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

CAMBODIA: When actions convergence, change can’t be stopped

April 15, 2011

Happy Khmer New Year of the Rabbit to all my Cambodian and non-Cambodian Buddhist readers! May you be blessed in this New Year with new thoughts and a new soul as you face the challenges of the 21st century!

In my first article for the Asian Human Rights Commission in the Year 2555 of the Buddhist era, I’d like to begin with Buddha’s “To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life; foolish people are idle, wise people are diligent.”

I believe problems, personal or communal, can be solved through sustained creative and innovative efforts, and predicaments can be addressed as one develops a capacity to cope. Don’t stay idle; do something, do many things, to respond to the inevitable pain of personal loss(es). Quality thinking and positive thinking can catalyze personal and social change.

Buddha on Responsibility
“I do believe in a fate that falls on [men] unless they act,” preached Gautama Buddha 2,500 years ago. We act to change, to improve situations from what they are to what we would like them to be. Passive behavior assures that our destiny becomes our fate. Man is responsible for what he is. As Buddha said, “Work out your own salvation … No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Many Khmer Buddhists seem to cling to a notion that fate, “karma,” makes them what they are, thereby dumping responsibility for their lot in life on a supernatural cause. However, Buddha warned, “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them?” The same concept is found in other cultures. In Africa, some learn to “talk little and listen much,” and Swedes say, “Whine less, breathe more; Talk less, say more.”

So, learn and apply: Think positively, dream big, imagine the world we want to see, demonstrate a can-do attitude, and take the first step, no matter how small. As the great Chinese teacher Confucius said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” And civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Learning from the American Civil War
April 12, 2011, was the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in United States history, fought from 1861-1865. At the end of that conflict, 630,000 lives had been lost and more than one million had been injured in war. Cities and towns in the South where battles had been fought were in ruin; slavery was abolished; the Union was preserved. The United States with its motto, E pluribus unum – Out of many, one – was again one nation. For most, the animosities borne of war quickly were subsumed by the relief of peace and reunification. Over time, the nation became stronger and more united under a central government than it had been before that devastating conflict.

Recently, I was enthralled, as I had been in the past, watching filmmaker Ken Burns’ 1990 series “The Civil War” on public television, in which the point was made that at the end of the war, the United States referred to itself in the singular – as the United States “is” – rather than in the plural – as the United States “are.” This was an important outcome of the civil conflict, a conflict that made citizens appreciate the value of being one nation, not a collection of states. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

The War that began on April 12, 1861 with the firing of cannons by the Confederates on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, ended on April 9, 1865 with the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and nearly 28,000 troops in the field, to Union Army Commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, where surrender papers were signed at Wilmer McClean’s home.

Two Foes, Two Gentlemen
Having studied how Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge victors executed vanquished leaders and turned the country into the killing fields, I was spellbound by the Appomattox surrender story that instilled the image of good men whose integrity and humanity was evident even in very difficult circumstances.

Ulysses Grant was 43 years old, and Lee, 59 when the surrender took place. Both had served in the Mexican War, when Lee was chief of staff. Grant remembered Lee well; Lee did not recall Grant from those years. In 1861, Lee had declined President Lincoln’s invitation to take command of the Union Army. Though Lee was considered the finest military commander in the country, his personal allegiance was to his home state of Virginia, a state that would soon secede from the union. Lee stayed with “his country,” which in pre-Civil War America he identified as Virginia.

In April 1865, Grant’s army had surrounded Lee’s. On April 7, Grant dispatched a message to Lee about Lee’s Army’s “hopelessness of further resistance”, and said Grant wanted to avoid “any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of … the Army of Northern Virginia.” Lee responded immediately that he was “not entertaining the opinion … of the hopelessness of further resistance,” but “I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”

Grant wrote back, “Peace being my great desire, there is but one condition … the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged.”

In the afternoon of April 9, the two Commanders met at McClean’s house near Appomattox Courthouse, first in the front yard and then in the front parlor. In Grant’s own words, Lee was “so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form” and “was wearing a sword,” while Grant was in “rough garb … the uniform of a private” because he came directly from the field.

Grant said he could not tell how Lee was feeling inside, but Grant’s own feelings were “sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

The conversation of the two adversaries was “so pleasant” that Grant almost forgot why they were meeting until Lee reminded him Lee came to secure Grant’s terms for Lee’s Army.

Before the meeting was over, to Lee’s remarks that his 28,000 men were “in a very bad condition for want to food,” Grant offered “all the provisions wanted.”

“Lee and I … separated as cordially as we had met, he returning to his own lines” according to Grant, “and all went into bivouac for the night at Appomattox.”

