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

The West and the East historically have differed in their traditional perspectives on how best to order society. The fundamental Western philosophy prioritizes the inviolability of individual freedom and rights; essential Eastern values favor societal stability and security above all. Over time, there has evolved a degree of rapprochement: Westerners acknowledge Easterners’ philosophy that freedom and human rights can’t exist in a chaotic and turbulent world; Easterners see freedom and human rights as inherent in human nature.

A popular quote by Harvard University professor of government James Q. Wilson reads, “Without Liberty, Law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without Law, Liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.”

Tibet’s spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, said, “We must, therefore, insist on a global consensus, not only on the need to respect human rights worldwide, but also on the definition of these rights . . . for it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity, and they have an equal right to achieve that.”

These contemporary remarks reflect the ancient Buddha’s teaching of the Middle Path.

Cambodians in conflict
The basic East-West philosophical difference is mirrored in the conflicts between the stability-security proponents who largely support the Hun Sen regime and the freedom-human rights advocates who generally oppose the regime.

By their culture, Cambodians are generally passive, conforming, and accommodating. Those who are proactive swim against the social norm. Thveu doch ke doch aeng, the Khmers say, meaning, do like others do, a conformist ethos that discourages those who step outside the lines.

In the centuries-old Khmer subservient culture of korup (respect) and kaowd klach (admire and fear), one who is, in the literal sense, extraordinary may be seen as rebellious or even treacherous. In contrast, Socrates, whose philosophy serves as the basis of Western civilization, taught that the truth is determined only through a process of questioning the status quo ante.

Bottom line
The contrast between the Cambodia that deteriorated under Pol Pot’s regime of killing and destruction, and contemporary Cambodia where new roads and bridges proliferate and tall buildings dot the skyline, is undeniable.

But this development has been achieved at too high a cost. Nearly half of the country’s land area has been given away to foreign entities in the form of decades-long land concessions, to be developed by companies that will provide some low-skilled jobs in Cambodia but will take their profits out of the country. This practice has enriched a few but has deprived hundreds of thousands of Cambodians of their homes and land with little or no compensation. This is not a democratic government, but an oppressive one. In the words of World Policy Journal’s “Target Cambodia: Games People Play”: “Cambodia today is quite literally giving itself away, especially to China and Vietnam – two rivals vying for regional influence.” “Over the last 30 years, the Sino-Vietnamese rivalry has shaped Cambodia militarily, politically, and economically, and there are no signs that this will change,” writes WJP this summer.

As such, Cambodia is a pawn used by China (which has spent $9 billion in aid and investments in Cambodia) and Vietnam (more than a quarter of a billion by the end of 2010). The Cambodian government “is sacrificing the rights of its own people and the future of the country in favor of competing regional powers” as it courts foreign investment, says WPJ.

Foreign Policy magazine’s 2012 Index lists Cambodia 37th on a list of the world’s 60 most fragile states – a ranking higher than the year before. The increased fragility assessed by international observers anticipates growing discontent with the Hun Sen regime, which eventually will run out of land to grab, will be unable to balance a budget reliant on donor aid, will fail at balancing the competing interests of its benefactors. A regime that rules by the application of direct power will eventually lose its leverage and will topple or be toppled.

Dictatorial and tyrannical
The current Hun Sen regime is dictatorial and tyrannical.

A person, or a group of persons, who comes to power, even through election, but accumulates and exercises all executive, legislative, and judicial powers to the exclusion of others, is a dictator. When the person acts at the same time as policeman, lawmaker, and judge, that person dictates and tyrannizes through abuses of power.

Hun Sen is such a person; his ruling Cambodian People’s Party is such a group. Both have assigned all three powers to themselves: They take land from the marginalized, kick them from their homes, arrest those resistant, pronounce judgment through arbitrary laws they make. An opposition and an election are ornaments to justify their rule and satisfy the appetite of those thirsty for evidence of an electoral process and human rights. In reality, all branches of government are their tools. The branches do not act to check and balance each other; therefore, abuses of power are endemic. The police and the military, too, are but tools of the regime.

Hun Sen rode to power under the guns of the Vietnamese invading forces that knocked out Pol Pot from power in 1979 and installed Hun Sen as premier in 1985. He lost the UN-organized general election in 1993 but bullied his way with threats of war to become number two in the government. In 1997 he launched a military coup against the number one and summarily executed more than 100 officials and officers of his royalist coalition.

