Contributors: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

In my last article I wrote about Cambodians who longed for a Khmer Mahatma Gandhi or a Khmer Aung San Suu Kyi. Some believe the struggle against the violations of rights and justice of the Khmer people is slow because of the absence of a Khmer equivalent to such figures.

Yet, the world’s successful revolutions have rarely been led by a charismatic individual such as Gandhi or Suu Kyi. And even those remarkable individuals, it should be recalled, also are burdened with very human strengths and failings, as are we all. Would a Gandhi or a Suu Kyi do well in the Khmer environment? We like them for their abilities and skills – which can be taught and learned. Gandhi and Suu Kyi possess strengths – which we should learn and apply – and weaknesses – which we should learn and discard. Would those who long for a Gandhi or a Suu Kyi be willing and ready to learn from them to advance their causes?

A proverb says, “Nothing succeeds like success.” Another says, “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.”

From the same source

Gandhi was a Hindu political and spiritual leader in India, renowned for his commitment to advance causes through civil disobedience and nonviolence. His philosophical and political perspectives were derived from the teaching of Lord Siddhartha Gautama Buddha (563BC-483BC), himself a Hindu prince of the ruling Shakya clan.

Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s father of independence, Aung San, is a devout Buddhist. She returned to her homeland in 1988 after years of studying and living in England, to witness widespread killings of her people by the Ne Win regime, and broad protests against it. As her father’s daughter, she says, she could not remain silent. She spoke out against the regime and initiated a nonviolent movement for democracy and human rights. In 1989 she was arrested and spent 15 of the next 21 years in custody during which she read, wrote, and meditated. She was released in 2010.

Cambodia is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country of 14 million. Buddha teaches that we are masters of our destiny. Suu Kyi says, “Action comes after thought.” Gandhi says, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Their sentiments align with Buddha’s teachings:  “We are what we think. With our thought we make our world.”

Without action, we go nowhere. With well-thought action we are likely to reach our objectives.

Briefly, the Hindu prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha led a life of full comfort in an ostentatious palace. He did not know poverty or suffering. At the age of 29, Siddartha was riding in his chariot when he saw for the first time an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and a wandering holy man whose asceticism inspired him. He wanted to know what causes suffering and how to stop it. So, in the middle of one night, he left the palace secretly, beginning the story of Lord Buddha.

I learn from the words and the thoughts of great men and women who have walked political paths I never experienced. They are far more eloquent than I and I’ve often shared their words with my own readers. In my own life, I’ve sometimes been reminded of their teachings to put myself on a better path. I embrace one of Gandhi’s 10 fundamentals to change the world: “I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps . . . It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” What great lesson of humility. Too many of us are obsessed with the “I” and the “me” – A’thmar Anh, Khmers say.  This can be a cause of conflict.

While I was a student at Georgetown University in Washington, DC in 1968, I saw protests, looting, and vandalism in Washington’s streets following the assassination of America’s civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, one day after his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, in which he spoke of death threats, “What will happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now . . . But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man…”

Inspired by Gandhi’s success with nonviolent activism, King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India in 1959, a trip that deepened his commitment to, nonviolence resistance. He called it, “the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity.”

I found Gandhi’s language and thought reflected in King’s public remarks. Gandhi’s fundamental, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong” can be read in King’s “Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness”; “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love”; “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend”; “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

But did Buddha not teach about love, compassion, understanding, peace 2,500 years ago?

Fifteen days into the New Year 2013, I recall the principle governing the life of Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel, a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz. A Jew from Romania, and a naturalized citizen of the United States, Weisel told Boston University graduates in a commencement speech that he walked in the footsteps of those who lived before him, that he’s “the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.” “The knowledge that I have must not remain imprisoned in my brain. . . . I need to pay back what I was given. Call it gratitude.”

Here’s another non-Cambodian figure whom Cambodians admired: The fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, political and spiritual leader of Tibet who took exile in India in 1959 when Chinese troops brutally suppressed a Tibetan uprising in Lhasa.

“Remain only half human”

The Dalai Lama sees nonviolent approaches by India’s Gandhi, American Martin Luther King, Jr., Philippine People Power, the Czech Velvet Revolution, and the Tibetan and Burmese protests, as revealing the “truth” that “freedom is the very source of creativity and human development.”

