Cambodia is holding a second week-long period of national mourning for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, from Friday, February 1 to Thursday, February 7.  No “joyful” entertainments will be permitted, flags will fly at half-mast, the Cambodian people are to wear black ribbons on their shirts, and civil servants will receive two holidays, on February 1 and 4.

The King Father’s body will be moved from the Royal Palace to an adjacent crematorium at the Meru field on the first day of the mourning period. The body will remain at Meru for three days. The cremation will occur on February 4.  Eleven thousand security forces are deployed in Phnom Penh. More than a million people are expected to join the royal procession and cremation. The King has requested that his ashes be put in an urn and placed in a stupa in the Royal Palace.

On this occasion, I humbly bow from across the seas to join in the national mourning for the last Khmer god-king. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

Royal pardons

In Cambodia, royal pardons and prison sentence reductions are granted on three occasions each year: Khmer New Year (in April), the Buddhist Visak Bochea Day (Buddha Day, in May), and the Water Festival (Bon Om Touk, when excess waters of the Tonle Sap flow back into the Mekong, usually in November).

While still living, the late King Father had wished for “national reconciliation and national harmony.”  In that spirit, Cambodia’s Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana announced that current King Sihamoni will sign the release and sentence reductions for about 500 prisoners on February 4 to mark the King Father’s cremation, an exceptional “special” event.

Last November at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Thai Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to consider pardoning two imprisoned Thais, Ratree Pipattanapaiboon and Veera Somkwamkid. Subsequently Hun Sen told the Justice Ministry to grant a royal pardon to Ratree and to consider reducing Veera’s prison term.

Absent are two Khmer names. One is 71-year-old Mam Sonando, director of Cambodia’s independent Beehive Radio station, which broadcast criticisms of human rights abuses for years. Sanando is now serving a 20-year-jail-term for “secessionism.”

Amnesty International named Sonando a “prisoner of conscience.” Independent observers see Sonando’s actions as having nothing to do with insurrection but “everything to do with the suppression of dissent over an ongoing series of land grabs, illegal logging and forced evictions,” to quote the New York Times.

The other name missing from the pardon list is Sam Rainsy, the new head of the opposition coalition National Rescue Party (NRP). Rainsy currently is in self-imposed exile in Paris to avoid a 12-year prison term on criminal charges which Rainsy and independent observers consider to be “politically motivated.”  Numerous international and domestic rights groups – including US President Barack Obama – have appealed for Sonando’s release and for Rainsy to be permitted to return to Cambodia.

A “win-win”?

Cambodia’s second period of national mourning presents Hun Sen with an opportunity to add Sonando and Rainsy to the “special” pardon list to honor the late King Father. Hun Sen loses nothing by releasing Sonando. Rather, the action would likely earn him praise from the very groups that now criticize him. A royal pardon for Rainsy means this main opposition leader can participate in the July election, an essential element of a democracy, which Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party have said they embrace.

Hun Sen and the CPP have been saying they are certain to win in July. In control of government machinery since he became prime minster in 1985, it seems unlikely Hun Sen would lose. He’s likely to win by hook or by crook. His victory would legitimize his and the CPP’s continued rule. He said he wants to be ruler until he’s 90. Hun Sen is 60 years old.


Unless Hun Sen and the CPP fear that Cambodia’s electorate may surprise them again (!) at the 2013 polls as they did at the first ever free and fair elections organized and supervised by the UN in 1993, when voters cast ballots for challenger, Prince Ranariddh, head of the royalist FUNCINPEC.

Not accepting the people’s verdict, Hun Sen threatened war. To avoid war, Ranariddh’s father, the late King Father, conceived of a no-winner no-loser solution. Two equally powerful Prime Minister positions were created. The short term solution was a recipe for disaster. In 1997, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen unleashed armed soldiers loyal to him to engage in street fighting against First Prime Minster Ranariddh’s royalist soldiers. Thus, Ranariddh was ousted from power.

Today there’s no King Father to come to Hun Sen’s rescue.

In praise of US tradition

In a democracy, politics is a sport. Election winners govern according to the Constitution; election losers step aside but their rights are protected; the country moves on. The principle of “power rotation” is ingrained. Winners know they aren’t in power forever; losers also know today the winners govern, but tomorrow may be their turn if the people so choose. In a democracy, power changes hands.

Ten days ago I watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama for his second term as the 44th President of the United States: He took the oath in a swearing-in ceremony at the White House on January 20; the next day, a public ceremony, the 57th inauguration of the US President, was attended by about a million people.

Tennessee’s senior senator, Lamar Alexander, spoke in televised remarks on this occasion.  His comments summarized well what I would like to write about the US tradition of transferring/reaffirming US power. Americans seem to do this better than any other nation under the sun.

“Today we praise the American tradition of transferring or reaffirming immense power . . . We do this in a peaceful, orderly way. There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection. This is a moment when millions stop and watch. A moment most of us always will remember. A moment that is the most conspicuous and enduring symbol of our democracy. How remarkable that this has survived for so long in such a complex country with so much power at stake – this freedom to vote for our leaders and the restraint to respect the results…”

Khmer culture 

Very sadly, hundreds of years of Khmer tradition taught Cambodians to kaowd klach (admire and fear), smoh trang (be loyal), bamroeur (serve), and kapier (defend) their leaders unconditionally, rather than defend the nation’s high principles and ideals. Khmer society values class, status, rank, role relationships that further divide society into superior-inferior, boss-client, leader-follower roles. That tradition and those values contribute to a zero sum culture that sees everything in black and white, instills a winner-loser mentality, focuses on honor and face. In this world, a compromise is an admission that the “other” guy is not all wrong, and you are not totally right.

