January 15, 2015

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

I begin this New Year 2015 with a renewed reminder: It is less what we know, but more how we think, that determines the quality of our life and our future.

We must imagine, explore, and challenge what we believe we know. That is how we improve ourselves and our circumstances.

Reality and the little buddhas?

Journalist and author Elizabeth Becker mirrored a common affirmation when she observed, “To be Cambodian is to be Buddhist.” Most Cambodians would agree. Lord Gautama Buddha (563 BC-483 BC) teaches to do all good, avoid all evil, and purify the mind (through meditation).   Yet, look around. Among relatively intelligent friends, siblings, and relatives; at offices; between neighbors; among members of communities and nations, there’s a world of friction and disharmony, disorder and discontent.

Many talk the talk – they go to Temple, recite memorized religious teachings – but are less consistent in their actions. Buddha counsels, “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them?”

A framework for understanding

An Indian spiritual sage, JidduKrishnamuri, sees a person’s life as a “constant struggle… a battlefield not only within (oneself) but also outwardly.” Our tendency to be self-centered, to view the world as though we live at the center of it, stands in the way of building a sane, happy, intelligent life.

Recall the book Charet Khmer by the late Boun Chan Mol, a Khmer political prisoner jailed at KohTralach during French rule: He ranked A’thmarAnh (the “I’ism”) at the apex of Khmer personality traits that should be abandoned.

New York University social psychology professor JanathanHaidt says all the world’s cultures have members with an “excessive and self-righteous tendency to see the world in terms of good versus evil,” or “moralism” that binds them into believing “We’re good, they are evil.” They live in a world of their own creations – “a world of insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals.”

Lord Buddha and elder Chinese teacher Confucius (551 BC-479 BC), preach, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” Humility is a low view of one’s own importance; it is humbleness, modesty, a lack of pride and vanity. It stands opposed to the I, me, mine, A’thmar Anh.

Raising doubt

Trust is the foundation of human relationships. Insert doubt and trust falters. As trust erodes, respect for the other is diminished. Confucius says, “Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?””Doubt separates people… disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations… a thorn that irritates and hurts; a sword that kills,” Buddha warns. “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt.”

Some peoplemake a habit of creating defamation and misinformation. They dig for dirt, engage in character assassination – with the purpose of diminishing trust in and undermining another’s credibility. In Khmer society, as in others, this has been a common theme noted by Boun Chan Mol, who described kumnitph’chanhph’chal (propensities to destroy), kumnitsangsoeksuor pouch (generational vendetta), among others. Presumably those who engage in these dark arts anticipate benefiting from a share of ill-gotten privilege.

Professor Haidt: “When political opponents are demonized rather than debated, compromise, and cooperation become moral failings and people begin to believe that their righteous ends justify the use of any means.”

“Culture of Dialogue”

Cambodian politicians speak much lately about the “Culture of Dialogue.” The nonprofit Co-Intelligence Institute posits, “Not all communication is a dialogue”; only a “shared exploration towards greater understanding, connection, or possibility” is a dialogue.

In dialogue, different sides work toward finding a common ground and understanding with each side having a genuine concern for the other, listening, learning, and working with the others to attain wholeness and interconnectedness and a workable solution. A dialogue is non-confrontational; one party does not seek to be right at the expense of others; it is open-ended.

Contemporary Khmer politics

To the displeasure of some – including a few friends and acquaintances – I advocated for the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s participation in the National Assembly despite the failure to investigate alleged electoral irregularities and fraud that gave Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party 68 seats, and the CNRP, 55.

I wrote that CNRP lawmakers must work hard on behalf of the many who voted them in office and keep the electorate and members of the international community abreast of their efforts. The people and the world would know who engaged in malice. I raised my frustration over CNRP leaders’ anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and appeals to emotionalism, urging statesman-like behavior to make themselves a credible alternative to the CPP.

In the July 2013 elections:with 9.67 million eligible voters and 6.62 million votes cast (68% voter turnout), a reported 3.2 million votes (48.8%) were cast for Hun Sen/CPP despite alleged fraud, and a reported 2.9 million votes (44.4%) went to the CNRP, providing no overwhelming victory for the ruling party. The Premier and his CPP had heaven to thank for the competing half dozen parties that collectively received a half million votes, theoretically more than enough to have won the election for the opposition CNRP had the smaller parties not competed.

The writing was on the wall. The premier is not so blind that after 34 years in power he risks bloodshed to stay on. Cambodians in general want change. Human Rights Watch charged, “Hun Sen has been linked to a wide range of serious human rights violations: extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, summary trials, censorship, bans on assembly and association; and a national network of spies and informers intended to frighten and intimidate the public into submission.”

No government can stay in power without popular support.

Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), an English essayist and critic who preferred the pen name George Orwell, wrote: “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.”

The cunning and shrewd Cambodian premier is facing charges of crimes against humanity filed at the International Criminal Court against his “Ruling Elite.” As the 2018 elections approach, this strongman, who thinks of himself as a Khmer Machiavellian Chinese-Samkok strategist, is confronted by Buddha’s teaching, “Nothing is permanent.” Begrudgingly, he has undertaken some reforms. He wants to leave a decent legacy.

But die-hard supporters of the CNRP brand any engagement with the CPP as treachery. While the Premier divides and rules, buys off, threatens, and imprisons opponents, amplifies doubt, those in the CNRP damage themselves with self-inflicted wounds. Internal dissension is on the rise.

Thinking 2018

Some say the Premier wants a triangular competition for the 2018 election to keep himself in power. I see him as welcoming an emergence of many political parties. It shows the flowering of free competition under his regime. It denies votes to the CNRP as happened in the past.

Thus, Prince NorodomRanariddh is encouraged to lead the royalist FUNCINPEC; Mr.Kem Ley’s Khmer for Khmer; Mr. Mam Sonando’s Beehive movement; Mr.SuornSereyRatha’s Khmer People’s Power Movement, added to existing small parties, would split hundreds of thousand of votes from the CNRP.

The Premier is busy applying his Chinese Samkokmaneuvers. What do Cambodian democrats do?


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 reached at


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Document ID :AHRC-ETC-002-2015
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 15-01-2015