An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
In a little more than two weeks, the United States will celebrate its 235th anniversary of independence from England. Compared to Cambodia whose history dates back more than 2,000 years, the US is a toddler, but this toddler remains the world’s political, economic, and military leader, while Cambodians in general are preoccupied with real or imagined fear that their nation and culture may disappear, diluted and overcome by their aggressive neighbors.
Think and Become
I have yet to understand the logic of Cambodia and her predominantly 14 million Buddhists “disappearing,” as if their fate is pre-ordained. Didn’t Lord Gautama Buddha say, “I do believe in a fate that falls on (people) unless they act”? Didn’t he mean by this that man can influence his own lot in life? “He is able who thinks he is able,” Buddha preaches, i.e., think “Yes, we can,” and act on it like we cannot fail, then maybe we won’t fail. Thus, Buddha taught positive thinking 2,500 years ago: “What we think, we become.”
Rather than think and fear “disappearance,” Cambodians should think and believe that as their ancestors could build Angkor and an Empire that ruled most of Southeast Asia, so today they can fend off their neighbors to the east and west and Cambodia will always remain Khmer: Think, believe, act on that belief.
As Albert Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Indeed, Cambodians must question how a whole people, race, and culture would disappear at the hands of their neighbors in this 21st century, just like that?
“Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done and left undone,” Buddha counseled. “Work out your own salvation,” Buddha said, and count on no one else: “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may.” These words from Buddha remind us that the desire for independence and self-determination is ages old. I love what Burmese human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi said: “Don’t just sit there. Do something.” American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., told African-Americans: “We must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
Are Cambodians’ backs “bent” that the Vietnamese to the east and the Thais to the west can ride those backs?
But if it is Premier Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s actions that allow the neighbors to ride Cambodians’ backs, then they should deal with Hun Sen and the CPP to prevent the neighbors from riding them.
Life is learning, and we should learn to think positively, imaginatively, and creatively. We need to learn to relate, compare, analyze, so that we can always improve. In a world that is always advancing, to stay still is to walk backward as those marching forward will leave us in the dust.
So, last month I wrote in this space about fifty-six Americans who, knowing fully their fate should they be captured by the British, nevertheless signed the American Declaration of Independence from Britain.
As the famous American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Also last month, I prodded Cambodians to draw lessons from the American Civil War (1861-1865), the bloodiest conflict in US history, as Americans fought between themselves over the issues of human rights and slavery.
In April, I wrote about how Gen. Robert E. Lee, 59, Commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and Gen. Ulysses Grant, 43, Commander of the Union Army, negotiated the terms of surrender, and about the moving formal ceremony disbanding the Confederate Army in full honors. The lesson: Civility and national reconciliation are possible, but it requires a certain culture and a certain attitude, utterly lacking amongst the Khmer Rouge who, in 1975 killed the vanquished, and subsequently two million others.
Culture and attitude are not ordained. They are learned. Buddhism is a philosophy that has so much to offer in these areas. Cambodians should learn from what Lee and Grant practiced in 1865 – two Christian gentlemen practicing civility that has a mirror image in Buddhism.
Buddha told mankind: “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act on upon them?”
I am reminded of what a Khmer scholar asked in his writing not long ago, “Are Buddhist beliefs only skin deep?”
The US Declaration of Independence
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, he was 32 – younger than many Cambodians who found refuge in the US after the Khmer Republic collapsed in 1975 as the Vietnamese Army brought Pol Pot to power.
In the original draft of the declaration, Jefferson denounced English King George III for waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
When the final declaration was proclaimed, Jefferson’s famous sentence, now recited by so many people around the world, reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In the Declaration, Jefferson spelled out the concept of democratic government, created by the people “to secure these rights,” deriving its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” who can “alter” or “abolish it” if it “becomes destructive” of these rights.
It’s not a bad thing to learn and to apply. Buddha teaches that “what agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
Thus, when in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France on Sep. 2, 1945, he quoted Jefferson’s “All men are created equal” clause, and referred to it as an “immortal statement.” Ho also quoted the 1791 French Declaration on Rights of Man and the Citizen, “All men are born free with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights,” and referred to these as “undeniable truths.”
Americans’ fight for rights, equality, and freedom has not stopped. Perhaps the possibility for “improvement” is limitless before their eyes?
America: A Nation of Ideas
The United States is a nation of ideas. Americans are white, black, brown and yellow, with ethnic backgrounds from around the globe. They are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu… and atheists.
George Washington, known as the Father of the United States, led the American victory over Britain in the Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775–1783, presided over the writing of the Constitution in 1787, and was the first US President, serving two four year terms (1789-1797).
