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

CAMBODIA: “Cambodians can remain pawns, or can hang together against Sen’s autocracy”

August 15, 2010

Two weeks ago, I presented in this space a contrast of reporter Benoit Bringer’s “Cambodge: Les enfants de la decharge” (Cambodia: The Children of the Garbage Dump), a five minute video, and his gallery of photos, showing how Cambodians scavenge Phnom Penh’s public garbage dump just to survive; and Andrew Marshall’s “Khmer Riche,” published in the Jan 12 Sydney Morning Herald, showing the life at the opposite end of Cambodians’ economic spectrum – Cambodia’s “rich kids” who can spend “,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.”

The contrast serves to forecast Cambodia’s unpleasant future, a future the international community sought to avoid when it established the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and invested billion to set Cambodia on a productive course. The current situation in Cambodia and the future it foretells represent an international failure.

Economic Inequality, Conflict, Revolt

Theories abound about economic inequality and its linkage with dissent, unrest, and rebellion by the disadvantaged.

Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) had linked the well-being of a political community with the well-being of the citizens who make it up, and economic inequality with the revolt of the disadvantaged. His analysis on the causes of revolution—”The passion for equality is at the root of revolution,” Aristotle said–has inspired students of politics and theorists until today.

One of Aristotle’s often-quoted statements reads: “It is in the interest of a tyrant to keep his people poor, so that they may not be able to afford the cost of protecting themselves by arms and be so preoccupied with their daily tasks (subsistence) that they have no time for rebellion.”

Inequality in Cambodia

Much has been written about inequality in contemporary Cambodia. A few examples: the London-based Global Witness, an anti-graft international nongovernmental organization, detailed in its 2007 “Cambodia’s Family Trees” report, Premier Hun Sen’s family members, business associates and senior officials, dubbed the “kleptocratic elite,” as allegedly engaged in illegal logging and stripping of Cambodia’s public assets for personal profit. In 2009, Global Witness’s “Country for Sale” report charged, “Over the past 15 years, 45 percent of the country’s land has been purchased by private interests.” The March-April 2009 Foreign Affairs Magazine’s “Cambodia’s Curse,” by Stanford’s Joel Brinkley, exposed United States Embassy-funded studies in Phnom Penh that “showed in stunning detail that Cambodian government officials steal between 0 million and 0 million a year (most years, the state’s annual budget is about billion).”

Foreign donors of aid are not blind to what has been happening in Cambodia. But, in the contemporary world in which big and small states still compete for power, influence, wealth; and as all governments are susceptible to their respective interest groups that may clamor for unrestricted economic investment opportunities in Cambodia; there should be no surprise that foreign governments that abhor the current situation of the average Cambodian citizen will not risk upsetting the ruling autocracy and denying the economic pursuits of their domestic constituents by advocating for the civil rights of a foreign people.

The global civil society organization, Transparency International, that leads the fight against corruption, reported Cambodia ranked 158thof 180 countries surveyed on a TI corruption perception index for 2009. In the Aug. 2 Jakarta Globe’s “Cambodia’s Struggle With Globalization,” Australian National University Professor Hal Hill, Asian Development Bank economist Jayant Menon, and Cambodia Economic Association chairman Chan Sophal, reported Cambodia ranks 166th on the TI corruption perception index, and 135th in the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators, out of 181 countries surveyed. They warned: “Achievements over the past decade in particular could be undone by economic crises, or rising civil unrest driven by outrage at the political and bureaucratic excesses.”

Politics does strange things

Today’s Cambodia of Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Decho Hun Sen, (an aristocratic title bestowed by King Father Nororom Sihanouk, himself a former president of a loose coalition of three Khmer factions — noncommunist nationalist KPNLF, royalist FUNCINPEC, and Khmer Rouge DK — which fought Vietnamese occupation troops and the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin-Hun Sen regime), is far better than the Cambodia of Pol Pot, the master of the 1975-1979 killing fields that took some two million lives.

Without the King Father, China-backed Pol Pot could not have brought down the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic in 1975, a prelude to the occupation of Cambodia by Vietnamese troops in 1979-1989; and without the King Father, Sen’s autocracy and his Cambodian People’s Party cannot survive in today’s Cambodia.

Making Cambodia’s current crisis more complex, Hun Sen, who was installed in power by the Vietnamese but is a former Khmer Rouge commander, is now the King Father’s adopted son; and the King Father’s biological son is now king of Cambodia. The King Father and Premier Sen need one another. Sen needs the King Father to legitimize his rule; the King Father needs Sen to shield him from criticisms of his policies in the Vietnam War era. And the Khmer traditions that inculcates blind obedience and unquestioned loyalty to authority, ensures the Cambodian autocracy’s survival.

