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

CAMBODIA: Two inspirational historical events spark young Cambodians to work for change

I do have my political preferences.

Like anyone else, my political socialization began in childhood. And like other Cambodians in general, I was taught to “korup, bamroer, kaowd k’lach, smoh trawng” — “respect, serve, admire/fear, be faithful/loyal” — by my parents and elders, behaviors reinforced by my teachers in school. As a boy, it never occurred to me to challenge these teachings.

Then I entered the classroom of a young “progressive” instructor at my leaky, thatched-roof primary school at Russey Keo. Regularly he reminded us that each of us has “one kilo of brain” that is as good as any other brain, and that we — kids in the room with those brains — are responsible for our own future and that of our society.

Now, as my dark hair is marked with a few strands of gray, I recently recounted how my “brain” reacted then: ” ‘Bah!’ I remember the thought I had then, as I looked around at some of my classmates: clowns, bullies, pants-wetters … an assembly of the future?” I still wonder what happened to that great instigator of the mind, whose words I first pooh-poohed but will carry to my deathbed, and about that assembly of representatives of the future!

Political socialization
That “one kilo of brain” was tested when I landed as a senior in high school in Ohio in the early 1960s: My world was turned upside down socially, culturally, and intellectually.

It was then that I began to grasp that the major purpose of schooling was to learn to think rather than to memorize and parrot back.

My civics teacher in Ohio relentlessly pounded into my skeptical head the concepts of free thought and free speech. He called on me to speak in the class — I remember breaking into a sweat. First, the English language was too weird with words written one way and pronounced another way; second, were my classmates nuts and was I the sane one, or was it the other way around? My American foster father wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy, suggesting that the United States do more to help Cambodia, and treat her with more respect. Nuts! You say no such thing to a leader in Cambodia.

My old world was challenged.

In college, I found they applied the concepts of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal treatment to me, as I learned about the building of the American nation and ventured into the areas of Western political thought and American ideas and ideals of republicanism and rule of law. I did my Master’s at Georgetown, known at the time for being a bedrock of conservatism, and my doctoral work at one of America’s most liberal institutions at the time, the University of Michigan.

Thus, my political preferences did not come from thin air. Yet, I never let go of my Asian cultural heritage that taught me humility and respect: Until today, my writings do not insult and dehumanize those I disagree with — I disagree respectfully.

I wrote about Cambodia’s last god-king, the King Father, and found his policies vis-à-vis the Vietnamese Communists when he was chief of state, and after he was ousted from power, to have been disastrous for Cambodia. Yet, I found him honorable as he led a coalition in the 1980s against the Vietnamese occupiers, as well as a remarkably charming and gracious person. His current practice — see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing, while Premier Hun Sen surrenders the country’s integrity and sovereignty to Vietnam, and while the premier and cronies steal the country’s resources for personal gain, discard individual rights and freedom and the rule of law–make the King Father an accomplice and responsible.

My regular readers know how I view Premier Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Yes, I want to see change in Cambodia and I believe only Cambodians themselves can affect the change. I am not a proponent of change for change’s sake. Sure, a leadership change is good, but you don’t want to replace one leader or group of leaders with another leader or group of leaders of the same stock. No good leadership change comes until we change attitudes and values among Cambodians. As the youth of the Khmer Republic said repeatedly, a vehicle given a new body but retaining the same old engine is not a new car!

Today’s column
I write today’s column with a few purposes.

One is to share with the general public information on two historical events that occurred in March, one, three decades ago; the other, four decades ago. Both events had the same cause and have resulted in changing the face of Cambodia. The cause of both events was Vietnamese expansionism and annexation with the complicity of some Khmers.

Another purpose is my hope to make available for today’s young Cambodians who were born after one or the other event, who have no opportunity to know, except through the state machinery or through what Premier Hun Sen tells them, an alternative source to learn something. May young Cambodians be inspired by the risks some Cambodians look for the greater good.

As Robert F. Kennedy put it: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”

I write this article as a participant in both historical events.

March 18, 1970
Forty-one years ago, on March 18, 1970, Cambodia’s Chief of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk was ousted from power by his own government and parliament.

