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

I owe this article to a number of Cambodian participants at the May 18 Cambodian Leadership Conference (CLC) in Tacoma, Washington, where I gave a keynote address on Building Leadership for Young Khmers, and two lecture-discussion sessions on political socialization and political culture. After the day-long conference, participants raised the subject of nation-building to discuss with me this topic, which they saw as a natural follow up to the day’s activities.

I was enthused about their interest, but felt somewhat hard-pressed to engage a topic to which, as a professor, I would allot no less than a semester of classes and discussions. I told them a few things about nation-building and state-building, subjects that piqued their interest. When one participant pushed for my return to Tacoma for further conversation, the leader of the Cambodian Women Networking Association, sponsor of the CLC, said decisively the CWNA would shoulder the project.

I suggested I would write an article on nation-building, a term I said I prefer over state-building. Nation conventionally refers to the people and their culture; state, to a geographical entity and physical structures and institutions – though both are intertwined and the terms used interchangeably. The Tacoma folks were satisfied for the time being.

I am conscious of the push-button era of instant gratification. Patience may be a Buddhist strong suit, but many Cambodians wanted to develop leadership quality traits and leadership skills overnight just as they want quick results in nation-building – a process that requires a long time to yield results. Too many do not have the patience for long-term projects.

Definition and conceptualization

I subscribe to the concept of nation-building as a process – a series of changes and actions that are evolutionary. Its ultimate goal is to keep people in a unified country that functions amid peace and stability in the present and in the future. Nation-building focuses on the nation; nation refers to a group or a race of people who embrace the same history, traditions, culture.

Parallel with the leadership building process I presented in Tacoma, the nation-building process I am presenting here involves the maintenance and strengthening of the values, beliefs, behaviors, life-ways, the touchstones that illustrate a people’s history and culture in order to safeguard the nation’s present and insure its future in independence and security. I embrace the concept of nation-building as an indigenous process comprising national leadership and a national vision – an “endogenous” school of thought. I see it as providing a more solid foundation for state-building.

Khmers are a race with a history that dates back to an era before Christ. Khmer values, beliefs, behaviors, life-ways have evolved through animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and their great historical monuments of Angkor illustrate Khmers’ past grandeur.

The world never stands still. Change is a constant. But Khmer values such as korup (respect), kaowd-klach (admiration and fear), smoh trang (loyalty), bamreur (serve), karpier (defend) have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Even today the Khmer pledge their loyalty to individuals – political leaders and others – mortals who, as they die, leave their followers scrambling to cement new allegiances. The traditional Khmer belief that the mystical Preah Batr Thoarmmoek will come to the rescue remains alive. The old Khmer way dubbed M’neus kbal khsear or individual with head of a smoker’s pipe continues to be practiced today: The face carved on the pipe bowls smiles in all circumstances. The smoker forces tobacco into the hole on the carved pipe bowl, the face still smiles. The smoker stirs the tobacco ash with a metal tool, removes the ash by hitting the carved bowl against a hard surface. The face still smiles. That was how Khmers stayed alive in perilous times.

These ancient ways, though revered, must in this 21st century be put in perspective much as the Greeks cherish their mythologies but operate in a modern society. It is essential that our values be re-oriented from the mystical and folkloric to focus instead on ideas (drop by drop fills the tub), ideals (the self-evident truths), principles (freedom, justice, rule of law).  For Khmers, nation-building is the “re-building” of their national and cultural identities through change to insure the Khmer Nation lives on into the future.

In our ever changing world of interdependence, economic development and stiff competition, nation-building has become used interchangeably with state-building, which focuses on the systemic – institutions and infrastructure. I see a successful nation-building process as a prelude to state-building, through which the nation’s beliefs and values are codified and formalized into a governmental structure.

However, today state-building has taken on a new meaning. It is an interventionist action by foreign actors in building or rebuilding the institutions and infrastructures of a weaker state, or a “failed” or “failing” state – an “exogenous” school of thought – which some writers see as tainted with colonialist and imperialist connotations. Thus, state-building becomes “the use of the armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy” (James Dobbins, RAND Review, 2003), involving “massive investment, military occupation, transitional government…”

University of Hawaii Professor Carolyn Stephenson described nation-building programs in Nation Building (2005) as “those in which dysfunctional or unstable or ‘failed states’ or economies are given assistance in the development of governmental infrastructures, civil society, dispute resolution mechanisms, as well as economic assistance, in order to increase stability. Nation-building generally assumes that someone or something is doing the building intentionally.”

For Cambodians, the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia, and all that the agreements entail, is what state-building is about – an “exogenous” approach.

