack of civility and rational discussion in the contemporary Cambodian environment. He suggested that in order to rebuild a respected and respectable society Khmers need “individuals with quality thoughts.” Samreth sees what is and contemplates on what ought to be.

American children who are taught in their own history of the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not hesitate to fight against any threat to those inalienable rights, whether a Republican or a Democrat is in power. Why do Cambodians seem not to have the capacity to transfer the 2,000-year-old diktat of duties and responsibilities of citizens to the divine leader or god-king to ideas, ideals, principles and concepts of rights, freedom and democracy? Man dies. Ideas, ideals, principles don’t die.

Physicist Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is worth remembering. Cambodians’ reproductive-repetitive thoughts and behaviors need to give way to productive-creative behaviors if Cambodians want to see different results.

“Free Expression”

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously defined “Four Essential Human Freedoms.” The first is “freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.” This “free expression” is inscribed in Article 9 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 19 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Those two documents also specify that a person’s “rights and freedoms” come with “special duties and responsibilities” – hence, they are not absolute.

Venomous comments those who sign themselves “Anonymous,” posted on Khmer (and non-Khmer) blogs disregard the “due recognition and respect for the rights and the freedoms of others” (UDHR Article 19.2; ICCPR Article 19.3 (a) and (b)). Expletives, profanity, and uncorroborated charges that poison public discourse among Cambodians serve no good cause. This needs to change.

Cry for end to a culture

In his article in Khmer, “It’s time for Khmers to stop the culture of labeling one another!” published on October 5 by Cambodian news network, the Free Press Magazine, based in Norway, Sar Sokarn observed the general Cambodian propensity toward the I, me, mine in “A’thma niyum” – the “I-ism,” “me-ism,” “mine-ism” – and, inversely, toward detachment when some others than oneself are engulfed in a burning fire.

He wrote: “Some individuals invoke some of this, some of that, as sufficient (reasons) to criticize, denounce, verbally abuse a person who holds a different opinion, and eventually to destroy him or her.” Sokarn refers to such aggression, a “culture of labeling and of creating obstacles against others,” as “the worst behavior.” For the future of the Khmer nation, Sokarn pleaded, it’s necessary for Cambodians to put an end to such culture.

Parallel to Sokarn’s writing, James Sok, a Cambodian-American systems administrator, who alleged in his article in Khmer, circulated on the Internet, that because the majority of Cambodians are not guided by intelligence but by what he calls “ignorance” – they found the game of painting others (labeling) a popular technique to enable them “victory” over an alleged adversary. Sok said this technique was originally called “Kat kantuy, leab kambor,” or literally “Cut the tail, paint (the body),” i.e., to make the animal look a funny and a laughingstock.

The game of “Pat Bai Leu Moa’t Popae” (“Spread Rice over a goat’s mouth) remains popular today: A monkey stole rice from a farmer. He fears the farmer’s punishment if found out. So he spread rice over the goat’s mouth so the goat would be blamed for eating the farmer’s rice.

Of course, the blame game is not the sole province of Cambodians. It is human nature. Its relevance here is that though the blame game is cross-cultural and cross-national, Cambodians play it very well: It’s other people’s fault that Cambodia becomes what she is, and the international community has an obligation to set things right – as in the non-implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords!

James Sok explained: Most Cambodians don’t like to discuss, to find out the cause and effect, and they don’t care for an opposite perspective. This breeds mutual distrust and finger pointing that are characteristics of Khmer politics.

“Mistrust is growing”

Lokta Mek So is a Khmer, a senior citizen who formerly was a professional in a nonprofit organization in the United States. He has lived in the US for more than 50 years and is now in Cambodia.

Turning upside down the conventional belief of Khmer elders as Buddhist, placid, peaceful, who speak no ill, recently Lokta Mek So minced no words about the Khmer culture that inculcates in the Khmer sub-consciousness the teachings that good children must “listen and obey” and “not ask questions or take initiatives or marry whom one loves.”

After more than half a century of life in America, where he has known freedom, he finds himself in his native home among compatriots who fear being inquisitive about what they should know. Sadly, he, himself, “feel(s) reluctant to ask questions,” describing a powerful political socialization that is imprinted in Cambodians’ behavior since childhood.

Speaking of gossip and back-biting, Lokta wrote about the “growing” practice of making behind-the-back “derogatory and insulting statements” against one another. People “rarely say good things about others,” he affirmed; “now, mistrust is growing.” It becomes “quite difficult to have a real friendship in this society. I have none, although I know many people and trust many of them. They don’t trust me. They say I’m an ‘American’.”

Lokta Mek So lamented that it was this “mistrust” that generated “hatred” during the Khmer Rouge era in which so many people (1.7 to 2.5 million) were killed. He observed that this conclusion is one developed as an outcome of 30 years of conversations with Cambodians.
According to Lokta, “Most of (those people) are still not reading, listening to, or watching the news. They love rumors. And most of the time they turn rumors into facts. For most, facts and emotions are the same. They create facts.”

