CAMBODIA: The Emperor wears no clothes
July 16, 2012
It was not in my schedule to write an article for publication today. But I sensed anticipation by some readers – and perhaps by the Phnom Penh regime itself. To Cambodians cowed by authorities, this article stands to remind that rights and justice are worth fighting for, and dictators must know it is human nature to yearn for civil rights and freedom.
Following publication of my article, "Respect Ideals and Concepts, not Arbitrary Leaders," in this space on July 1, an open letter – marked For Publication – from the Kingdom of Cambodia's Ambassador for the United Kingdom Hor Nambora arrived in my e-mail box. AHRC published the letter along with editorial comment supportive of democratic ideals. Personally, I thought it a bit odd that the Ambassador for the United Kingdom sent me the open letter, rather than Hem Heng, Ambassador to the United States, where I reside.
But the young Hor, son of Hun Sen's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, is Hun Sen's elite diplomat: A holder of a doctorate degree from Budapest; advisor to the Cambodian government with rank of Minister; and Hun Sen's special envoy to promote Cambodia's candidacy to the United Nations Security Council for 2013-2014.
Claiming "it difficult to take seriously someone" like me who "snaps rudely from the sidelines," he wrote painstakingly, "One can only hope that you stop writing such virulent criticisms of the democratically-elected government of Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen and those organisations such as the Asian Human Rights Commission will stop pandering to you."
The open letter is an indication that my decades-long advocacy for open, fair and free elections in Cambodia, described in my essays published here and elsewhere, has irritated some officials of the Cambodian dictatorship. The bombastic rhetoric of Ambassador Hor is consistent with the present elite's authoritarian strand, the a'tma anh (the I-ism) that demands complete obedience, as did Pol Pot's Angkar-on-High. Yet, Cambodia endorsed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and integrated its principles into her Constitution.
The Covenant says, "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."
The letter took me to Buddha's words 2,500 years ago: "In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for truth, and have begun striving for ourselves," and "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned."
Hor wanted his open letter publicized. The AHRC posted it on its website along with its note reiterating its commitment to the survival of democracy and human rights through "free exchange of ideas and opinions" expressed in a "polite manner." It affirmed, "The free expression of views by all people is the primary way that a democracy can begin to confront and resolve problems." It calls for a "vigorous democratic discourse on the issues in Cambodia..." The AHRC note says, "The current situation in Cambodia is not reflective of the ideal enshrined in Cambodia's Constitution and the promise made to the Cambodian people; that of a functional liberal democracy . . . still a distant dream for the Cambodian people."
My e-mail box was quickly filled with messages – for which I am most grateful – from Cambodians and others inside the country and abroad. I apologize to the reporter from Cambodia's Voice of Democracy radio for not providing my response to the young Hor's letter as I don't believe a polemic serves any cause, and the Ambassador's letter never discussed the points I raised in my article.
I do not deny that Hun Sen won the recent local Sangkat election and earlier elections. But winning an election through the liberal use of threats, intimidation, bribes, and irregularities does not make a government "democratically elected." The people never voted their conscience freely and fairly. The international community acknowledges that the Cambodian elections still fall short of international standards.
Comments I received from Cambodians in the country – in Phnom Penh and elsewhere – reaffirm to me that in general, Cambodians' quotidian passivity has long been misinterpreted as acceptance and support of the regime. I have written of the growing discontent with the status quo as the regime fails to deal with the "elephant in the room" domestically, and with the competing interests of foreign powers. Pressed by both the Chinese and Vietnamese for access to commercial development opportunities, for example, the government of Hun Sen has resorted to the strategy of offering long term leases on terms favorable both to the requesting nation and to the domestic political leaders whose pockets will be lined with the profits. Similarly, unwilling to provoke a primary benefactor, the Hun Sen government has declared itself neutral in the fomenting conflict over jurisdiction in the South China Sea. These actions do not comprise a foreign policy that can be sustained over time by a nation that hopes to remain independent.
The bleeding of Cambodia for private profit is undertaken in the name of development. More than 2 million hectares of Cambodia's rural areas have been taken away from the population for development of agro-industrial plantations by foreign firms. The most recent land grabbing involved the sugar-cane industry. Domestic producers have been stripped of 75,000 hectares of productive land that now is farmed by foreign-owned entities.
