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

A Khmer proverb, Chaul stung tarm bawt, says if you travel a river you must follow its bend. In contemporary Cambodia, the behavior represented in the ancient proverb is cast aside in favor of conduct expressed through a saying, Thveu doch ke doch aeng, or “Do like others do.” If you don’t follow the bends in the river, you won’t get where you want to go, says the old proverb. But the current translation alters the meaning: If you don’t do as others do, you will look odd and be the subject of ridicule.

A classic psychological experiment found one in three persons would modify his or her own opinion to conform with that of others. Conformity is a human trait. But Cambodians are generally conformists by culture.

For two thousand years, Khmers have been taught to korup (respect), bamreur (serve), and karpier (defend) rulers and authorities. To deviate from this behavioral pattern raises a question of the transgressor’s smoh trang (loyalty). Such distrust, or min touk chet, is an opening toward an eventual charge of kbawt (treason).

Cambodia’s current autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen is employing this culture to maintain his rule. Many Cambodians today, like most in the past, are directly or obliquely coerced to obey the regime – or at least not to oppose it. Not wanting to be charged with treason, kbawt, one wants to be seen doch ke doch aeng – to do like others do.

Changing such a culture — attitudes, norms, ways of doing things of a whole people — is difficult but is necessary if the country is to change its destiny. In the Khmer nation of conformists, a change of such culture may be accomplished by Khmer Buddhists (comprising more than 90 percent of the population) who apply what their Lord Buddha teaches: Buddhists do not mind what others do or not do, but value an individual’s action to create a future of his or her own choosing. Humans are responsible for their own destiny. In the words of Khmer writer Bouawat Sithi, “with a wholesome state of mind,” humans can create “a heaven” — peace — for themselves and others; “with an unwholesome state of mind,” humans can create “a hell.”

One Cambodian who worked to affect a change in traditional Khmer culture was Cambodian veteran diplomat Srey Pheach, who passed away last week.

Introducing Pheach
A native of Sisophon, Battambang, Srey Pheach graduated in public administration from Cambodia’s Ecole Royale d’Administration and joined Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1959. He was posted in Egypt, at the United Nations, in Czechoslovakia, and the Philippines.

Srey Pheach described his thinking, based on his 16 years of observation as a diplomat, in two handwritten essays. He gave me the first in 2009 and the second this year, shortly before his death. I have chosen in this column to share Pheach’s observations both because he was my friend and because I believe they have value. He had firsthand experiences that add dimension to available historical accounts, and was an honorable man who gave much of himself to improve the lot of his countrymen, both as a government functionary and as an expatriate who remained politically active until his death.

Pheach offers insightful accounts of two events, in particular that would be of interest to historians. During his tenure (1966-68) as director of the press department of Cambodia’s foreign ministry he served as liaison with foreign reporters in Cambodia. Pheach describes an encounter in 1967 when George McArthur and Horst Faas of the Associated Press and Ray Herndon of United Press International slipped out of Phnom Penh to the Vietnam border. There they found a Vietnamese Communist campsite four miles inside Cambodia in Kompong Cham. Later, when Pheach served in Prague (1968-1974), he was in direct contact with Prince Sihanouk’s son, Prince Sihamoni, a student in Prague, when Sihanouk was abroad in 1970, the Prince was overthrown by his own government led by General Lon Nol, prime minister.

When the United States disengaged from Southeast Asia and the Khmer Republic surrendered to the Khmer Rouge, Srey Pheach and his family moved from his post in the Philippines to the country he called “the world leader in democracy,” the United States.

Once in the United States, he chaired the non-profit Free Cambodia, Inc., immersed himself in activities to help Cambodian refugees and to expose the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities. His meeting with First Lady Rosalynn Carter was a catalyst for her visit to refugee camps at the Thai-Khmer border. He gave his all to oppose the Khmer Rouge and later the 1979 Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pheach became the leader in the United States of the primary opposition party in Cambodia.

Pheach’s writings
Pheach’s writings, based on his direct experiences with history, describe events that are not represented in the rewritten history offered by the Hun Sen regime and by some Cambodian and foreign interpreters of Khmer history. Through his writing he rejects the deeply embedded Khmer culture that kowtows to power and calls for quality thinking against fear and blind obedience. As he remarked to me from his sickbed, “Lord Buddha teaches there are three things that cannot be hidden: The sun, the moon, and the truth.” To Pheach, that “truth” must overwhelm the traditional culture of blind obedience and acceptance.

More than one-third of Cambodia’s total population of 14 million is under the age of 15 years (born in the late 1990s). This significant number of people has no knowledge of, nor interests in, the whats and whys of their country’s past. Hun Sen seized upon this weakness to politically socialize the people through demonizing adversaries, keeping people fearful and passive, so that he can stay in power.