Whereas people everywhere are satisfied to be able to meet basic life necessities – food, shelter, clothing – the Dalai Lama warns, even if “food, shelter and clothing” are provided the people, these latter “remain only half human.” Those things don’t sustain human beings’ “deep nature.” This requires “the precious air of liberty,” he says. 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.”

His words remind us of Buddha’s ancient teaching.

Former Khmer Buddhist monks speak

Six months ago, I wrote about America’s youngest president (1901-1909), Theodore Roosevelt, an avowed activist who said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Those words provide a directive but not instruction and as such encourage creativity. Cambodians have Buddha’s teaching which they can use as a guide to self-actualization and to advance personal and collective goals.

Buddhism is a philosophy. The Hindu prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was a philosopher. Khmer Buddhist scholars complain that Cambodian Buddhist monks have not done their job of correctly teaching this foundational, complex Buddhist philosophy.

A former Buddhist monk, Heng Monychenda, who holds a graduate degree from Harvard University and leads a nonprofit, Buddhism for Development, writes in his book Preah Batr Dhammik, or “Just Ruler” (1991), that Cambodian monks failed to teach the dhamma (the way of life) correctly. He argues in “In Search for the Dhammika ruler” (2008), the monks’ failure, and Cambodian rulers’ failure to follow Buddha’s teaching (to practice the “12 duties of a great ruler”), have contributed to Cambodians’ declining “moral order” that in turn is a significant component of Cambodia’s current “great suffering.”

Another former Buddhist monk, Sophoan Seng, earned a graduate degree in political science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and now serves as Director of KEEN Investment Groups LTD and president of Alberta’s Khmer Youth Association.  He asserts that “the highest goal of Buddhism is ‘liberty’, not the ‘four necessities’, i.e., food, shelter, clothing, medicine.” He says, Buddha teaches that humankind is sustained through a balance and an equalization of “liberty” or “Nama” (the mind or spirit) and the “four necessities” or “Rupa” (the body or physical appearance), that is economic development (food, shelter, clothing, medicine) and spiritual development (liberty/human dignity) must go hand and hand.

Monychenda agrees with Buddha’s “Nama-Rupa” or “mind-matter” teaching which means the mind affects matter and matter affects the mind.

According to Seng, it’s true that Buddha sees humans need food (Rupa, the four necessities) to survive, but Buddha sees Nama (the mind, liberty) as taking the lead. Humans are made by the mind and through balancing Rupa and Nama will attain their highest level of enlightenment – the liberty of the mind from the bondage of greed, hatred, delusion.

For former Buddhist monk Bouawat Sithi, a graduate of Thailand’s Djittabhawan College, the Buddhist term “Nibbana” or Nirvana means freedom – to free a burning fire from its agitated, dependent, and entrapped state. Sithi says Buddha sees every person as capable of attaining Nibbana, and by extension having the capacity to become a leader if s/he puts effort into becoming one. Buddha teaches that to change the world one has to change oneself to make an example for people to follow.  When they follow, one becomes a leader, Sithi explains.

But every Khmer “can and should be Preah Batr Dhammik”

Some people have innate abilities to lead. But leadership abilities can be taught and learned. I find that blaming the lack of progress in the struggle for civil rights in Cambodia on the absence of a charismatic leader to be an absurd shirking of responsibility.

Monychenda posits Cambodians’ failure to understand and identify Preah Batr Thoarmmoek or Dhammik as also contributing to the decline of “moral order.”

Preah Batr Dhammik refers to one who upholds Buddha’s “tenfold virtues” – charity, morality, self-sacrifice, honesty, kindness, self-control, non-anger, non-violence, tolerance.  Any person “can and should be” Preah Batr Dhammik, Monychenda posits.

“I therefore propose that Cambodians begin to actively cultivate a new Preah Batr Dhammik instead of passively waiting for Preah Batr Dhammik to appear. It is time that we start to save ourselves before a Preah Batr Dhammik arrives to perform his task,” writes Monychenda.

What an appropriate proposition!


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


Document ID :AHRC-ETC-003-2013
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 12-02-2013