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

Something is changing within the Khmer nation.

Those storied Khmer characteristics – the broad smile; the gentle, peaceful compassionate nature – and the centuries-old traditions of “korup, bamreur, karpier, smoh trang” — “respect, serve, defend, be loyal (to leaders)” — passed down through generations seem to be taking a new course.

A photo floating on the Internet shows Khmer villagers–from youth to middle age–standing barefoot under the hot sun as their colorful sandals are arranged in an empty lot nearby to make up the Khmer word “Aphivath,” or “Development.” Their symbolic protest is directed at Khmer leaders and at those around the world who are sympathetic to the disenfranchisement of the poor in contemporary Cambodia.

Photos and videos of government abuse of citizens’ rights and of citizens’ responses have inundated the Internet. Some postings inform and educate. I recommend recent postings on the Website of Radio Free Asia (February 1, “More Arrests Follow Land Clash”).

The beatings of women and children by riot police are routine — and are routinely condemned by international and national rights groups. The too common sight of Khmer women with clothes torn or ripped off by police during peaceful protests is now replaced by the sight of women protesters taking off their clothes to highlight their protests as they face the police.

Going one step further, RFA posted on its website a photograph of a half-naked Khmer woman protester facing police in full riot gear. Her action was intended to highlight the plight of Cambodian villagers from the Borei Keila community, who were evicted by armed police from their homes, which were dismantled and the co-opted land given to Phan Imex Company for commercial development.

Khmer women taking off their clothes in public to protest against authority is a new phenomenon. But, it shows something else too: Submission to injustice has a limit, and “fear,” a conditioned behavior, is being overcome.

This new behavior takes me back to an e-mail from Phnom Penh from forty-something Sambath, a graduate in political science from a University abroad, who told me unreservedly several months ago that today’s young Cambodians have become “fearless” to confront what they perceive as unjust. Sambath also said something I had not heard before: Cambodians in their mid-fifties and older are too conservative and too prudent to be helpful in the fight against dictatorship.

Sambath’s view was repeated by Teveakor, also in his forties, who holds a master’s degree from a Cambodian university. He sees Cambodians in their mid-fifties and older as a “conservative force” while young democrats need a “push force.” Teveakor claimed that he and colleagues, young democracy advocates, are struggling in the midst of their families’ poor economic situation to work on strategic planning, building and strengthening a leadership circle among younger Cambodians, and spreading political awareness amongst Cambodians they know.

Meanwhile Makara, also in his forties, told me bluntly from Phnom Penh that “writing, speaking, denouncing, suing” don’t bring down the current dictatorship. He presented a rather imaginative Machiavellian “cool technique” he thinks would shake the core of the autocratic rule — “smart thinking” if I may say so, though I will not repeat his ideas here. As Burmese icon Aung San Suu Kyi said, “Action comes out of thought.”

Their emails remind me of a former comrade-in-arms during my service with the Khmer Non-Communist Resistance, a high ranking royalist, who wrote about the “silent majority” that is hard at work.

A reader in Phnom Penh whom I never met, answered my question on the situation in Cambodia as he sees it by sending me the link to the June 2007 Global Witness Report titled, “Cambodia’s Family Trees, Illegal logging and the stripping of public assets by Cambodia’s elite,” and the link to a Human Rights Watch publication on forced evictions, with his own comment: “This says it all.”

A collision course theory

An older Khmer, Lokta Mekso, is concerned that Cambodia is headed toward a “bloody revolution” if there’s no change to the status quo. He theorizes that as Cambodians, “distressed” by the economic situation and the incessant violations of rights and freedom, release their frustrations against the regime in power, the latter will respond with increased repression. The stress-repression process is likely to spiral into an “explosion” a la Arab Spring — with inevitable bloodshed, he believes.

“There would be no change through a peaceful way,” Mekso thinks. He is frustrated that the regime has declined to alter the policies and actions that increasingly stress the population and propel them toward confrontation with authorities.

I have tried to capture the stress-repression spiral Lokta described. I selected photos available in the public domain, made slideshows, and posted them on YouTube — the last one posted two weeks ago. Indeed, I can anticipate the future bloodshed Mekso fears. In his analysis, this continued stress-repression spiral shall cost the “stressors” their hold to power in five to 10 years.

