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

Driving through America’s southern countryside of green fields and wild flowers, a flurry of thoughts overwhelm me as the words of a song reach my ears: “The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin; It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again; It’ll happen again, they’ll bet your life; I’m a Jack of all trades and, darling, we’ll be alright…”

That’s my 12-year-old grandson’s favorite song from a new Bruce Springsteen CD. “So you use what you’ve got, and learn to make do,” the song goes, “You take the old, you make it new.”

The words remind me, oddly, of America’s youngest president (1901-1909), Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” They are words about creativity: To imagine something that never exists and create it.

Martin Luther King, Jr., sees as a function of education, “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”

There are two inseparable processes of excellence of thought: Creativity — to produce something out of nothing; and criticality — to evaluate whether what’s produced leads one closer to a goal. This is quality thinking — which determines the future of anything we do and the quality of our future.

The following morning, my grandson, his digital video camera running, interviewed me for his school project. One of his questions: Why do Cambodian opposition parties fight among themselves and why do members of the same party also fight among themselves? Oh, boy…

Cambodia: A summary

Cambodians who endured Pol Pot’s policies and practices in 1975-1979, lost 1.7 to 2.5 million of their compatriots. They are divided about the desirability of the status quo.

Regime proponents, generally welcoming of Vietnam’s 1979 eviction of Pol Pot from power and installation of a puppet regime of defected former Khmer Rouge leaders and cadres, want peace – the absence of armed conflict experienced in Cambodia since 1970 – and stability – the absence of inquiries and demands from the people – to allow the regime to develop Cambodia.

Regime opponents disapprove of the way the government gambles Cambodia’s national sovereignty and territoriality in dealing with an expansionist neighbor, Vietnam, to the East, and an aggressive neighbor, Thailand, to the West. They oppose evictions of people from their homes and the regime ceding the land to investors, “one concession at a time,” for 99 years. And more! Opposition leader, Ms. Mu Sochua, told the world recently, Cambodia “is not a poor country; it is a badly governed country”; the ruling Cambodian People’s Party “promises peace, but there’s no real peace when poor farmers are selling their children to pay for medical treatment.”

Regime opponents are unanimous in wanting political change in Cambodia. Beyond this, they are divided. All agree voting irregularities and fraud, vote buying, impersonation, intimidation and physical threats loom large in an election with the CPP. Sochua calls the situation, “literally the ‘Wild West’.”

There are Cambodians who call for an elections boycott. Yet, next month, on June 3, candidates from 10 political parties will compete for votes for local offices in most of Cambodia’s 1,633 communities. And next year, in 2013, Cambodia’s parliamentary election will take place.

Democrats believe in and fight for the implementation of fundamental elements of a representative democracy of political equality, in which every citizen is able to compete freely for public office; and political competition that provides citizens a choice among the policies, and candidates presented by competing parties at the polls.

Sochua challenged the CPP over Radio Free Asia, “Does the ruling party dare to compete in free and fair elections?”

As Cambodian regime opponents act to achieve their goals in a variety of ways, some at odds with others, I present a simplified interwoven three-pronged “recipe” for Cambodians’ survival: Change old habits; practice Lord Buddha’s teaching; engage in nonviolent action to end the autocracy, beginning now.

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results — reinforces what I read somewhere, “To get what we never had, we must do what we’ve never done.”

Cambodians can change old habits that are impediments to participatory governance. And as committed Buddhists, embedded in the Cambodian culture are the concepts that encourage them to be better men and women. As Catholic friar (1182-1226) Francis of Assisi suggested, “Start doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; suddenly you’re doing the impossible.” Don’t know where to begin? Listen to Mother Theresa: “Do the thing in front of you.”

Nonviolent action is a technique and strategy to “disintegrate” an oppressive regime. It works. The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and The Albert Einstein Institution are two important sources of information for all Cambodian democrats.

“Charet Khmer”

Recently, I received a book, Charet Khmer (1973), or Khmer Mores (I prefer to translate it as Khmer personal traits), by a former political prisoner in 1936, Boun Chan Mol, who, in his twenties, joined the anti-French colonialist movement led by Son Ngoc Thanh. Copies landed in my box from different senders. The last time I read it was in 1974.

Charet Khmer is not a psychology book, but contains the author’s twenty “observations and knowledge” of Khmer traits. Boun Chan Mol explains that by writing this book he wishes Khmer, especially young people, be awakened to the reality of the nation’s deterioration and hopelessness. He dedicated the book to Khmer combatants who made supreme sacrifices to build a Cambodian republic.