The fight
In an atmosphere in which freedom is lacking and political retaliation is rampant, the results of an April Gallup poll, which found that 90 percent of Cambodians approve of the job Hun Sen is doing, are highly suspect. Anecdotal evidence suggests rather that Cambodians’ dissatisfaction with Hun Sen and the CPP is increasing. Similarly, the regime’s success in recent local elections demonstrates villagers’ tendency to vote the way the local commune leader directs. A truly free and fair franchise is quite absent in Cambodia today.

Consistent with the politically repressed atmosphere in the country and with the prevalence of a traditional culture of subservience, the most vocal opposition to the government led by Hun Sen comes from abroad. The Khmer People Power Movement and the Lotus Revolution are two organizations based abroad that have called for election boycotts and for open rebellion a la Arab Spring. Self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, too, provides a rallying point for such overt opposition as exists. Can these expatriates foment a successful rebellion at home?

A battle of ideas
Action comes out of thought. Lord Buddha teaches, “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.” President John F. Kennedy reminded, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

Recently I put forward a thought on a three-pronged recipe for Cambodians’ survival: Change old habits, practice Buddha’s teaching, initiate nonviolent action – not necessarily in that order. I am a believer in creative thinking and in not being driven on autopilot by raw emotion.

A weekend ago, an article, “Gene Sharp: A dictator’s worst nightmare” by Mairi Mackay of CNN, came to my attention. At a meeting on a dark January evening in an anonymous townhouse, Sharp talked about how to stage a revolution: To a young Iranian discouraged by the brutality by the government against protesters, Sharp commented, “You don’t march down the street towards soldiers with machine guns.” Then came creative thinking: “You could have everybody stay at home.” “Total silence of the city,” Sharp suggested.

I have written about Gene Sharp, his book “From Dictatorship to Democracy” – a how-to manual for overthrowing dictatorships – and nonviolent action. Mackay’s article exposes Sharp’s simple ideas of revolution: “No regime, not even the most brutally authoritarian, can survive without the support of its people. So, Sharp proposes, take it away.” As a dictatorship depends on the people and the institutions to stay in power, Sharp advocates to “shrink that support.” Like termites in a tree, nonviolent action eats away at a regime’s pillars of power, “Eventually, the whole thing collapses.”

Credible alternative
Regime proponents and opponents spring from the same cultural foundation, and as people have the capacity to observe and to analyze, it is important that democrats present themselves as a credible and reliable alternative to the incumbents. If the alternative seems stable, reasonable, and able to follow through on its commitments, people will be more inclined to risk change. Recall former political prisoner Boun Chan Mol’s book Charet Khmer of the general Khmer personal traits. Boun advocated change. And change begins with oneself.

Democrats could begin by building on a familiar foundation. Buddhist teachings are revered by nearly all Cambodians. Do all good; Do no evil; Purify the mind; and move on. A more contemporary take on that Buddhist philosophy comes from Teddy Roosevelt, an activist and U.S. president who advised: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

By encouraging sympathizers to become better men and women by following Buddha’s – and Roosevelt’s – teaching, democrats can distinguish themselves from the autocrats who are motivated by greed and self-interest. The people will see, hear, and believe in them as they develop “Barmei,” or “Parami” in Pali – an influence through an accumulation of the 10 qualities Buddha outlines for humanity. Buddhism is an integral part of the fabric of Khmer society. As people believe in their own capacity for change, the political yoke that is holding them back will be more readily cast off.

A creative mind should start immediately to de-personalize the centuries-old culture of korup (respect), kaowd klach (admire and fear), smoh trang (loyalty/fidelity), bamroeur (serve), kapier (defend), directed toward individual leaders, and to reorient them toward ideals and concepts such as cheat (nation), pracheathipattei (democracy), sereipheap (freedom), sithi (rights). Developing an understanding that power resides within ourselves, not in the person of an arbitrary leader, will help us to move forward.

Lord Buddha taught more than 2,500 years ago, “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” “Do not depend on others,” Buddha preaches. “He is able who thinks he is able.”


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 contacted at

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-018-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 01-07-2012