My article last month in this space brought comforting and kind words in e-mails from some Cambodian and non-Cambodian readers, to whom I am grateful. It’s they who encourage me to have hope in Cambodians’ abilities to find ways to effect change.

I continue to receive requests from readers in Cambodia to provide translations from English of my articles for “Lok Ta, Lok.Yeay, Pou, Mign” (the elders) to read. I was touched by taxi-driver Svang Huy, a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, who asked permission to translate into Khmer my articles compiled in Loyola Marymount University Professor Sovathana Sokhom’s book (2011), What is Your Ten Minutes Worth? I am heartened at the interest expressed by those who clearly want to learn. I encouraged Svang Huy not to get hung up with specific words translation, but to adapt my ideas into Khmer. If he does this, I have promised to go over his finished product one article at a time.

Arguments and counterarguments

Proponents of the “filled stomach” and “stability” perspectives supported by Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian Peoples’ Party which asserts that positive change will come only after the people are contented with “full stomachs” and a cessation of significant political dissent and provide data and photographs in support of their position. Similarly, regime opponents highlight areas that sorely need reform and improvement.

A “Cambodia observer” writes, “We must give peace and stability in Cambodia a chance, while helping to develop Cambodia in the ‘appropriate’ and ‘equitable’ direction.” A Cambodian elder scoffs: The current leadership has been in control “virtually solo” for 33 years, a period during which forced evictions, land-grabbing, deforestation, the sale of the country’s natural wealth, among others degradations, have steadily increased; fear and intimidation are used to keep people cowed.

Of interest, Cambodians from around the world are engaged in an Internet discussion of a little publicized story from Cambodia’s Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), which issued to its fourth year students a list of research topics that are prohibited. The list includes, among other topics, “drug problem in society,” “the organization and the working of the Cambodian Red Cross,” “the goal and the legal resolution of land dispute resolutions in Cambodia,” “the resolution of land disputes by the authority in Cambodia.” Oh, dear.

An employer wrote: “I used to interview many university graduates and I have rarely [been] satisfied with their skills and knowledge. I would say most of them are uncooked [sic] and equipped with poor quality. All in all, my top question is: How can Cambodia compete with others when ASEAN is integrated in 2015? Do we take pride of cheap labor cost compared to other members of ASEAN?”

Earlier this month, the Phnom Penh Post’s “A tough place to call home” reported about a family from Prey Veng province living in Phnom Penh’s cement pipes, circumstances they have called home for the past two years as they dream of “a better life.” A Western visitor to Cambodia writes: “If you wander around the streets and parks of Phnom Penh, you will run into refugees from the stagnant and impoverished countryside like this all over the place. Apparently most of them feel that living in pipes, or even on the street, is better than returning to the hopeless situation that they left in Prey Veng, or wherever they came from.”

The visitor spoke to a family at the base of Wat Phnom with belongings beside them still wrapped in a blanket: “They seemed to have no idea what they were going to do in Phnom Penh but hope that life in the city would be better than where they came from. It is a sad situation.”

Skyscrapers as development

Images of bustling Cambodian metropolitan cities, adorned with high rises and skyscrapers, latest model vehicles, crowded markets and restaurants, and camera-toting tourists, are equated with progress and development.

Last February 9, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Prime Minister Hun Sen told the nation that the construction of high rises and skyscrapers should not occur only in Phnom Penh, but all over the country. Again, oh dear!

Critics remind that the Premier also wanted to organize a competition to reward anyone who builds the highest structure in the country. One wrote: “High rises don’t symbolize a nation’s development and progress. It would be better that the government busies itself improving the well-being, the standard of living, of the people, their health, the sanitary conditions, the green development.” High rises built without planning turn a pretty city into chaos, he lamented. Another critic chimed in, “Watch out for sewage back up!”

Casinos as development

Last week, in “China gambles on Cambodia’s shrinking forests,” Reuters reported that Chinese entities are transforming Cambodia’s 340 square kilometers national forests, and not for the better. Botum Sakor, home to tigers, elephants, bears, and gibbons in southwest Koh Kong, is being re-created into a “city-sized gambling resort (sitting on 89,000 acres of land) for ‘extravagant feasting and revelry,'” with a 64-km highway (some sections four-lanes wide) by northern China’s real-estate company Tianjin Union Development Group, under a 99-year lease.

The Union Development Group allotted $3.8 billion to build the gambling resort, dubbed “Hong Kong II.” The company plans to build an international airport, a port for large cruise ships, two reservoirs, condominiums, hotels, hospitals, golf courses, and the “Angkor Wat on Sea” gambling casino.