Lokta Mek So’s comments reflect the views of many people who wrote to me.

A young man named Teveakor

I have written in this space for the Asian Human Rights Commission columns and elsewhere about some people whom I never met but have found interesting, who connected with me via e-mail after they read my columns.

Today, I would like to introduce Teveakor, a young man in his 30s who has read many of my columns. When the government blocked some websites, he wrote to me and thus began a fruitful long distance relationship.

Teveakor was born in Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese troops captured the capital and sent Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge fleeing. Ironically, after the Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia, supposedly to knock Pol Pot from power, Teveakor’s parents saw danger. They fled to the Khmer-Thai border. There, they decided not to run further. They resettled in a refugee camp administered by the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, where young Teveakor spent his early childhood.

As movement toward a negotiated settlement of the conflict became intense, in 1991 Teveakor’s parents returned to Phnom Penh. At age 13, the young boy witnessed uniformed members of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in Phnom Penh, and a national election unfold. At 14, Teveakor made it his first business to read news every morning in the very newspapers he was selling in the streets to earn some money. He did not understand everything, but he read and read. It was thus that Teveakor went through his political socialization process.

While in high school, 17-year-old Teveakor, who was determined to go to university, watched in dismay in 1997 as the soldiers of the Cambodian First Prime Minister and those loyal to the Cambodian Second Prime Minister battled one another in the streets where he sold newspapers. A coup de’etat occurred, and the First Prime Minister left the capital.

Fast forward. Teveakor did go to university in Phnom Penh. To pay his school tuition, he sold his computer and motorcycle. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He took lessons from his reading of Lenin’s writings, which taught him the power of social movements and political action. He became a marked political activist. He married a first year student at his university. And he joined the Sam Rainsy Party “by default.”

Some of Teveakor’s thoughts

Like many other Cambodians in the country and abroad, Teveakor sees change in the status quo ante in Cambodia as indispensable for the country’s development and even for its survival. He is fully convinced that the current Hun Sen government must not be allowed to rule.

While people talk of a Cambodian Arab Spring, a revolution, a rebellion, Teveakor is eager to see “two most important social changes” take place in Cambodia. His hypothesis: First, it is necessary that the Khmer society change, but that will occur only after its members agree to bring about change. Second, social change can begin with one individual taking action that sparks other actions that move and mobilize members of society.

Teveakor’s hypothesis reminds me of my column, “One person with a good idea can cause change” written in 2009, and takes me to George Orwell’s “If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; If public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if law exists to protect them.”

Teveakor lamented the 2000-year tradition of “divine god-king” and the misapplication of Buddhism in the country. These have blocked progress and change. And he lamented the “social disorder” prevalent in Khmer society: alcoholism, drug use, prostitution, robbery. He views Cambodia’s existing national institutions as but private companies for profit-making by the regime’s cronies and government elite.

Teveakor sees Cambodia as a kingdom of corruption that cuts across society vertically and horizontally and moves in cycle. In very simple terms that any Cambodian can understand and relate, he wrote:

“The people buy a kilo of fish but the fish weighs only 800 grams. The fish sellers go see the doctor who pokes their bodies and gives them a fat bill. The doctor’s children go to school and their teachers demand money from them. The teachers go to court or to see the police and they demand money from them. And then court officials or police officers go to the market to buy a kilo of fish…”

“You cannot begin to break this cycle if you don’t look into the mirror and recognize the very first person who needs to change,” he wrote.

Teveakor posited that Cambodians in general have four inherent flaws in their thinking and belief (though not necessarily listed in order), below.

First, people think it is the task of a leader to ensure that all goes well in society, hence, they relinquish any responsibility for improving society. Second, people think sooner or later a “good leader” will emerge. Teveakor asked: Where do they think this “good leader” comes from, if not from among the people themselves? What kind of people are Cambodians? Third, they believe “Neak Mean Bon” or “Preah Bat Thoarmmoek” – the mystical almighty – will come to their rescue, period. And fourth, they believe the foreigners from the international community will not forsake the Khmer people – like the Lon Nolists who believed in the US, or the Pol Potists who believed in China.

Teveakor’s analysis is too simple and too naïve, some may say. But thought is the ancestor of action, it is said. And Teveakor’s thoughts represent a beginning of a long process of change. I will return to Teveakor in my next column. He reminded me of a Khmer proverb in his latest e-mail, “Cheat Khmer min saab sohn te!” – “the Khmer nation shall never vanish!” – and he chided those who believe in the conventional wisdom that Khmers are placid and passive with his response: “When there is smoke there is fire!” Amen.

Something is happening, indeed. Buddha’s teaching, “With our thoughts we make the world,” is catching on. Cambodian democrats who fight authoritarianism for the people’s rights and freedom can build on the good and positive elements that are occurring among Cambodians today.


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 views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

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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.