What Boun Chan Mol calls Khmer traits are universal human traits, present in different degrees in all of us. According to him, those that are predominant in the Khmer culture include the ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘mine’, or “I-ism” trait; the destructive propensity trait; the generational vendetta and vengeance.

He asserts that Khmer leaders in general are so permeated with “I-ism,” they make no effort to explain, or teach the people about what is and why, or to groom a new crop of leaders. His observation remains true of today’s Cambodian leaders.

In Boun’s view, shared by many Khmer today, the Khmer culture of generational vendetta and vengeance has an origin in the centuries-old monarchical institution of absolute power: the King eradicates any adversary and all related to him (relatives, friends, co-workers) to uproot threats and potential threats.

Khmer teaching since the time of Angkor, to “korup” (respect), “bamreu” (serve), “kaowd-klach” (admire-fear), “smoh trang” (loyalty-fidelity), “kapier” (protect), among others, are applied to the divine monarchs and in the modern time, to leaders and superiors, rather than to ideals and concepts that live on after a man or woman dies.

Boun’s description of the Khmer propensity toward destroying an adversary is vivid: In civilized countries political competition is a sport — the winner and loser move on — but in the Khmer culture, “though an adversary is knocked down in a fight, the one with advantage does not stop but rushes to kick the downed adversary until the latter loses consciousness or even dies. This is no sport. Winning means the adversary must fall unconscious or die; it’s not winning if the adversary is still breathing. This is Charet Khmer (Khmer more or Khmer trait).”

This is where Buddha’s teaching comes in. Since, statistically, 96.4 percent of Cambodia’s 14.9 million inhabitants are characterized as Buddhist, with 50,000-plus Buddhist monks and 4,000-plus pagodas or temples, unless Buddhism is only “skin deep,” it should not be extraordinary for Cambodians to accept and practice Buddha’s Ovada Patimokkha, summarized as 1) Do all good, 2) Do no evil, and 3) Purify the mind, (as described in my last article in this space). .

There is a general perception that “great leaders” are born to lead. In reality, we can find certain common traits or characteristics of leadership in all “effective” leaders, in armed and unarmed conflicts, that can be learned and taught through education, training, and experience.

I don’t invoke Buddha’s teaching to make angels and saints out of humans, but to encourage ordinary men and women to be better citizens, better leaders. In Buddhism, there are 10 ideal qualities or moral perfections (Dana, or generosity; Sila, or virtuous conduct; Nekkhamma, or renunciation; Panna, or wisdom; Viriya, or diligence; Khanti, or forbearance; Sacca, or truthfulness; Adhitthana, or determination; Metta, or loving-kindness, and Upekkha, or equanimity) attained by Buddha, and toward which Buddhists should strive.

I am not preaching “Buddhahood” via the 10 qualities. Lord Buddha himself said, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.” In other words, there’s plenty of room for us to improve. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”

In the Buddhist traditions, each of the 10 ideal qualities called “Parami” in Pali, or “Barmei” in local Khmer, adds to the moral perfection. Humans are not perfect. But the more qualities attained, the more “Barmei” a Buddhist has: A monarch’s ideal qualities give him/her “Barmei,” or “power” and “influence” over his subjects; a modern leader’s ideal qualities give him/her “Barmei” over the citizens. The citizens, too, should seek to attain these qualities.

This is idealistic. But following Buddha’s path helps change old habits, makes us better individuals, and eventually, assuages our fear of extinction, dissipates our anxieties about replacing a current dictator with a new dictator.

Retain what’s Khmer

Boun Chan Mol cautions not to make another person’s idea one’s own, not to neglect consulting the elders about Khmer culture and traditions, not to forget one’s origin and become a “butterfly,” not to exaggerate, not to delve endlessly on useless matters. He encourages Cambodians to keep decisions long-lasting, to stop creating doubts, to maintain Khmer integrity and not become “Sva peark mongkot” (“Monkey wearing crown” soon reveals his animal’s characteristics), among others. He suggests learning from fire ants which join force when they face a threat.

Boun Chan Mol calls on Khmer to reflect carefully on Khmer customs and traditions: What’s out of date for the new era may be discarded; but what are characteristically Khmer since old time ought to be preserved.

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


The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-016-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 01-06-2012