Chinese engineers are housed on worksites guarded by Cambodian soldiers. Access to the resort area was reported blocked by a park ranger backed by military police, who provide security for big concessioners. “This is China,” the park ranger told Reuters correspondents who tried to pass.

Reuters quoted Cambodian activist Chut Wutty: “This was all forest once. But then the government sold the land to rich men,” i.e. Union Development Group. “You think after 99 years this land will be returned to Cambodia? You think they’ll kick the Chinese out? No way. It’s forever,” Reuters quoted Wutty.

On a different scale, Cambodia’s Khmer Krom expatriate Son Samrach posted a photo of a contrast. Now sitting side by side, the petite building of the renowned “Buddhist Institute,” a key library and research centre of Buddhism and the Khmer culture, originally founded by King Sisowath in 1921, is now dwarfed and eclipsed by the monstrous NagaWorld building complex with an 8-story wing of gaming halls, karaoke lounges, gaming machines, and a 14-story wing of 500-plus “luxurious Deluxe Rooms and plush Suites” and a “dedicated spa.” NagaWorld boasts to be “the finest integrated casino-hotel in Indochina, rivaling top Southeast Asian and world-renowned casinos.”

Both, the Institute, built in traditional architectural Khmer style, and the NagaWorld casino complexes that are illuminated with nightlife lights, are crowded on the banks of Mekong and Tonle Sap River in the vibrant Phnom Penh city.

Son Samrach dubbed the structures in the photo he took, “The symbol of the power of money.”

The Buddha angle, again

The Cambodian elder, the septuagenarian who sent me the Khmer poem which I cited in last month’s article, thinks many Khmer readers don’t understand the significance of the poem and the thoughts he conveyed. Indeed, some don’t; but the man did hit the nail on the head.

The elder also expressed his view that Cambodians in general are not interested in “Nibbana” or Nirvana – Khmer called “Chaul Nipean.” We are not the little buddhas, they would say; and they may repeat Buddha’s words but do the opposite. Fair enough.

He is not alone in his feeling. Another Cambodian septuagenarian says boldly, Cambodians who claim to be Buddhist are not Buddhist in their action. I recall a Khmer intellectual asking rhetorically in his writing not long ago whether Buddhism as a faith is only “skin deep” for Cambodians; he suggested they do some deep soul searching as to who and what they are.

Actually, Buddha’s teaching, if properly understood and practiced, can boost change; misunderstood and badly practiced, it hinders change. The fundamental idea of “Nibbana” is the “freedom” from human attachment, the source of human suffering.

Khmer Buddhist scholars seem never to tire of reminding about the Buddhist concept of a balanced “Nama-Rupa” or “Mind-Matter”: Economic development (Rupa or the Buddhist “four necessities” of food, shelter, clothing, medicine) must be balanced with “spiritual” (Nama or mind) development, i.e., physical improvement is not separate from spiritual freedom. For Lord Buddha, this is a practical reality.

Positive change vs. law of impermanence

A non-Khmer scholar tells a story about two Cambodian “activists” – a Buddhist monk and a Cambodian human rights worker – both said to be “devout Buddhists” and both reportedly seeking to “promote positive change in Cambodia.” But their embrace of pre-Buddha’s “law of impermanence” or “law of nature” creates a contradiction in the two persons. Buddha teaches, “Nothing is permanent”; “Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” According to the “Law of Nature,” or “Anicca,” things happen in their own good time.

The monk and the rights worker think the law of impermanence means things change and will eventually lead to a better government in Cambodia, because a good leader – the mystical Preah Batr Thoarmmoek – will emerge to institute and lead a better government. His reasoning takes me back to my December article in this space titled “The people must no longer wait for Preah Batr Dhammik to come to their rescue.”

A Khmer Buddhist scholar explains: The “law of impermanence” existed long before the birth of Buddha in 563 B.C. Buddha did not make this law but he discovered it. As nothing is permanent, humans’ desire for permanency, for attachment to what cannot be forever, causes their suffering. Therefore, interfere not with the impermanency of “Nature” – or Dhamma in Pali; Dharma in Sanskrit. Things will happen at the right time.

In other words, what is going to happen will happen?

Does the “law of impermanence” teach human beings “fatalism” or “fate”? Or is such an interpretation an excuse for inaction?

The non-Khmer scholar is left frustrated.

By its very definition, social change results in an alteration over time in behavioral patterns and cultural norms in society, i.e., an alteration of the structures, institutions, and practices that maintain the “regular” and “normal” ways in society. How does one seek “positive change” while rejecting alteration to the status quo ante?

