An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
Leaders of Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party have an obligation, when their elected representatives inevitably sit and work together at the National Assembly – they will – to explain to voters why for so long the people were compelled to endure so much bloodshed and civil violations while the parties bickered, and to what end.
I have always maintained that the current political deadlock is unnecessary, and have explained why I think so. I was serious when I told sceptical reporters that this seemingly unsolvable political impasse will be resolved in the end – and quoted a character in the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel who refused to bow to chaos and setbacks, cheerfully insisting, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.” Both sides in Cambodia know there are no winners in today’s political squabble.
I am not a Buddhist but I embrace Lord Buddha’s truth in his teaching that nothing is permanent, everything changes. The reality is neither of the disputing political parties has the leverage to impose a diktat on the other. If either did have such power, this quarrel would have been over long ago. Each party’s pronouncements are intended to calm their supporters and keep their opponents off balance. Does Sam Rainsy really believe 2 million people will appear in the streets in May unless the CPP agrees to the CPP-CNRP “deal”? Does Hun Sen really believe that his threat to file suit against Sam Rainsy for “insulting” the king is productive? Even the Royal Palace spokesperson said the king’s name was not tainted by Sam Rainsy’s words.
In the midst of threat and counter threat, the two sides announced in early April they were working to resolve “one little point” that separated them; that “tentative plans” were made to sign the “agreement” in front of the king by the Khmer New Year; that the 55 CNRP lawmakers-elect will work together at the National Assembly to implement the agreement – on election reforms and on a new election “before” July 2018. That sounded like heaven had finally sent down a gift to the Cambodian voters.
I was sceptical. There has been no equivocation in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s determination to hold on to power and delay new elections; nor has the fervor of the opposition that demands a greater share of power and speedy elections diminished. From a distance, at least, the likelihood of an agreement by the time of the Khmer New Year seemed small. And so, sceptics like me were allowed yet another opportunity to say “I told you so.” But – referencing my friend from the Marigold Hotel – we have not yet reached the end. To quote baseball player Yogi Berra, an actual person whose vivid use of English was his hallmark, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
An aspect of Cambodians’ culture may help explain why it “ain’t over”: Cambodians’ love for the age-old popular folk dance, the Ramvong (Ram means dance, vong means circle), or circle dance, when dancers do their chakkbach with leg, hand, body movements, each trying to outperform the other as they all go around and around in a circle to the sound of drumbeats. Ramvong torl phlu’, or circle dancing until dawn, they say.
In April, immediately after the announced “near-agreement,” leaders of both parties traded accusations claiming the other side had not been truthful. Just what did Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen actually say to one another when they conversed on the phone on Apr 9 for 45 minutes? Hun Sen claimed Sam Rainsy “had agreed in principle” to a new election in “February 2018”; the latter denied he had agreed to that date, and told the Voice of America-Khmer he wants a national election in “February 2016.”
Cambodian citizens are right to wonder about the integrity and trustworthiness of both political parties. Transparency is essential. The burden is especially on the CNRP to demonstrate that it acts in all discussions as an honest broker on behalf of the people. The minutes of the discussions between CPP and CNRP leaders should be made public, as they would be in a true democracy. Prevarication by those entrusted to govern only cause public confidence in government to erode.
Every man-made problem has a solution, but the solution will not satisfy all parties. Rational leaders must employ both criticality – assessing whether methods lead them closer to their goal – and creativity to imagine what is attainable – to develop a solution that has a chance of being implemented.
The time has long come for leaders of both political parties to think and act in the best interests of the country and the people. With each passing day, negotiations become more intractable. In my Feb 17 article, “Stop cursing the darkness,” I discussed the ideology of pluralism, advocated in the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, as the answer to the Khmer nation’s survival. In a pluralistic system, negotiations are understood to entail compromise as each gives and gains a little. Parties to negotiations are respected, not castigated. On Friday, Apr 25, The Phnom Penh Post’s “Deal falters, blame begins” described how the two parties “are no closer to an agreement”; and “UN envoy hits out at Freedom Park cutoff” quoted UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai calling the authorities’ blockade of Freedom Park and attack on journalists and opposition lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua’s supporters as “deeply disturbing” and having “no legal basis.” Kiai affirmed the “right to freedom of assembly is about preserving pluralism, and pluralism is essential to democracy.”