Since the 1700s, Washington offered America’s bosom to “the opulent and respectable stranger” and “the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.” The American Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in the New York Harbor represents a similar sentiment.
In 1886, in honor of the friendship between the French and the American nations, the people of France presented to the people of the United States, the Statue of Liberty — a huge sculpture of a robed female Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas, holding a torch with a flame and a tablet on which is inscribed the date of the American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. At her feet lies a broken chain. The Statue is an iconic representation of freedom for all peoples.
On the Statue’s pedestal are the words of a poem engraved on a bronze plaque, that reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Thus, Goddess Libertas welcomes all people to walk through her golden door into freedom, with the promise that the torch and the flame shine always for them.
The idea of transforming the many different parts into a single whole, with Latin words, E pluribus unum, or “Out of many, one,” emerged in 1776 as a suggestion for the seal of the US. It became a de facto motto of the United States as it was adopted by Act of Congress in 1782.
The phrase was intended to signify the goal of uniting sometimes fractious colonies into a single nation, but has taken on broader meaning in the centuries since, as the United States has prominently assimilated immigrants from around the world into the complex society that we know today. E pluribus unum. Come together after civil war. E pluribus unum. Welcome people from countries around the world to make us a stronger nation. E pluribus unum. Oh, how much Cambodians can learn and make use of American founding fathers’ thoughts!
Thus, the melting pot’s inclusiveness encourages participation by all citizens in an accountable system founded on the fair and impartial rule of law. This in turn helps to attain the goal of what’s best, equitable, and effective for the whole society. This is what good governance entails.
Inclusiveness and good governance allowed the best minds amongst world’s immigrants to contribute and provide strength and power to the United States: Their country, their nation.
Not just in American founding fathers’ minds, but in America’s founding documents as well, you learn that the founding fathers did all they could, to avoid stifling differences or imposing a uniformity of opinion and culture.
In envisioning that America’s diverse population could become one people and one nation, the founding fathers wanted them to learn and embrace America’s ideals and beliefs; communicate with one another in the same language (English); learn to live by and to assimilate America’s customs, measures and laws; and become a part of America’s political order, practicing America’s principles of a free government and engaging in America’s economic opportunity.
Today’s Americans, endowed by a system of government that promotes individual rights, freedom and the rule of law, albeit not perfectly, continue to fight for equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal treatment.
Just as the “ancestor of every action is a thought,” as American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said, and “What we think, we become,” as Buddha said, Cambodians’ future and their nation’s future rest in the quality of their thinking.
But they are generally frustrated because there’s no Cambodian Aung San Suu Kyi – though I am quite happy with rights fighter, Cambodian lawmaker Ms. Mu Sochua – or Cambodian Mahatma Gandhi, to lead in the fight against autocracy.
But leaders are not born, specialists say; leaders are made. They are normal people like those who read what I write right now. And there is not one leader, but many leaders, and each has particular skills. Combined, they are formidable.
Starting with Buddha’s “Fill your mind with compassion,” and Confucius’s “Without feeling of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts,” I would like to suggest to my countrymen what Steve Ventura of the Leadership and Learning Center has called “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” “R” stands for recognizing the inherent worth of all human beings; “E,” eliminating derogatory words and phrases from vocabulary; “S,” speaking with people — not at them or about them; “P,” practicing empathy, walking awhile in others’ shoes; “E,” earning respect of co-workers through one’s behaviors; “C,” considering others’ feelings before speaking and acting; and “T,” treating everyone with dignity and courtesy — as the best qualities making a man or woman a leader. They are learned behaviors.
Ventura further defined as “courage” in a leader to include: Following one’s conscience and not “following the crowd”; taking action against hurtful/disrespectful behaviors; sacrificing personal gain for the benefit of the many; taking responsibility for one’s actions and mistakes; following the rules and insisting others do the same; challenging the status quo in search of better ways; and facing setbacks head-on, without losing drive and spirit or adopting a victim mentality. These qualities are learned.
Viewed this way, there are many Cambodian leaders out there.
The next step is for them to start doing what they do best – with an organization and team members to help them.
Charisma can be helpful, but a focus on a charismatic leader also can thwart skilled men and women who seek to participate fully in the struggle that requires imagination, creativity and innovation.
As I conclude my column and I wish America and Americans a happy Independence Day on July 4th, so I wish Cambodians, Americans and non-Americans, the same. I appeal to them to follow Buddha’s “What we think, we become,” and start thinking positively and taking the first steps in their struggle against autocracy.
By taking these first steps, it is likely that fears of cultural disappearance will diminish!
The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.
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 email@example.com.