When news of Lee’s surrender reached Union lines, men fired guns at the news of victory. But Grant stopped that: “The Confederates were our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

The next morning, Grant rode to see Lee, with some staff and officers, who asked Lee’s permission to visit old Confederate army friends, and they “had a pleasant time … and brought some of them back with them when they returned.”

“Honor answering honor”
In a moving tribute to the April 12 formal ceremony disbanding the Army of the Northern Virginia, and paroling its officers and men, Union Brig. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain, wrote:

“The momentous meaning of his occasion impressed me deeply . . . Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured? Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the ‘order arms’ to the old ‘carry’ the marching salute.

“Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual – honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!”

On that day, 27,805 Confederate soldiers passed by and stacked their arms.

Learn and Become
It takes two to make war or to make peace.

Pro-democracy Cambodians are united in their hatred for Vietnam’s expansionism into Cambodia, and in their opposition to the autocracy of Premier Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party, backed by the King Father and his son, the current king. All four have allowed illegal Vietnamese settlements in Cambodia while the country’s underprivileged are evicted from their land, their homes bulldozed, and they are beaten by the police.

Unfortunately for Cambodians, unity in a great cause is generally subordinated to attachment to clans, cliques, parties, as members profess unquestioned obedience to competing leaders, turning a potential strength into an actual weakness, while Hun Sen and the CPP transform Cambodia into a police state reigned by fear.

When Cambodians call for unity, they mean others should fall in line behind one’s leadership or one’s party. They see things as black and white; humility and compromise are signs of weakness; a general attitude of my way or the highway is common; and inflexibility is a roadblock to a multitude of productive possibilities.

While Vietnamese illegals in Cambodia voted to determine the Khmer Nation’s future, the opposition parties – Sam Rainsy party, Human Rights party, the splintered royalists – fought between and amongst themselves and provided a weak and ineffective counterpoint. In election after election, this disparate collection of political parties participated and were allowed to win enough seats to keep them quiet and, more importantly, to legitimize dictators as democratically elected leaders.

But nothing is permanent, change is inevitable, and people learn and change, too.

Encourage Efforts
When Cambodian expatriates set aside their differences and joined forces on March 18, 2011 under the banner of the “Lotus Revolution” to oppose Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia and demand that Premier Hun Sen step down, I shared my respect for the participants. It was their first major rally. Now on the 36th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the Lotus Movement has called on Khmers to make offerings to Buddhist monks and light candles in memory of the 2 million dead. It has been announced that the members of the Lotus movement will demonstrate in front of the Vietnamese Embassy in Paris on June 8.

My hat is again off to the expatriates. The Vietnamese are not going to leave Cambodia nor is Hun Sen going to step down in the face of the Lotus Movement. But, as long as the pressure is kept up, a real revolution will ignite. Man can accept oppression only so long.

Many other Khmers have not been idle. The Free Press Magazine Online, in the Khmer language, in Denmark, under editorial manager Lem Piseth, a former reporter who was threatened in Cambodia and had to flee with his family to asylum in Europe, has not stopped speaking out against the Vietnam’s dark design in Cambodia and against the Hun Sen autocracy. To his organization too, I express gratitude.

Leading other Khmer Websites in disseminating news and information about Cambodia is the KI-Media. Like a magnet, it draws people from different walks of life, supporters and critics, its staff menaced endlessly. I have never met anyone from KI-Media, or from the FPM Online, but I never hesitate to express my heartfelt congratulations to both for their stubborn defense of a responsible free press and free expression.

An offshoot organization that was born into the Khmer People Power Movement in 2010 is led by the young activist, Sourn Serey Ratha, who was on a trip abroad when an arrest warrant was issued by the Hun Sen government. Suorn requested political asylum in the US. He is a grassroots democracy activist who believes only the power of the people can bring change to Cambodia. Some of his critics may dislike Sourn’s style, and some of his cadres in Cambodia have been arrested, but Suorn has refused to bend or bow.

The KPPM has its own website, and finally its own radio program in the Khmer language, broadcast via satellite to Cambodia. I am in the process of securing a KPPM DVD titled “Dei Khmer Thao Kae Yuorn” – Khmer soil, Vietnamese patrons – to study photographs from the Neak Leurng area and the regions around the Tonle Sap Great Lake populated by Vietnamese whose school “Truong Hoc Tinh Thuong Nuoi Day Tre Em Nghao” floats in the water there.

Many other Khmer groups are operating, I know, but I am not informed enough about their work to mention them here.

On this occasion of the Khmer New Year 2555 I wish all the groups continued success. I close here with a reference to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who observed, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”

When actions converge, a change cannot be stopped.


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-009-2011
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 15-04-2011