Pheach rejects Hun Sen’s continuing assertions that there would have been no “civil war,” nor atrocities by the Khmer Rouge that resulted in the deaths of up to three million people in Cambodia, had Lon Nol not deposed Chief of State Prince Sihanouk in 1970 – a thesis used by Sihanouk himself and those in the left of the political spectrum. Pheach rebutted the regime’s allegation that Sihanouk’s deposal resulted in US B-52 bombings of Cambodia, a US military invasion, and US aid to Cambodians who hated the Prince.

The rise of the Khmer Rouge
For Pheach, the Khmer Rouge movement was born during Prince Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum era, and after the Prince’s security minister Kou Roun’s men beat up and stripped Khieu Samphan naked in public (Samphan was pulled off a cyclo cab near the Central Market for public beating and humiliation), and after orders went out to arrest a number of Cambodians, including Hou Youn, Hu Nim, and other intellectuals, accused of being “red.”

Thus, began an exodus of Cambodian intellectuals into the forests where a Khmer Rouge movement was proclaimed in Samlaut, Battambang. And it was General Lon Nol’s soldiers who were sent, on the orders of the prince, to brutally crush the Samlaut rebels.

Vietnamese Communist sanctuaries
Pheach’s writings find support in the works of scholars and researchers on Cambodia’s history and politics. While ideologically or politically motivated interpreters of history can make a study of history confusing, Pheach’s writings focus mainly on factual events in which he was involved.

Since the country’s independence was declared in 1953, the Prince’s proclaimed policy for Cambodia was “neutrality,” Pheach wrote, but several years later the Prince’s left-leaning pro-Communist neutrality witnessed China as Cambodia’s number one friend and Western embassies in Phnom Penh closed, except the French embassy. The committee of wise men, with Penn Nouth, Son Sann, Pho Proeung, and others, as advisers, started to lose its clout over the Prince, who made himself atanaurmat, the country’s “decider.”

The Chinese led Sihanouk to believe that China would provide Cambodia with foreign aid greater than that given by the US. When Cambodia cut off US aid, Chinese aid was directed instead to the Khmer Rouge; Cambodia’s economy suffered. In Pheach’s words, as late as 1968, “there were Khmer officers hard pressed to find shoes to wear.”

With China as her primary benefactor, Cambodia opened her port at Sihanoukville and the airport at Pochentong to Chinese shipments of war materiel for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. The Communists who took refuge in sanctuaries on Khmer soil, moved at night into Southern Vietnam to fight the Americans and their allies; and when the Americans pursued them into Cambodia, Pheach wrote, the Cambodian foreign ministry was responsible for protesting. While at first Vietnamese Communist troops appeared to maintain some respect for Khmer territory, soon the territory was treated like a conquered land and Khmer soldiers, provincial guards and police in the area were shot at.

Pheach claimed, the Prince, concerned with the reported use of Khmer territory by VC/NVN troops, instructed the foreign ministry to invite representatives of the International Control Commission, created in Geneva in 1954, comprised of non-aligned India as chair, Canada, and Poland as members, to investigate.

According to Pheach, the common practice was for Cambodia’s foreign ministry to make “arrangements” with VC/NVN troops to leave Khmer territory before the ICC team would arrive to investigate.

Investigators/visitor would be shot
Pheach provided accounts of his personal encounters with the VC/NVN representatives in Cambodia.

One encounter was during Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy’s visit to Cambodia in 1967, when AP reporters McArthur and Faas, and UPI reporter Herndon slipped out of Phnom Penh and discovered a VC/NVN sanctuary in Mimot, Kompong Cham, four miles inside Cambodia. They reported their finding, to the chagrin of the royal government. Instructions from the “higher level” came down to those responsible in the foreign ministry to invite the ICC to investigate. The person responsible was Srey Pheach, who wrote, it took the ICC three months to agree to investigate – more than enough time for “arrangements” to be executed.

“We had ordered the governor of Kompong Cham to receive the three-man ICC team. In reality the governor had already arranged for VC/NVN troops to vacate Khmer territory and had converted their sanctuary into a Cambodian training base.”

“I, Srey Pheach, from the foreign ministry,” and two Cambodian officers, accompanied the ICC investigators by helicopter to Kompong Cham. Pheach noted that during the flight, the Polish member was anxious and very quiet. But they arrived in Mimot and found no VC/NVN sanctuary. Upon returning to Phnom Penh, Pheach wrote, “the Polish member (representing the Communist bloc) embraced me and congratulated me for a job well done.”

Pheach returned to his office to learn that earlier on that same day the North Vietnamese ambassador had met with Pheach’s boss, Foreign Minister Prince Phurissara and told the latter the Vietnamese were disappointed with the ICC’s visit to Mimot, “a continuing of which would hurt the Vietnamese struggle.”

Later that day, Pheach declined an invitation to dinner by a North Vietnamese diplomat who came to see him. Pheach wrote, he told the Vietnamese that Cambodia was still an independent country and Pheach could invite the ICC to investigate any place any time.

At another time, there was a report of Communist Vietnamese occupation in the Cambodian provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri. Again the foreign ministry, in the person of Srey Pheach, was ordered by Sihanouk to have the ICC investigate the reports. Pheach was to make the customary “arrangements” with the Vietnamese in advance of the ICC inspection.

