June 5, 2014
An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
It has become trite to write on political developments in Cambodia. The oft-promised imminent “breakthrough” in the country’s political deadlock has proven time and again to be another performance of the endless Ramvong circle dance that is the status quo ante. I am not alone in hoping that the pressure that must be building among the populace for a resolution of this nearly year-long standoff does not finally erupt in a bloody denouement.
Those who proclaim themselves courageous spokesmen for their respective parties bloviate with promises to “bury” their opponents. As the French say, they are plus royaliste que le roi, or more royalist than the king. It is the followers who are affected. Each side swears to uphold national interests above personal and party interests, and calls on the other side for “peace talks.” Yet, before they even sit, each side demands something the other cannot and would not give. Absent the prospect of or willingness to compromise, there is no movement nor the hope of any.
The bottom line is the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party wants the sitting Prime Minister Hun Sen to resign, and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to vacate power, while the premier and his party want the CNRP to take its 55 seats in the National Assembly to validate the disputed election results on which the CPP bases its hold on power. The CNRP wants a new general election earlier than the one currently scheduled for July 2018.
It’s likely that a new election would favor the CNRP, if for no other reason than people seem increasingly inclined to want a change from the government most have known, in one form or another, for more than 20 years. Each week, some group demonstrates to highlight its grievances. The push to haul the Premier before the International Criminal Court in The Hague continues. Cambodian expatriates demand their right to vote. The current regime sees the writing on the wall but bides its time until 2018. The longer the wait, the more time there is for something to go sour (no doubt with the regime’s help) for the opposition.
On May 29, the CNRP renewed its call for negotiations. The CPP responded that its door is “open” for negotiations. The chak k’bach choreography of the dance in a circle continues.
With executive, legislative, and judicial power concentrated in his hands, Premier Hun Sen who controls the country’s institutions, will not accept to be thrown out of power by a coalition opposition whose members are at odds. The CNRP is at a sword’s point with its own representative office in North America. The CNRP must do better at managing the internal back-biting.
What, then, is a possible path forward? Other countries have come back from genocidal ruin to be governed by functional political parties that operate with minimal corruption to serve the interests of the people they govern. What prevents Cambodia from doing the same?
All of us are, to some degree, products of our culture. Our personal histories teach us our values, help us build our character, and provide our moral center. But equally, there are cultural elements that can be impediments to our success. For example, some would say that Americans’ sense of their own “exceptionalism” has the potential to march the country into regional conflicts it should avoid. Cambodians, too, have learned certain behaviors from cultural norms and traditions passed down from our parents and grandparents. In the 21st century, however, some things may need to be re-evaluated and new methods adopted.
Boun Chan Mol, who wrote Charet Khmer, has proponents and detractors, but his book does provide some insights into our behavior as Khmers that could be contributing to the political impasse at which we find ourselves. Although the behaviors Boun Chan Mol describes aren’t uniquely Khmer, they are commonly practiced in Cambodia. Of particular relevance is the view of politics as a zero-sum game. The concept of compromise – of give something to get something – is not valued. Better to destroy your opponent through character assassination, rumor, and innuendo. It is politics as blood sport. Political primacy is valued for the power it brings. Power brings influence. Influence encourages a pay-to-play culture that disregards peoples’ needs in favor of leaders’ greed.
The counter-balance to this destructive cultural practice is also embedded in Khmer culture. Lord Buddha counsels in countless stories and teachings that we must be humble. When we humble ourselves to consider others’ ways, we begin to understand pluralism as an ideology necessary for the development and health of democracy. Democracy does not eliminate a different point of view. E Pluribus Unum, or “out of many, one” was a United States motto adopted in 1776 that linked “thirteen independent States of America.” Today, the 50 states of the United States with more than 350 million people representing just about every ethnic group under the sun are tied to one another as United States citizens through the idea of equality of men and women with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Rancorous political discord exists in the United States, but it is offset by a governmental balance among executive, legislature, and judiciary, by a free press, and by an engaged citizenry.
Cambodia can achieve these things, not all at once, but over time. Each of us must strive to work for the greater good. The CNRP may have to swallow its political pride and take the seats to which it was elected in the National Assembly. This would benefit the greater good. The party has demonstrated its appeal to the people. It now should act on the peoples’ behalf by exercising its voice as a “loyal opposition.” It can vocally oppose legislative and executive actions by recorded votes in the Assembly. It can do more than lead public rallies. It can begin to assume its role in government. That would be a first step in moving Cambodia from its 19th century model of unitary power to a 21st century model of two-party governance.
Lord Buddha teaches us that we are masters of our own destiny. He says with our thoughts we make the world.
Time to rethink?
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.