The European Union's initiative "Everything but Arms" (EBA) intended to help the least developed countries by lifting quotas and duties, is now viewed by activists as serving unintentionally to boost fierce land grabbing in Cambodia in the sugar industry. Activists called on European Union's consumers to fight what they refer to as "blood" sugar. Early this month, rights groups and representatives of affected areas in Cambodian joined forces in a campaign to urge the world's consumers to boycott Tate and Lyle Sugars and American Sugar Refining (Domino Sugar brand). A video and petition are available on the Internet [boycottbloodsugar.net/]. "Crops have been razed. Animals have been shot. Homes have been burned to the ground. Thousands of people have been left destitute. Some have been thrown in jail for daring to protest. Despite the abundant evidence of these crimes, none of the responsible individuals and companies has been held to account."
Last week, as representatives from ASEAN countries and from China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States were meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodian military police in riot gear surrounded protesters at Freedom Park. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights described how Long Panha, a protester and employee of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), was beaten "viciously across the head with batons. He was pulled to the ground and held in a prone position, blood gushing from his face, before being hauled by his arms and legs into the back of a nearby police van…"
In the words of CCHR President Ou Virak, "This incident represents yet another shameful attempt by the Phnom Penh authorities to silence peaceful protesters in an effort to present a picture of stability in the country to visiting dignitaries."
Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams urged visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to tell Hun Sen "in public and private" that closer ties with the US will not be possible without significant improvements in Cambodia's deteriorating human rights situation. Cambodians are again circulating Amy Simmons' "Life in a Cambodian rubbish dump" with photos by Spanish photojournalist Omar Havana depicting the desperation of children in Siem Reap – "an astounding sight tourists don't see."
Clearly, the nonviolent actions of brave Khmer men and women in protest of the Hun Sen regime's brutality and greed are having an impact. The road to real freedom will be potholed and serpentine, but progress is being made and will accelerate as more Cambodians in the country and abroad learn and engage in strategic thinking motivated by democratic values and principles.
In "Lessons of the Arab Spring," Spiegel Online (July 4) published: "The hope that the Arab world would become democratic as quickly as Eastern Europe did 20 years ago has not been fulfilled. But fears that the countries of North Africa and the Middle East – from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east – would sink into chaos one after another have also not materialized."
As the Spiegel sees it, the people in the Middle East succumbed to violence for decades and that's why the dictators have stayed in power for so long. "But eventually a point was reached, in every conflict in the region, at which fear changed sides, and at which the effect of violence was reversed. Instead of producing subjugation, it triggered revolt. It happened under the shah of Iran in 1978, in Tunisia in 2011 – and now it is happening in Syria."
And the lessons of the Arab Spring? "For the oppressed, the lesson is: Perhaps the government will want to kill us all. And for the rulers, the lesson is: Despite everything, the people do not give up." In other words, dictators will increase the level of oppression, and the oppressed will not give up.
Last week, Cambodian Say Savuth, founder and managing director of vbuildleaders center (vbuildleaders.com) presented his first article on leadership. At a time when Cambodians are seeking one who will be a Cambodian Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, Say Savuth writes, "Who are leaders? Each and every one of us is." He explains, "At first stage, we lead ourselves. Next, we lead team [sic]. We can lead team [sic] only if we can lead ourselves well enough. Next, we lead a bigger team. The happier the followers we have, the more influential we become leaders [sic]." The article reflects the Buddhist teaching that describes the 10 qualities a leader should acquire (Barmei) in order to become a locus of influence – a Mandela or a Suu Kyi.
I would like to close by sharing a Danish fairy tale published in 1837 that seem most fitting as we examine Cambodia, her people, and the international community:
Emperor wears no clothes
A pair of swindlers told the emperor that they could make dresses from the most beautiful fabric, fabric with special qualities invisible to people who are stupid. To ensure that he would not be the stupid one who could not see the cloth, the emperor sent two trusted men to verify the beauty of the cloth. These couriers could not see the cloth, but were unwilling to admit the truth, so they praised the fine threads woven to make the lovely fabric.
The townspeople heard about the cloth. They were interested in learning who among them was too stupid as not to see the cloth. So when the emperor, dressed in the new clothes which he never admitted he could not see, traveled in a procession through the town, the townspeople wildly cheered and praised the emperor's clothes.
Then a small child shouted: "But he has nothing on!"
The child's words spread quickly from one person to another until everyone in the town shouted "The emperor has no clothes!"
The emperor heard what the townspeople said. He knew they were right. But he could not admit he wore no clothes so he continued the procession, naked and exposed, to its conclusion.
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 contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.