A “multi-faceted process”

Perhaps the best definition of nation-building is Professor Stephenson’s “multi-faceted process” – a mixture of nation-building and state-building – as follows:

“Nation-building that will be likely to contribute to stable international peace will need to emphasize the democratic participation of people within the nation to demand rights. It will need to build the society, economy, and polity which will meet the basic needs of the people, so that they are not driven by poverty, inequality, unemployment, on the one hand, or by the desire to compete for resources and power either internally or in the international system. This does mean not only producing the formal institutions of democracy, but the underlying culture which recognizes respect for the identities and needs of others both within and outside. It means development of human rights – political, civil, economic and social, and the rule of law. But it also means development of sewer systems, and roads, and jobs. Perhaps most important, it means the development of education. Nation-building must allow the participation of civil society, and develop democratic state institutions that promote welfare. Democratic state-building is an important part of that. This is a multi-faceted process that will proceed differently in each local context.”

Framework for Cambodia’s nation-building

Conforming to my CLC speech advocating development of productive high quality thinking and encouraging listeners not just to walk the talk but to think smart and act smart, I propose to apply to Cambodia’s nation-building process Professor Michael G. Roskin’s framework for nation-building that requires countries to go through the same five stages – decision points – in the same sequence as below. They may look simple, but each stage requires considerable knowledge and understanding, and all five stages are interrelated and provide a formidable vision of nation-building.

1.  Identity: People must think of themselves first and foremost as citizens of the nation; original identification with a tribe, region, or subnational group must cease.

2.  Legitimacy: A government becomes legitimate and its rule becomes rightful when its citizens respect it, obey its laws and commands, and keep it in power.

3.  Penetration: A government must reach out to all people everywhere on the land and

get them to follow and obey its laws and commands.

4. Participation: People need to participate, or have a say, in the affairs of the state and in

their government.

5. Distribution: Who gets what, when, how.

What the framework instructs is that the people on Khmer territory in the Khmer state must think of themselves first and foremost as citizens of Cambodia, and must stop identifying themselves primarily with their ethnic origins (Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham, Indian, French, American, and so forth) or with their countries of origin: All are Cambodian citizens (and all are ruled by the supreme law of the land, the Constitution of Cambodia). The principle of inclusiveness yields unity and harmony. Unfortunately for Cambodia, many Cambodians are influenced by exclusivity, a characteristic that needs to change.

In a democracy, citizens govern. They govern the country through a government they put in power through free and fair elections to rule on their behalf. The citizens decide to keep, or not to keep the government in power. The Khmer word Pracheathippatei comprises Prachea, people, and thippatei, supreme. Greek Demokratia comes from Demos, people, and kratia, government. The people put a government in power, respect it, obey its laws and commands – which emanate from them. When citizens give the right to the government to rule, the government becomes legitimate and its rule becomes rightful.

To attain this objective, the government must reach out to all citizens everywhere in the territory, persuade them to respect, obey, and agree to keep it in power, through meeting the people’s basic needs and satisfying their need to have a say in the affairs of their country and in their government.

Cambodia is far from being a democracy. In 1993, current Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party lost the first and only UN-supervised free and fair elections to Prince Ranariddh and his royalist party. But Hun Sen threatened war unless he was allowed to share power. Ranariddh’s father, then Prince Sihanouk, came up with the world’s only political formula to split the prime ministership into two: Prince Ranariddh, the winner, as First Prime Minister; Hun Sen, the loser, was made Second Prime Minister; a government with two heads.

In 1997, Hun Sen pulled a coup d’etat against Prince Ranariddh, and took full power in Cambodia. Today, one month before the July 28 election Hun Sen warned of civil war should Cambodian voters not vote to keep the CPP in power.

In the final stage of nation-building, the country’s system of allocation and distribution of goods, services, resources, values, honors, benefits to society determines who gets what, when, how, as prescribed by the Constitution. In Cambodia, the government controls politics, the economy, the military. Her national wealth is plundered by the elites and sold to foreigners. Cambodia’s economic land concessions cause citizens to be evicted, their homes dismantled, replaced by resorts and high-rises. While the rich get richer, some 30 percent of the people live below the poverty line. This is nation-building a la Hun Sen-CPP.

Concluding remarks

In summary, nation-building requires people’s participation to demand rights, opportunities, and proper treatment; the building of a society, an economy, and a polity to meet the basic needs of the people; the building of formal institutions of democracy; the establishment of a culture that respects others’ identities and needs; the development of political, civil, economic, social rights and the rule of law. Nation-building requires people to be educated about their rights and their responsibilities, as well as the rights and responsibilities of their government. Education is of highest priority.

On July 28, Cambodian voters have a chance to re-elect a government to continue the status quo or elect a new government to bring change as democrats promised. Unfortunately, Hun Sen’s threat of warfare should voters not put it back in power assures that voters will not vote their conscience. Meanwhile the world community watches.

This article fulfills my debt to the CLC participants. But it also provides Cambodians with topics for discussions as they decide their future.

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


Document ID :AHRC-ETC-025-2013
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 02-07-2013