Worse, Khmers hold subsequent generations liable for perceived affronts.  Chaim muoy cheat, remember muoy cheat, which encompasses seven generations, from chi tuot (great, great great grandfather), chi luot (great, great grandfather), chi leah(great grandfather), through chi ta (grandfather), ovpouk (father), kaun (child), chao (grandchild) – a very, very long time.

Will the opportunity that this second period of national mourning presents produce something constructive, or will the political players in Cambodia continue to demonize one another?  It’s likely that this tradition of bad behavior will continue, taking “an eye for an eye.”  As some wags note, a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye will leave many Cambodians toothless and blind.

And yet, I nourish a feeling that as in the Khmer political world things aren’t usually what they appear, “something” may be worked out for royal pardons and sentence reductions. .

Khmer political Ramvong 

Cambodians have a passion for song and dance. Julia Wallace, writing for the New York Times in “Cambodian Strongman and Karaoke King,” describes karaoke as “very big” in Cambodia. Besides office workers singing and dancing the night away, young viewers download videos onto their computer and sing at home. Wallace reports that every channel of Cambodia’s nine major television networks – owned by government officials or business people with close ties to the CPP – airs a karaoke video singing praises of Prime Minister Hun Sen or his wife,Bun Rany.

A karaoke video praising Hun Sen and Bun Rany aligns with the Khmer tradition I described above. The impact of seeing and hearing that karaoke again and again effectively bypasses critical thinking. The music subconsciously bludgeons the listener into loyalty (smoh trang) for the individuals in the image and the song.

There’s a popular Khmer circle dance, the Ramvong, that draws villagers from near and far to Khmer festivities. As long as the drumbeats sound, participants get on their feet, move their hands gracefully, move with simple footwork, going around and around in a circle following the rhythm. Khmers say, Ramvong toarl phlu‘ or Dancing ’til dawn.

In the Khmer political world, Hu Sen is a master at managing the Khmer political Ramvong. He controls the drumbeat, keeps his supporters, his opponents, and Western aid donors dancing around and around in a circle.

Hun Sen’s Rainsy Ramvong is fascinating. Hun Sen’s National Election Committee removed Rainsy’s name from the country’s voter registry as Cambodian law prohibits a person convicted of a crime from participating in elections. On that day, the US State Department expressed disapproval of Cambodia’s decision, and raised the “question of legitimacy of the whole democratic process in Cambodia.” Four days later, Rainsy told Radio Free Asia “I will be back in Cambodia before the July elections.”

The government responded that anyone can come to Cambodia; Cambodia is an “independent state”; nobody tells Cambodia what to do; and Cambodia will execute the court’s verdicts against Rainsy, i.e., he will be arrested on Khmer soil and put in jail.

In mid-November 2012, before President Obama reportedly chastised Hun Sen on his poor human rights records, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh in Siemreap. News reports revealed the training of Cambodian troops by US Special Operations forces. Indeed, the US government has been unhappy with Hun Sen’s dismal rights record. But it is known that the US gave Hun Sen’s three sons support. The eldest, Hun Manet, the apparent heir, was given a cost-free education at West Point; senior intelligence official Hun Manith was assisted to study in Germany; and Hun Many, the youngest, was  permitted to study for an M.A. in strategic studies at Washington’s National Defense University.

It’s not difficult to see the US seeks access to Cambodia. Hun Sen knows it. Last month, he congratulated Obama on his re-election. Obama responded, he looks forward to strengthening US-Cambodia relations in the next four years.

Thus, the Ramvong beat goes on.

Food for thought

Today’s political stakes in Cambodia are high. And there was a history lesson to ponder.

Hun Sen’s coup in 1997 that sent Ranariddh into exile was undertaken to ensure that the people would not surprise him in the 1998 election. Ranariddh was in exile.

After 2 to 3 billion dollars spent on a political solution following the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements to end Cambodia’s long internal wars, the international community wanted to maintain the illusion of Cambodia as a success story. Ranariddh’s exile would mean a lopsided election. So, the prince was told by a representative of a friendly government that he must participate in the 1998 election, or he would be left out. In agony, the prince got on board. Hun Sen who made certain he would win the election, did win. Never mind that the election fell short of international standards. The fiction of a Cambodian “success story” was maintained – after all, that was the purpose of the 1991 PPA: To turn bullets into ballots, one way or another.

Today Sam Rainsy is needed in Cambodia by the international community, and by Hun Sen, himself, to legitimize the July 2013 election. Sam Rainsy needs Hun Sen’s approval to return to Cambodia to avoid 12 years in jail. Hun Sen needs Sam Rainsy to legitimize the election. Hun Sen, Sam Rainsy, and the international community need one another.

I have no crystal ball to see the future. But history has provided lessons about humans’ abilities to “work things out.” It’s easier to grant a royal pardon to Sonando. For Rainsy’s return to Cambodia, a “deal” giving Hun Sen the upper hand, and Sam Rainsy, a “junior” partnership is possible. Rainsy’s past behavior tells me he’ll likely accept.

On a light note, we can recall the words of Patel, the hapless but eternally optimistic hotel manager in the film, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

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-007-2013
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 10-03-2013