The most important weapon of the oppressors, repression, shall do them in, should democrats think smart and act smart.

But Mekso also worries about Cambodians’ ability to replace an autocratic regime with another one that is different in name only, a worry shared by others, and a topic for another time.

The “stomach and stability” theory

Mekso and some Cambodians suggest that political stability, improved economic well-being, and universal education comprise an environment in which a destructive collision between the government and the governed might be avoided.

The call for a “filled stomach” and for “stability” is logical. After decades of living in hellacious circumstances — from the widening Vietnamese War, the tumult of the Khmer Rouge regime, subsequent Vietnamese military occupation and a war of national resistance, and the land-grabbing actions of the Cambodian government in place, who would not welcome stability and a filled stomach?

Cambodia is no different from most of the world’s nation-states that give governments the tasks to provide for the social and economic well-being of all citizens, and for the independence and the stability of the country. The trouble is Cambodia’s current leadership does none of these.

The current leadership was installed by the Vietnamese invading troops in Phnom Penh in January 1979, and has been in control of the country for 32 years. Through rigged elections, intimidation and threats, the ruling party seeks to legitimize its power.

But, many people are poor and hungry, people’s rights and freedom are violated, and Cambodians are unhappy to see their government serving Vietnam with treaties ceding territory and illegal immigration that has brought an alleged “four million” Vietnamese to Cambodia. This leadership is being judged by its citizens who are dissatisfied with how it has fulfilled its obligations.

Surely, today’s Cambodia has experienced a 10-percent annual growth rate for the past decade, and has developed physically and materially. The vast labor camp is no more; cosmopolitan Cambodian cities attract tourists and investments.

Just as the price of peace has been too high, so, too, is the price of development.

So far, this small kingdom owes a debt between $3.3 billion and $7 billion (depending on which government source gives the figure) to foreign countries and development partners — with China taking the lead. The country’s natural resources have been plundered and sold to foreigners by members of the elite who uniquely profit. About one-third of the population lives below the poverty level; many live off the city dump grounds. Nearly half a million citizens have been forcibly evicted from their homes, their land confiscated for “economic development.”


Teveakor, who dismissed as low the government figure of 36 percent of the populace as living below the poverty level — the “living ghosts” — argues that of the 80 percent of the population who live in the countryside, many are barely able to make ends meet; he and his friends are among them.

Makara’s e-mail about his declining health lamented that if in his more privileged economic position he is struggling to find medicines and a clinic, how much suffering is the multitude that has little or nothing forced to endure?

Teveakor theorizes that the current leadership — whose families are “filthy rich” — is never interested in pulling Cambodians out of poverty or in providing Cambodians with a good education. His reasons? When the people’s stomachs are more full and they have the skills to think and reason, the leadership’s very survival is in danger. Yet, how is education to be improved in a culture of bribery that is pervasive even among the young, all the way to the Ministry of Education? Furthermore, who wants to study when a degree can be bought at a cheap price?

Teveakor and Makara (and Sambath) don’t know one another. Teveakor and Makara say the government has an interest in keeping democracy advocates busy struggling to feed their families so they will have no time to devote to the fight for democracy and civil rights. Both are pessimistic about “a filled stomach and stability” being catalysts for change because the current status quo denies the poor any possibility of improving their living conditions and sustains the culture of corruption.

And they say, the regime successfully pulls malleable democrats into the “corruption nest” with jobs and privileges.

Both are blunt: Today’s “god” is money. With money people buy cars and big homes; since the “god” is with Premier Hun Sen and those who are his cronies, Cambodians who want cars and big homes, government positions, power and prestige, love the regime dearly.

The Buddha angle

Khmer expatriate Sophoan Seng, a master’s degree holder in political science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, currently Director of KEEN Investment Groups LTD and president of the Khmer Youth Association of Alberta, acknowledges that many people in Cambodia endorse the “filled stomach and stability” theory for different reasons.

“However,” Seng, a former Buddhist monk in Siemreap for more than a decade, writes, “Buddhists who have learned and experienced deep understanding of Buddha’s teachings, see that the highest goal of Buddhism is ‘liberty’, not the ‘four necessities’,” i.e., food, shelter, clothing, medicine.