The Love for Material Gain

Many Cambodians simply love Sen’s transformation of Pol Pot’s ghost capital of Phnom Penh into a bustling city of 1.5 million residents, with huge villas, modern supermarkets, a 92-floor Gold Tower skyscraper, in a Cambodia that attracts over two million tourists annually.

Recall a survey by a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, the International Republican Institute, that showed 79 percent of those Cambodians polled say Premier Sen’s Cambodia is moving in “the right direction,” and cited Sen’s new roads, modern bridges, new schools, modern complexes.

Indeed, many Cambodians are now clothed better, housed better, and eat better, too.

Except the more than 30 percent of the population of 14 million live below poverty line–many on less than 50 cents a day.

The discovery of oil off Cambodia’s coastline may be a boon or a curse.

Stability vs. Rights Conflict

Oppression occurs when those who favor stability and security do so at the expense of individual rights. On the other hand, when individual rights and free expression are exercised without restraint, a state of “licentiousness” is reached which breeds instability, insecurity, and chaos. This is no less “oppressive.”

In 2006, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (French acronym Licadho), issued “The Facade of Stability” report that accused the world community of failing to “speak out” against Sen’s regular human rights breaches, and warned, “Cambodia’s current period of relative calm is no guarantor of meaningful long-term stability, and ongoing, systematic human rights violations will, to the contrary, promote instability.”

Fast-forward. On June 2, as Sen’s Supreme Court issued a guilty verdict against Cambodian lawmaker Mu Sochua, for demanding justice following Sen’s televised abusive public speech against her, foreign donors who met in Phnom Penh awarded .1 billion in development aid to Sen.

A day earlier, 15 nongovernmental organizations in Cambodia released a briefing paper, “Cambodia Silenced: The End Days of Democracy?” charging, “Since 2009 freedom of expression has continued to be seriously undermined, with the Royal Government of Cambodia crackdown targeting the pillars of democracy in Cambodia: parliamentarians; the media; lawyers; human rights activists; and ordinary citizens.”

“Dogs continue to bark, Oxcart continues its trip forward”

The quotation above from an e-mail to me from one of Sen’s officers in Phnom Penh, served to remind that national and international critics and rights groups can say what they will, but the ruling Cambodian People’s Party moves forward with the aid and recognition of foreign governments – a circumstance that legitimizes Sen’s autocracy. Criticisms that break no bones are a tolerable irritant. The regime banned books, makes threats, violates rights and freedom and the rule of law, makes opponents disappear, intimidates opponents, because it can.

The international community should, and could have, nearly 20 years ago, pressured Sen (and other Cambodian parties) to abide by the stipulations of the 1991 Paris Peace Accord. That, the international community didn’t do.

To the contrary, it allowed the Khmer Rouge to contest the Accord; it allowed former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, who lost the first United Nations-organized elections (1993) to seize the co-premiership with the winner to rule the country – an impractical and unworkable formula of a two-headed bird, devised by the King Father to appease Sen and the losing CPP at the expense of his son, Norodom Ranariddh. In 1997, Sen’s coup d’etat ran Ranariddh out of town for safety abroad and killed his top officers and cadres. It was the international community that pressured Ranariddh to return to participate in the 1998 elections, thereby, legitimizing Sen’s autocracy.

Today, Sen profits from China’s unconditional aid as an alternative to the aid from Western nations that preach at him as they write their checks. With Beijing tapping its feet waiting for Sen to run into its arms, the Western nations have lost leverage on Sen.

The Future

Man’s hope for the future of a world order in which human rights and free expression can flourish must rest, in the final analysis, on how the world’s democracies choose to deal with the world’s autocracies.

Former British diplomat, Robert Cooper, of the Council of the European Union, was quoted as saying, today’s “struggle for power and prestige goes on as it always has,” and “Power is at the service of ideas, but the key ideas are also ideas about power: democracy and autocracy.”

While the world’s democracies ponder how to use their power and will to shape the world, Cambodian democrats and rights activists can choose to remain pawns while the democracies and the autocracies deal, or Cambodians can “hang together” in their opposition to Sen’s autocracy. If they do not, they risk being hung separately by the dictator.

We live in an interdependent, interconnected, globalized world. Cambodians can act, or not.


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

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

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-007-2010
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 01-01-1970