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Cambodians are fatigued with the 35 year rule of the Cambodian People’s Party. Hun Sen has, himself, been Prime Minister for 29 years. The CNRP has not been able to employ that national fatigue to its advantage. Despite its claims of “people power,” its efforts at diplomatic outreach, and threats to take Hun Sen to the International Criminal Court, the CNRP is still on the outside looking in. In fact, there is a sense of international “CNRP fatigue” that makes it easier for non-Cambodian entities to deal with the devil they know in Cambodia. CNRP leaders have not been accepted by the world community as political actors with whom they should deal.
I wonder if there exists a conscious “good cop-bad cop” strategy in the CNRP – a strategy that self-proclaimed Samkokspecialist Premier Hun Sen exploits. He praises President Sam Rainsy, who is by nature more circumspect, and blames Vice President KemSokha, who tends to be outspoken, as a stumbling block to resolving the eight-month political deadlock, a “divide and rule” tactic.
Yet, some behaviors of CNRP leaders – and of CNRP radicals – are gifts that keeps on giving.
I wrote in my March 17 article in this space that I was impressed with Sam Rainsy’s interview with Suthichai Yoon of Thailand’s The Nation. In the interview, I found Rainsy as “measured and pragmatic,” demonstrating a statesman-like demeanor, a side of him I thought needs to be exposed more often.
The March interview stood in counterpoint to a comment attributed to Rainsy in The Diplomat on January 10: “The Yuon are taking the Khmer hand to kill the Khmer people.” The reporter described “this nationalist rhetoric [as] a strategy of unapologetic populism” and further quoted Kem Sokha: “It’s the supporters that want to hear it from the politicians . . . if any politician doesn’t respond to that frustration you will be framed as unpatriotic or unaware of the truth.” These comments caused more than one observer to describe the CNRP as “unrepentantly” pursuing a “fierce anti-Vietnamese position.”
Is leadership parroting what the people want to hear, or finding how best to inspire the people to arrive at the goal they desired?
On Apr 18, The Phnom Penh Post’s “Rainsy courts Vietnamese” revealed a more reasoned position from Sam Rainsy. While Cambodian ultranationalists have asserted that 5-6 million Vietnamese occupy Khmer land, Sam Rainsy believes about “500,000 people of Vietnamese descent” are living in Cambodia, and “up to half” of them “fulfil the legal requirement to be considered as Cambodian citizens. So the CNRP, we must treat those who meet the requirement to be Cambodian citizens, as Cambodian citizens” – based on the 1996 Nationality Law. “We have to be nuanced,” to distinguish between “people of Vietnamese descent who must be treated as Cambodian” and Vietnamese immigrants who entered Cambodia illegally.
However, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have sowed confusion as they have articulated conflicting foreign policies. The CNRP President declared the party “will continue to seek” United States’ support “because we share the same values,” but Cambodia’s independence and survival require Cambodians to side with China in her South China Sea territorial dispute with Vietnam. On the other hand, the CNRP Vice President declared unequivocally the CNRP does “not want to be ally with the communist like Red China. We want to be a USA ally.”
Any national leader has a right to prefer one foreign power over another. Sam Rainsy’s embrace of China is reasonable and pragmatic; Kem Sokha’s public rejection of China over the United States is politically unwise, and he was naïve to announce United States’ military support for the CNRP – to the cheers of CNRP supporters – based on an alleged comment from an unnamed Pentagon official who told him, “This is what we want to hear and we will pass the message to our chain of command.”
Emotional Internet posts from CNRP supporters – who call for “democracy” even as they demand “annihilation” of the CPP and removal of all Vietnamese from Cambodia – add nothing useful to the tense political environment and demonstrate the supporters’ misunderstanding. Democracy requires pluralism, inclusion – not the ruination of political opponents.
A survival recipe
I have advocated repeatedly that change be advanced in Cambodia by the application of Buddha’s teaching and through nonviolent techniques – See “A survival recipe – attitude change, practice Buddha’s teaching, engage in nonviolent action,” published in this space on Mar 15, 2012. I still believe that is good advice. These principles provide a foundation of essential core values upon which to build a society in which civil rights are expanded and upheld, and access to opportunity is open to all.
These same values are espoused in secular writings, as well. Steven Ventura of the Leadership and Learning Centre cleverly coined the acronym RESPECT for seven principles: R, to recognize the inherent worth of all human beings; E, eliminate derogatory words and phrases from your vocabulary; S, speak with people – not at them… or about them; P, practice empathy. Walk awhile in others’ shoes; E, earn respect from others through respect-worthy behaviours; C, consider others’ feelings before speaking and acting; T, treat everyone with dignity and courtesy.
From whatever source you learn them, these are principles to live by. They can be the foundation of a 21st century Cambodia whose future will not be usurped.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.