His ideas are similar to those of another former monk, Heng Monychenda, who holds a master’s degree from Harvard and heads the nonprofit group, Buddhism for Development. Seng points to Buddha’s teaching that “liberty” or “Nama,” — referring to a person’s mind or spirit — and the “four necessities,” or “Rupa,” — referring to body or physical appearances — must be equalized and balanced. As Monychenda explains, “Nama-Rupa” means that mind and matter must go together. “Mind affects matter and matter affects the mind,” i.e., spiritual and economic development should not be separated into two separate realms, he says.

Thus, in Buddha’s teaching, you don’t stop the struggle for liberty because you want some stability and some food. Of course, “Buddha teaches that all beings need food (Rupa, the four necessities) to survive,” Seng explains, but “Buddha teaches that Nama or mind is the leader, the master; and human beings are made by mind, which, as developed positively, can master all things.” Yet, unless Nama and Rupa are brought into balance, a person cannot enter the Dhmma stream to reach the highest level of realization/enlightenment/liberty of the mind from the bondage of greed, hatred, delusion.

Seng asked: Considering Cambodia’s non-independent judiciary, economic development through land grabbing and forced evictions, coerced mass media, rampant corruption from top to bottom, political autocracy, favoritism, cronyism, among many other things, is Cambodia on the path of engineering development and stability, or establishing liberty, or balancing both, as Buddha teaches?

Change begins with each of us

An array of e-mails in my box contains similar thoughts, as summarized in an e-mail from another former high ranking member of the royalist FUNCINPEC: “The root of real change and overall change is inside each and every one of us.”

A former Khmer monk, Bouawat Sithi, a graduate of Thailand’s Djittabhawan College, founded to help poor students pursue higher education, lamented that because Buddhism is not taught or understood correctly, “egoism, anger, greed, delusion, desire, craving, hate and aversion” overwhelm many Cambodians.

Buddha used the term “Nibbana” or Nirvana to explain an image of freedom — to “free” a burning fire from its agitated, dependent, and entrapped state. Sithi explained that Buddha teaches that everyone has the capacity to attain Nibbana, and by extension has the opportunity to become a leader if s/he puts effort into becoming one. According to Sithi, Buddha teaches that
in order to change the world one has to change oneself as an example for people to follow, and when they follow, one is indeed a leader.

Sithi’s commentary brings me back to a column I wrote about an inscription on the tomb of an Anglican bishop in Westminster Abbey. The inscription was actually circulated by a group of Khmer Krom expatriates in the United States a few years earlier. The description on the tomb is about a man on his deathbed reflecting on his life’s voyage: When he was “young and free” with limitless imagination, he dreamed of changing the world, but the world would not change. So, he thought he would change the country; but the country was immovable. In his “last desperate attempt” he worked to change those closest to him, his family; but the family “would have none of it.”

On his deathbed, the man realized: “If only I had changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I might have changed the world.”

“Chous Ach Knong Srae”

The most powerful statement in e-mails I have lately received come from a septuagenarian, a former field artillery officer and instructor at the Khmer Military Academy, who instructed many well-known Khmer military officers. He has gone through six regime changes in his life: the first monarchist regime, the republican regime, the Khmer Rouge regime, the Vietnamese-installed regime, a coalition regime, and now the second monarchist regime controlled by Vietnamese-propped Hun Sen.

“Since I was born until now,” he writes, “the same old thing remains: The leaders and their families become richer and richer.” Like others, he calls on everyone to change — from their way of thinking to their everyday lifeways — so that real change can occur. But the septuagenarian sounded sad to affirm that what once was and still is. There’s “no change in Cambodian attitude.”

In many long e-mails that deal with the Khmer character and culture, Khmer domestic and world politics, he expresses deep frustration and hurt that while Cambodia’s neighbors look down on the Khmers as “Phnong” — primitive beings — the Khmers themselves “bite one another but fear them; insult one another but are afraid of them . . . Khmers cannot be convinced easily except by foreigners whom they like. They have hot tempers, and kill one another when they are mad even over small little things. If a leader says ‘go’, they go all the way serving him unconditionally and blindly…” And he goes on and on.