“I, Srey Pheach, was responsible to meet the Vietcong and North Vietnamese representatives to plead with them to withdraw troops before the ICC’s visit; the troops can return after the visit,” wrote Pheach. “The representatives of both embassies rejected the plea and told me if I and the ICC will visit, they will shoot.” Pheach’s report on the incident worried the royal government.

Soon, the ICC was kicked out of Cambodia.

The deposal of Prince Sihanouk
Pheach wrote that around the time of the Rattanakiri-Mondulkiri trouble, the Soviet and Czech governments invited Prince Sihanouk for a state visit.

Pheach claimed that Prince Sihanouk and General Lon Nol met and agreed that one day before the Prince’s official visit to Prague, a popular demonstration was to take place and the Prince would use the demonstration to tell the Eastern Bloc of the Cambodian people’s unhappiness with the presence of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese troops on Khmer territory and would plead with the Eastern Bloc to intervene to have the Vietnamese troops withdrawn.

When the demonstration occurred, its organizers failed to keep demonstrators under control. Demonstrators burned down the two Vietnamese Communist embassies. This angered the Prince who was in France. He declined to receive a Cambodian delegation of Prince Kantol as representative of the royal government, and Mr. Yem Sambaur as representative of the Queen Mother, sent to explain to the Chief of State what really happened. The Prince also cancelled his planned visit to Prague.

“At the time, I, Srey Pheach, was posted in Czechoslovakia, where (Prince Sihanouk’s son) Prince Sihamoni was a student,” Pheach’s paper reads. Pheach wrote, “Prince Sihamoni told me that his mother telephoned him daily and told him not to worry, there are only a handful of traitors and when the Prince Papa will return to Phnom Penh those traitors will be dealt with.” Pheach said those words shook up the leaders in Phnom Penh, who concluded they would not wait for the Prince to arrest them; they undertook a preemptive strike by deposing the Prince.

(Not mentioned in Pheach’s account was an alleged secret tape recording from Paris on which the Prince reportedly threatened death to Cambodian leaders in Phnom Penh, a tape recording that was said to have convinced the foot-dragging Lon Nol, the last man, to agree to the deposal.)

Pheach asserted that the deposal of the Prince was “accidental”; there was no plan for it – who dared to depose a God-king?

Pheach quoted a French proverb, Les absents ont toujours tort, or “The absent are always in the wrong,” referring to the deceased Lon Nol, who cannot tell his story about what he and Sihanouk had discussed and agreed. Lon Nol cannot defend himself, and Prince Sihanouk will not tell what really happened.

Prince Sihanouk’s fateful decision
Pheach wrote that the Prince was not told of his deposal from power until he reached the airport in Moscow; and that Soviet leaders had wanted the Prince to return to Cambodia, but the Prince had opted to head to China instead. Upon his arrival in China, NVN Premier Pham Van Dong met with the Prince, assured Sihanouk he could be returned to power in 24 hours, but the Prince said he wanted no bloodletting.

The Prince soon changed his mind: He was Chief of State for life, no one could depose him; he announced the formation of a royal government abroad. Pheach wrote of the Prince’s Canton conference, joined by Vietnamese and Lao representatives, when it was resolved that the three Indochinese people were now one: “Vietnamese troops in Cambodia are Cambodians; Cambodian troops in Vietnam are Vietnamese; Cambodian troops in Laos are Lao; Lao troops in Cambodia are Cambodians.”

It was in that time that Cambodian diplomats abroad, including Chan Youran, Chem Sgnuon, Hor Namhong, among others, flocked to join the Prince, who thenceforth called through Peking Radio for Cambodians to join the Khmer Rouge to evict the Americans from the country. Pheach conceded that there were Cambodians who still “loved and respected” the Prince, so entire villages fled to the Khmer Rouge – but US troops were not in Cambodia, said Pheach.

Pheach noted Khieu Samphan’s statement in a Cambodian newspaper that the Khmer Rouge revolution would be more easily accomplished with the Prince involved. Thus Prince Sihanouk’s forces, the Vietcong, the North Vietnamese, and the Khmer Rouge combined to fight Republican troops. With US aid terminated in 1975, the Khmer Republic collapsed. And thus started the mass killings of Cambodians and non-Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge.

Pheach suggested that the thesis that asserts those who deposed the Prince were ultimately responsible for the following years of “civil war” and of Khmer Rouge devastation was not even Hun Sen’s but Sihanouk’s; that Hun Sen used the thesis to neutralize the Prince, who was critical of Hun Sen, especially his handling of Khmer-Vietnamese border issues. Subsequently, Hun Sen supported the coronation of Prince Sihamoni as King of Cambodia and honors Prince Sihanouk, as the King Father. In the strange world of Cambodian politics, Hun Sen and King Father Sihanouk are now allies of convenience. And the Cambodian people have no advocate in the halls of power.


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-026-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 01-09-2012