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

CAMBODIA: “Facing Sen’s Autocracy: Democrats Hang Together or Hang Separately”

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

American civil rights icon Martin Luther King said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” A man’s thinking is comprised of both a creative component and a critical one. Through creativity he imagines and produces. Through critical evaluation, he assesses the outcomes.

King also said, “Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

“It’s Angkar, Stupid!”

Last month, Cambodian premier Hun Sen’s autocratic regime decided that two general reading textbooks, in question-answer format, used by students across Cambodia since 2006, are critical of him and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party: They must be removed from circulation immediately.

One question in the books deemed critical and offensive, asked if Cambodia would be able to develop in the future. Pen Puthspea, the author, suggested in an answer that Cambodia cannot develop in the future because “corruption exists from the top level down to the low level of government, and law enforcement and human rights practices are still below zero.”

Puthsphea thought he was doing a good thing by offering students food for thought. “I suggested an answer based on real situation; I provided the pros and cons.”

Khmer university students agreed, the books helped them to think, and they will miss reading such thought provoking books. Youth Resource Development Program head Cheang Sokha told a mid-July Voice of America’s call-in show, “Cambodia’s higher education system has failed to address a lack of critical-thinking and problem-solving curricula among university students”; and ‘student-centered’ approaches exist on paper only within higher education.”

“If we want to see a society’s fate, we look at how young people’s education is invested in,” he said. “Now look at the way our current education system invests in young people. How can we hope that our society will have a good fate?”

Puthsphea told Radio Free Asia he received telephoned death threats related to the textbook content.

Thinking is anathema to Sen’s autocratic regime.

When citizens think, they see how autocrats’ rule has kept them in poverty and ignorance, and they aren’t going to like that. Autocrats don’t want their rule to be questioned. Intellectuals and dictators don’t generally see things eye to eye. Intellectuals don’t stop asking questions that put concerned individuals before a vast panorama of possible alternatives from which to choose. Intellectuals shake the status quo, and disturb citizens’ sleepy consciences.

Recall Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge who distrusted and killed anyone wearing glasses; and the policy from that era that equated “incorrect thinking” with a “tbaung chawb” (hoe blade)–used to strike the necks of those with “incorrect thinking.” The Khmer Rouge said, “Keeping them brings no gain; taking them out brings no loss.” More than 2 million people died. “It’s Angkar, Stupid!”

Many in the current regime who removed books, were Pol Pot’s ranking figures.

The Future?

Recently, an old friend from the Khmer royalist movement sent me two links, which anyone interested in Cambodia must see. You can Google reporter Benoit Bringer’s “Cambodge: Les enfants de la decharge” (Cambodia: The Children of the Garbage Dump) and watch a five minute video, or see his gallery of 17 photos of how the poor and powerless survive at Stung Mean Chey dumping site at

Now, Google and read Andrew Marshall’s report, titled “Khmer Riche,” published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 12 (I wrote on this in my Jan. 27 “Cambodia today is a country for sale”).

Bringer notes that of more than 30 percent of the population who live below poverty line many scavenge the public garbage dump to survive. Marshall describes “rich kids” who can spend “$2,000 on drinks in a single night” and whose parents’ “newly built neoclassical mansions (are) so large that (Phnom Penh’s) old French architecture looks like Lego by comparison.” What does this tell us of Cambodia’s future?

It’s a forecast of an abyss that lies ahead.

It is ironic that in July 2010, those nations that crafted the 1991 Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia, intended to ensure that human rights abuses would not occur, gathered again and bemoaned the deterioration of human rights and free expression in Cambodia.

Cambodian civil rights activists decry the lack of international pressure on the Hun Sen government to live up to the letter and spirit of the Paris Accords. One of those activists is Mu Sochua, who was stripped of parliamentary immunity and threatened with imprisonment because she demanded justice. While the country’s ruler mauled her, foreign donors awarded $1.1 billion in development aid, and the United States bestowed upon Sen’s abusive military the honor to host the region’s largest peacekeeping military exercise.

Only United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed “serious concern” on July 13, over Sen’s “highly politicized” court case against Sochua as “an alarming erosion of both freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia.” Pillay’s spokesman, Colville was blunt: Sen’s courts provided “no evidence to show either damage to reputation or malicious intent” by Sochua.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan’s dismissal of Pillay’s and Colville’s remarks as a “personal view that does not reflect the reality of Cambodia,” confirmed the Sen regime’s philosophy. The international community can think and say what it will. It is actions, in the form of the the $1.1 billion and the peacekeeping honor, are what matter.

As an email to me from one of Sen’s officers reads: “Dogs continue to bark, but the oxcart continues its trip forward.” Towards an abyss?

In the Khmer folktale “A Chey,” this anti-establishment revolutionary boy, known as Thnenh Chey, who was arrested and taken to the king by boat for punishment, came up with a scheme to escape: He whispered to soldiers on the boat that when they saw him falling into the water they should cheer: “A Chey thleak toek, Hey Oeur, Hey Oeur!” (“A Chey falls into the water, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”) The boy then jumped off the boat and swam away to the chorus Hallelujah!

Cambodian Democrats are on their own

In the final analysis, Cambodian democrats and rights activists must never forget that a government’s foreign policy action is determined by what its (elected) leaders define as the country’s national interest. Cambodians can bemoan the world’s inaction, but must accept that they are on their own in their fight for their freedom and human rights.

However much Sen’s autocracy is disliked, the world’s governments are not going to exchange the devil they know, and can do business with, with the devil they don’t know.

Until Cambodians who oppose Sen’s autocracy demonstrate a credible and viable alternative to the Sen regime, the latter is likely to remain in power for years to come, as Sen said he will. The contemporary Khmer “sheep culture” of blind obedience to power and authority, and of unquestioning loyalty and subservience, is not helpful.

The Dalai Lama said, “All human beings, whatever their cultural or historical background, suffer when they are intimidated, imprisoned or tortured . . . it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity, and they have an equal right to achieve that.”

A truth stipulated in the preamble of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights warns: “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

While the international community should be interested in a peaceful and stable world through the maintenance of rule of law, human rights and free expressions, in Cambodia, Cambodians opposed to autocracy would do well to heed Benjamin Franklin’s “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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

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

# # #

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-002-2010
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 04-08-2010