He recited twice in his e-mails, a Khmer poem well known to those in my generation. The poem deals with an ignoramus who does private business in the ricefield and cleans himself with an ivy leaf: “O Khmer euy Khmer, Chous ach knong srae, Yok khgnae tov ket, Dol ach choab dai, Noam knea mok het, Ae ach choab kdet, Ket lieang min chreas.”

Ignorance of the person is one aspect of the short poem. The other aspect is what Albert Einstein defined as insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

The septuagenarian lamented in his e-mail: It is “same old, same old” through generations.

The Vietnamese angle

Whoever started the idea that the Khmer word, “Yuon,” is a pejorative for Vietnamese is ignorant of the Khmer language. The Buddhist Institute’s “Dictionnaire Cambodgien” of 1968 defines “Yuon” as people from Vietnam. In general, the Yuon people from Tonking are called “Yuon Hanoi”; from Annam are called “Yuon Hue”; from Conchinchina are called “Yuon Prey Nokor.”

For my purpose, I use the English word Vietnamese. My article, “Brief History of Vietnamese Expansionism vis-à-vis Cambodia” — a research paper — was posted on the website of the Khmer Institute in 2010.

When I did research for my doctoral dissertation, I read a statement by a Khmer leader at the time who observed that “destiny” has placed Cambodia and Vietnam as neighbors until the end of time and it would be up to the two peoples how to live with one another. Like the old saying that you can choose your friend but not your family, neither can we choose who should be our country’s neighbors — who have called us “Phnong,” a hurtful insult, as the septuagenarian said above.

Conventional techniques a nation-state can use to promote its foreign policy goals include communications, diplomacy, economic and military tools, and subversion. Cambodians can use any of these techniques intelligently — a topic and an issue for politicians to sort out (as a scholar, I can comment and suggest).

A couple weeks ago I heard from Paula, 41. He is a native of Battambang province and a former refugee at several camps along the Khmer-Thai border after the Vietnamese takeover of Phnom Penh in 1979, who has graduated from an American university. He wrote, “The Vietnamese know Khmer tricks (Khmer traits?) well. They said that Khmer like power, women, and material things. If you have these things, Khmer will do anything to hold on to power. So the Vietnamese put Hun Sen on the tiger’s back. To make his Vietnamese boss happy, he’ll hold on; if he falls, he’s dead. I strongly believe that no one dares to challenge Hun Sen’s authorities. The majority of opposition members can be bought.”

Believing that “change will not come easily” because the Vietnamese run Hun Sen’s dictatorship, Paula wanted to know how any “new government” would be able to replace Hun Sen without bloodshed and be independent and fully in control of Cambodia.

I am reminded of earlier comments on Khmer blog KI-Media by an anonymous blogger identified as Pissed off, who called on Khmers to help educate every child in Cambodia as this would help solve Cambodia’s numerous problems as well as the Vietnamese problem. Recently, Pissed off, again wrote: “If you can take down Hun Sen and … his close inner circle, you can deal with Vietnam in a reasonable way later.”

Vietnam has no business in Cambodia. Yet, Vietnam is in Cambodia. Its presence is illegal from the standpoint of international law and principles practiced by states. But this presence is legitimized by the Cambodian leadership — with Hun Sen as Prime Minister and the Cambodian People’s Party as the ruling party. Moreover, this leadership that kotows to Vietnam is supported by the King Father and his son the king of Cambodia.

For me, the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — the supreme national interests of Cambodia — are two non-negotiables. Other things may be negotiated. Armed resistance to Vietnamese incursions from the east and Thai aggression from the west is tantamount to national suicide. Cool heads must prevail.

I agree with democrats who contend that to remove Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia Cambodians need to remove what gives “legitimacy” to it, i.e., those who are the “legitimizers” of Vietnam’s presence. Stripped of its alleged “legitimacy,” Vietnam has no rationale to be in Cambodia, whose people can stand as one to deal with Vietnam.

Understanding nonviolent action (people power)

Ideas and concepts of nonviolent action about which I write here are drawn from the work of Professor Gene Sharp, “the Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,” and Srdja Popovic, one of the Serbian Otpor leaders who brought down dictator Milosevic in 2000.