As I am not an expert in Buddhism, I consulted a former Khmer monk, Lok Kru Bouawat Sithi, a graduate of Thailand’s renowned Djittabhawan College, a Buddhist institution of higher learning. Bouawat Sithi wrote:

“Lord Buddha did not teach his followers to believe in ‘fatalism or fate’, and neither is our destiny predetermined or judged by [a] God or an all-powerful force. Lord Buddha taught us to believe in our own action ‘Kharma’ and with our own action, we create our own hell (suffering) and heaven (happiness). Therefore, each of us is the master of our own destiny.”

In my writing, here and elsewhere, I have quoted Lord Buddha’s “To be idle is a short road to death”; “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may”; and “I do believe in a fate that falls on [human beings] unless they act.” These words are a far cry from fatalism.

Lord Buddha teaches us about quality thought, analysis, and “reason.” Buddha tells humanity:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

The bottom line is: Cambodia is a Buddhist country with 96.4 percent of the estimated total population of 14.9 million characterizing themselves as Buddhist. There are 50,000-plus Khmer Buddhist monks, and 4,000-plus pagodas or temples scattered throughout the small kingdom roughly the size of Missouri or Oklahoma.

If Buddha’s teachings are understood and followed, a harmonious, peaceful, progressive Cambodia can be built. Some Khmers fear that Cambodians will replace the current autocratic regime with another autocracy. If Cambodians commit to the principles of Theravada Buddhism, the likelihood of that happening would be greatly diminished.

Something is changing

Last month, I wrote about the increasing assertiveness and aggressiveness of Cambodians when they perceive their rights to have been trampled upon by an oppressive authority; and about an emerging phenomenon in a deeply traditional society as Khmer women take to the forefront to demand their rights and freedom.

Now, something else is new: On February 23 in Cambodia’s northeastern Ratanakiri province, some 300 Tampoun ethnic villagers, armed with sticks, knives and sickles, immobilized a bulldozer clearing what they said was their farmland, part of the 9,000 hectares of a 70-year concession of land granted by the government to the Jing Zhong Ri Cambodia Co. Ltd., for development of a rubber plantation. The Tampoun villagers marched on the company’s environmental office.

Shots were fired in the air by company personnel, but the villagers did not stop. They tore apart the office, and captured or kidnapped the environmental officer and the security guards, two of whom were moonlighting local police officers and two others who were moonlighting Royal Cambodian Armed Forces officers. They were all tied them up, paraded before cameras, and held hostage until the villagers got what they demanded.

The Feb. 27 Phnom Penh Post’s “Protesters try new tactics,” reported on those Tampoun villagers, and on protesters in two other areas.

In Svay Rieng province, when some 6,000 people protested at the Kaoway Sports factory (supplier of PUMA sportswear) to demand a $10 monthly transport allowance and a daily 50 cent food stipend, three women protesters were shot, one of whom was critically wounded.

In Kampong Cham province, about 2,000 garment workers protested at the Medtec factory after authorities failed for four days to implement an Arbitration Council ruling for Medtec to improve working conditions.

The Phnom Penh Post reported: “Rocks were hurled, fires lit, hostages taken and the message delivered in no uncertain terms last week. Cambodians are increasingly willing to use violence against companies that intimidate them or ignore their demands.”

“Twice in Svay Rieng and Kampong Cham provinces garment workers pelted factories with rocks, shattering windows and ultimately bringing companies to the negotiating table,” according to reports in the Post, which quoted a woman protester in Kampong Cham: “Workers don’t like violence, but workers don’t like employers to oppress us.”

In short, the people’s patience is not limitless.

On March 2, Svay Rieng province’s Bavet district governor Chhouk Bandit was arrested near the Vietnamese border for his alleged shooting of the three female protesters. A sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on March 6 ended his governorship. But he was recommended for a new administrative position; hardly punishment for shooting three protesters.

Radio Free Asia referenced rights groups’ allegations of at least five incidents of armed guards, including police and military police officers, firing at villagers in land disputes in five provinces over the last few months.

In Premier Hun Sen’s speech last month at the close of the Ministry of Interior’s annual meeting before some 500 high-ranking police officials, he told them “to pay strong attention to tightening security,”…. because Cambodia is “still a ‘fragile’ kingdom.” Hun Sen is not blind to what goes on around him.

In the speech Hun Sen took the opportunity to remind foreign investors and governments with diplomatic relations with Phnom Penh that only he and his ruling CPP can keep a lid on this fragility; a successful scare tactic he employs to maintain power.