Following the coup, the Prince called on his own countrymen to fight those who ousted him; to join the Khmer Rouge and his fraternal comrades, some 65,000 Vietnamese Communist troops that occupied 3,500 square kilometres of Khmer land, from the northeast to the sea in the south. He legitimized the Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge and joined them to attack the Khmer authorities at a time when Cambodia was thrown into the hell and fire of a widened Vietnam War.

I left Ann Arbor for Phnom Penh for a first-hand view of the situation in late 1970.

With United States disengagement from the region, the Vietnamese troops paved the way for Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge bands to enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.

For the next 3 years, 8 months, and 29 days, Pol Pot and company sowed suffering and death that took between 1.7 million and 2 million lives; and destroyed the country’s institutions and infrastructure.

This was known but overlooked by a timid world community. It was encouraged by Vietnam’s fraternal comradeship until Christmas Eve 1978, when more than 100,000 regular Vietnamese troops, backed by tanks and aircraft, crossed into Cambodia.

In 14 days of heavy fighting, the Vietnamese forces knocked off Khmer Rouge units in their path, and on Jan. 7, 1979, captured Phnom Penh. A Cambodian puppet regime was installed. This new government was entirely subservient to Hanoi. Hanoi’s troops remained in Cambodia for the next 10 years.

March 5, 1979
Fifty-some days after Hanoi’s takeover of Phnom Penh, on March 5, 1979, a noncommunist Khmer nationalist resistance movement named the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces, which consisted of several anti-Khmer Rouge armed groups called Sereika (freedom-fighters), was proclaimed at the Khmer-Thai border.

With its motto, “Rescue, Serve, Protect” the Khmer people, the KPNLAF gave itself three goals: To liberate Cambodia from the Vietnamese occupation; to prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power; and to rebuild a new society.

Without resources except a mishmash of outmoded rifles and the secret delivery of a reported 3,000 Chinese weapons, KPNLAF volunteers trained with bamboo and wooden sticks.

I arrived at the KPNLAF Headquarters at Banteay Ampil in July 1980.

In both 1970 and in 1980, it was the Vietnamese occupation of Khmer land that transformed me from being a bystander into action.

Recall Eric Harvey and Michelle Sedas’s words, “People committed to a cause, form an idea, which produces the spark, which inspires individuals, which grows to impact others, which in turn inspires even more…”

The spark that inspired
What sparked and inspired action was the news that reached the outside world after April 1975 that millions were forcibly evacuated from homes, villages, and cities, sent to forced labor camps and to their deaths and executions by the Khmer Rouge victors.

A handful of Khmer expatriates in the Washington metropolitan area got together to form a group to voice opposition to Khmer Rouge’s rule.

In April 1976, the first issue of a mimeographed monthly bulletin called “Conscience” appeared in Khmer and English condemning the Khmer Rouge. In August 1977, “Cambodian Appeal” replaced “Conscience”, with copies produced by a professional print shop.

Beginning in December 1980, articles for “Cambodian Appeal” were written in the KPNLAF zone to champion the Front’s cause, and were mailed to the US for publication.

Adapt in order to be adopted
The primary lesson instilled in the Resistance’s military and civilian cadre was: Eyes are for seeing; ears are for listening; mouth is to keep shut. It was a lesson of humility and discipline. One was told to learn to “adapt” in order to “be adopted” by and integrated into the movement. Trust needed to be earned through words, behavior, and actions.

So I arrived, I adapted, I did anything anyone was doing; I ate the same food, drank the same water, slept in the same way — and was sick for days. I was a diligent student of political-psychological warfare lectures by Hing Kunthon of the ruling Executive Committee, and lectures and talks by the KPNLAF chief of general staff, also from the EXCO; and mastered the organization’s philosophy and motivating ideas. I agreed to go through crash training in the Military School. But while soldiers slept in a barracks, protected by mosquito nets, I was given a hammock to sleep in a gazebo in the open air!

Soon I traveled along the border from north to south to visit every military zone and civilian camp. I trekked into the interior with military units and was soon hospitalized near death with malaria. I was in the field with troops during most Vietnamese military offensives against KPNLAF camps, was caught in the crossfire, crouched in a bunker while shells seemed to fall like rain.

I couldn’t find a better way to adapt in order to be adopted.

Creativity and troubles
Life was not a beach. Creativity and troubles appeared in pair. But I made conscious choices.