As defined by foreign affairs and national security professor Thomas C. Schelling, “political violence” and “political nonviolence” have as purposes “making somebody do something or not do something or stop doing something. The aim is to influence behavior.” Their one main difference is, “violent action often requires hot blood, while the nonviolent action depends more on cool heads.”

Nonviolent action — people power, political defiance, nonviolent struggle — is a “technique of struggle” that involves the use of social, economic, and political power in a conflict by using “symbolic protests, noncooperation, and defiance, but not physical violence.”

It is not “passive” and it is not “inaction.” Some 200 specific methods of nonviolent action, or “nonviolent weapons,” include methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion; of social, economic, and political noncooperation; and methods of nonviolent intervention. Nonviolent struggle is designed to struggle against opponents who are able and willing to use violence — the oppressors.

Nonviolent action against violent repression creates what Sharp called a “special, asymmetrical, conflict situation,” in which one side relies on violent action — arrest, imprisonment, physical harm — and the other side relies on nonviolent action, a technique which Popovic says, requires “analytical skills in unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline” (the last being the “game changer”). These skills can be taught and learned.

As Sharp puts it: “An extensive, determined and skillful application of nonviolent action will cause the opponent very special problems, which will disturb or frustrate the effective utilization of his own forces. The actionists will then be able to apply something like jiu-jitsu to their opponent, throwing him off balance politically, causing his repression to rebound against his position, and weakening his power.”

Nonviolent action may involve “acts of omission” — people may refuse to perform acts that they usually perform, or acts that are expected by custom or required by law or regulation to perform; or “acts of commission” — people may perform acts that they do not usually perform, or are not expected by custom, or are forbidden to perform; and a combination of the two.

Clearly, the three “acts” above require quality thinking, analytical thoughts and skills. It requires what Khmers called “lbaeng denh prajgna” — ” intelligence/brain skills.”

This brings me to Khmers’ Thnenh Chey, a hero in Khmer folklore who seems to never run out of ideas. When the King forbade Chey to show his face during a royal procession, Chey drew a human face on his derriere and exposed it for the King to see. Brought before the angry King, Chey swears his undying respect, that he would never violate the King’s order not to show his face, nor would he be so disrespectful and disloyal as not to be present at so revered a royal procession.

In another episode, arrested and transported by boat by the King’s soldiers, Chey knew his day was coming to an end, so he launched his own “psy-op”: He explained to the soldiers that he would be executed anyway so told them to let him drown and die, why bother to transport him all the way to the palace. He persuaded the soldiers to let him fall into the water, and they should shout “A Chey thleak toek” (“Chey falls into the water”) and then cheer “Hai eur, Hai eur!” (Hallelujah, hallelujah!). Chey’s psychological operation worked. He dropped into the water and swam away as the King’s soldiers cheered.

Nonviolent action does not mean inciting the people to rise up against the oppressors who spray bullets. As in jiu-jitsu, a martial art that uses the attacker’s weapon against himself or herself, political jiu-jitsu is a technique using the dictator’s best weapon, violent repression, against himself or herself.

Nonviolent action specialists remind us that just as the dictator stays in power because he has pillars of support and the people he governs obey him, the democracy actionists’ job is to pull away (not destroy) those pillars of support (bureaucracy, police, military, etc.), and persuade the people to withdraw their obedience. Cambodian democracy activists can learn much from Thenh Chey, the prince of thinking smart and acting smart.

In the final analysis, it is Cambodians who decide what their country’s destiny shall be. As I said time and again, I write to share what I know, if it helps, that’s good; if not, you would at least have read and learned something from what I write. As Confucius says, “You cannot open a book without learning something.” Of course, you can open a book and not read.

The old adage, “We get the government we deserve” means that it is citizens’ action (Cambodians’ election) or inaction (Cambodians’ large zone of indifference) that brings to the seat of power the leadership that rules over them. It is earned by the citizens.

Nonviolent action is a technique for Cambodians to consider. It is said one who does not risk anything gains nothing. The alternative is continued oppression.

As we are 46 days into this New Year 2012, I wish all Cambodian democracy activists and actionists success on whatever road they take toward the country’s future.

Remember Lord Gautama Buddha’s words of 2,500 years ago: “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may”; “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”


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

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-006-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 18-02-2012