Seeking change

Taxi driver Svang Huy’s e-mail to me early this month claimed increasing numbers of “patriots” in the country are linking up to seek change to the status quo.

He echoed others in his opinion that the “real patriots” are usually the poor like him, “not so educated,” he says, and all are busy looking to feed their families, while the regime corrupts those who are malleable with tactics including “extreme family-ism, selfishness, and opportunities for immorality,” to entice them from joining the poor, whose status the regime perpetuates in order to preserve its own power.

Like others, Svang Huy’s question is not if change will come, but how long Hun Sen and the CPP can last. Like others, Svang Huy explores the best ways to speed up the demise of the oppressive regime.

I don’t know all Cambodian groups/organizations working in the country and abroad to effect change. I support efforts to change the status quo in Cambodia. I am not a politician, and don’t care to be one. My political activism and “actionism” ended when I left the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front at the Khmer-Thai border in late 1989 to pursue a teaching career in the United States. As an educator, I write to share what I know: an activism of a different form.

My attachment to republicanism and democratic ideals is known. I don’t expect people to agree with what I say. Disagreement is a healthy aspect of a democracy. Uncivilized disagreement that seeks to demonize those with different perspectives and make them enemies is destructive of society and of ourselves.

Next month, on June 3, 2012, most of Cambodia’s 1,633 communities will consider candidates from 10 political parties (the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the largest opposition Sam Rainsy Party, and eight others – Alliance for Democracy Party, Cambodian Nationality Party, Democratic Movement Party, FUNCINPEC Party, Human Rights Party, Khmer Anti-Poverty Party, Norodom Ranadiddh Party, Republican Democracy Party) who will compete for their votes for local offices.

Cambodia’s parliamentary election will take place in 2013.

An opposition leader, Ms. Mu Sochua, told Radio Free Asia that her party, the Sam Rainsy Party, is ready for both elections, but she challenged the CPP: “Does the ruling party dare to compete in free and fair elections? Can it be called free and fair elections when the leader (Sam Rainsy) of the main opposition party is excluded from competing?”

Because of Cambodia’s “non-free” and “unfair” elections, an environment of intimidation and fear, and an expectation of rigged elections that would give victory to the ruling CPP, the Khmer People Power Movement and the Lotus Revolutionists, both overseas organizations, have called for a boycott of Cambodia’s elections.

It would be one thing if all political parties unanimously boycott the elections. This would send a formidable message to the world, although Hun Sen and the CPP would find such action to work for their benefit, assuring them continuation in office. However, the political parties chose to adhere to the democratic process by participating in the elections, most knowing they will lose.

Some Cambodians think Hun Sen and the CPP will be able to hold on to power for perhaps another two terms. Some young activists in the country claim they are preparing themselves and their countrymen for the next decade. What about now?

Nonviolent action

Two more terms of Hun Sen and the CPP would be an eternity for many Khmers.

A longtime friend with experience working with the world’s developing peoples at the grassroots level on different continents, who examined change led by visionary leaders with developed critical masses of adherents, encourages me to look at the “forced change” in Burma that has resulted in a race in the country to liberalize and reform the dictatorship.

There was “no critical mass” in Burma to propel change, my friend tells me and wonders if there is even a critical mass to develop although Burma has about 60 million people.

Yet, with the Burmese rebelling openly against the building of dams in Burma by the Chinese; with NGOs and foreign governments near and far keeping up pressure on the regime for reforms, the military junta became convinced it was time to talk to democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Cambodians in the country and abroad and domestic and international rights groups do pressure the Hun Sen regime for reforms. Yet, the situation in Cambodia remains as I describe it above.

Lately, I have introduced on this page the suggestion of nonviolent action as a technique to effect change. One Cambodian at a time seems to see this as an alternative to disastrous violence.

What is needed urgently is for Cambodians to individually undertake attitude change, starting with changing old habits, while at the same time participating in nonviolent resistance.

This brings me to a recipe for Cambodians’ survival: Cambodians need a change in attitude first and foremost, including a reexamination of Lord Buddha’s teachings to make a new Cambodia. When enough Cambodians understand and follow Buddha’s true path, a new society can be developed; successful dealings with expansionist neighbors to the East and aggressive neighbors to the West can be initiated; and the generalized fear of Cambodia’s extinction may be assuaged.

Simultaneously, learn more and initiate nonviolent action against those who oppress us.

I have discussed these three important issues on this page and elsewhere, and will revisit them at an appropriate time.



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 polical science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-009-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 23-03-2012