When I was at the United Nations in the early 1980s, a quarrel between the resistance leadership and a significant benefactor resulted in blocked shipments of supplies needed urgently in the field. Trucks with humanitarian supplies were not allowed to go through. My president told me to fly to Washington. I did. And I learned I must deliver something I could never deliver. The only thing important to me then was that people in the zone needed supplies. Endless talk made me want to cry with desperation. So I decided to apply my creativity.

My president congratulated me in a telephone report I made to him from Washington. We learned supplies did reach their destinations. I thanked God.

Nevertheless, the Resistance was greatly handicapped by a policy that required that all aid had to be delivered from recognized government to recognized government, not directly to the Resistance movement whose adherents needed those supplies. Further, delivery of supplies was tacitly if not directly related to demonstrated progress in the field. But as supplies and weapons did not reach combatants in a timely manner, or at all, it was difficult to show progress. Bamboo and wooden sticks are poor substitutes for modern weapons. Nor were Resistance members at all interested in forming a coalition with the hated Khmer Rouge (and with the movement headed by Sihanouk), though this collaboration, too, became a condition for receipt of aid.

Past midnight one day Col. Ket Reth and I sat near the pond at Ampil as we counted 2,500 automatic rifles and gear delivered from a truck. The military bounty was the result of numerous separate activities. When Belgian correspondent Jacques Bekaert organized a joint KPNLF-FUNCINPEC conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, attended by several hundred reporters and non-governmental organizations representatives, I decided on an offensive telling critics publicly that our Resistance was sick of any association, even with name only, with the Khmer Rouge; no, our Resistance was not satisfied with aid and assistance from friendly governments; and that if anyone can assure us we would be given diplomatic recognition and financial and military aid, then we can assure you a non-Khmer Rouge nationalist government would be proclaimed by sunrise. I remember I could hear pin drop. I repeated myself. Later, I was told, “You talked too much!”

At one point in time when the KPNLAF’s military activities appeared paralyzed, the Front’s “internal rift” was blamed as a cause, and we were warned in no uncertain terms that the KPNLAF may face being squeezed into one with the royalist Armee Nationale Sihanoukienne to be led by coalition president Sihanouk. I presented a new challenge by creating an “armed political, propaganda, clandestine organization,” which became a pilot program at the border
(with former Premier Penn Nouth’s son, Penn Thula, as second in command).

Those different small activities helped provide a new image to the KPNLAF under Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sak Suthsakhan, and new support that allowed KPNLAF units to attack and capture strings of enemy bases in northwest Cambodia in 1989.

Without the emerging aggressiveness and success of the KPNLAF, it was doubtful if the Vietnamese and their Phnom Penh puppet would have been so amenable to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.

The future
This article shows that ways can be found to attain important objectives as long as there’s a will to do so – as creativity requires.

And so, here we are in 2011.

The King Father and his son, Cambodia’s current king, are now supporters of Premier Hun Sen and the CPP, both tools to serve the Vietnamese. The old KPNLAF has been coopted by the Premier and his CPP as well.

And Hun Sen and the CPP skillfully knee-jerked Cambodians to move against the Thais in the west, leaving the Vietnamese free reign in the east.

Earlier this month, the Voice of America broadcast self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s remarks comparing Cambodia’s situation with that in the several Middle Eastern countries that are experiencing popular uprisings. He enumerated poverty, social injustice, corruption, lack of freedom. He commented that these examples may push Cambodians to take the path of the Egyptians and Tunisians.

I am inclined to agree that ingredients for a popular uprising in Cambodia exist, and a mob unleashed can be unstoppable, but I wonder if Cambodians’ culture has changed enough to accommodate an uprising.

I am reminded, sadly, when housing rights activist Suong Sophorn dared fate by leading some 30 Beng Kak lake residents facing eviction from their homes, and pushed to deliver a protest letter to visiting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, he was beaten unconscious by Hun Sen’s security forces last November, leaving him lying in his blood. Who was helping him then?

Yet, I wrote before and say again that if enough Cambodian people are determined to stop injustice and are willing to endure repression and brutality as Sophorn did, Premier Hun Sen’s Leviathan authority and rule would crumble. A defiant people will remain defiant: it’s Newton’s first law of motion.

A determined resistance willing to endure repression must come from within the country. It would draw the world’s attention; stir its compassion and sympathy, and, eventually, its support.

As a saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.”


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-008-2011
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 15-03-2011