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

My last two articles in this space — “Building leadership for young Khmers,” and “Understanding nation building” — describe my long term goals for the developing leaders in Cambodia. I hope also to address other elements of nation-building with a view that if the concepts I advance are understood and applied, however slowly, change may be effected and certain present and future problems confronting Khmer society may be avoided or minimized.

Unfortunately, many Cambodians perceive more urgent problems that need solution now.

Some faithful Khmer readers from inside Cambodia and abroad have expressed their wish that my articles be published in the Khmer language. There was a time when I laboriously typed Khmer characters relatively quickly on an old Remington Khmer typewriter, but today I’m a dinosaur at using a computer for typing Khmer. Unfortunately, those who want to translate my writings have other responsibilities, and I have neither the old Remington nor the time.

There are disgruntled Khmer readers who see my writings are “theoretical” and “conceptual” whereas Cambodians want “doers” to make things happen. I cannot but wonder if some of those readers never thought that they themselves might be the “doers” who can make things happen? I believe a leader is rarely if ever born, that a leader is made; in nation building we need not one leader but tens of thousands of leaders to take care of many different fields, leaders who can be cultivated. Khmers say, A vieach york mok thveu kang; A trang york mok thveu kam; A sam ro’nham York mok thveu os dot – Make a wheel out of bent wood; make a spoke out of straight piece; make firewood out of twisted and crooked wood. In other words, everything and every being has a place; should there be no place, then make one! Look into the mirror. Can the one who looks back be a doer?

Ches mok pi riean

Ches mok pi riean, Khmers also say – knowledge is acquired through learning. As an educator and a teacher in my past, I am putting my thoughts and experiences – and the thoughts and experiences of others – into writing with the hope that it would help Cambodians in the future.

This brings me to a book just published, The Cambodian Wars, Clashing Armies and CIA Covert Operations by Kenneth Conboy. Conboy’s research puts the lie to the common view that the Khmer Non-Communist Resistance operating at the Khmer-Thai border in the 1980s was ineffective. There were creative and innovative projects initiated by the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces, including successful aggressive military actions that brought down a string of the Vietnamese puppet Phnom Penh regime’s military bases along the Khmer-Thai border, paving the way for the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements. I am grateful that Conboy’s sense of history led him to devote space in his book to record and analyze some of the operations I developed and implemented in the resistance, and to credit many who took great risks in the struggle to establish a democratic government in Phnom Penh.

Conboy wrote, too, on how noncommunist Cambodians, whether of republican or monarchical political inclinations, were unable to harmonize and unite. This should be a reminder for today’s Cambodian democrats. History can repeat itself. The Khmer Sereika (freedom fighters) were intelligent and determined, but they were weakened by a disunited leadership.

I am reminded of my new Khmer friend from Tacoma, Washington, Hoeurn Mon, a former Buddhist monk for 22years, who spent several hours in discussion with me after my keynote speech in Tacoma in May. He taught me his Buddhist perspective on my remarks, which was most useful for me to learn.

Lord Buddha taught, Mon told me, in a person’s life journey one increases knowledge by listening to what one never heard. Listening to what one has heard before reaffirms one’s point of view, refutes doubt, and improves one’s understanding and analysis. In life, Mon said that one must learn, implement and study the result; that Buddha’s so’chek’po’lik means one needs to listen, remember (digest), question, and write down; that the four most common errors a person experiences include error through unconsciousness, error through unawareness, error for doing what should not be done, and error for not considering what should be considered; that a learned person speaks useful words and performs useful deeds

This Buddhist framework reaffirms my view that improvement in ways of thinking – values (high principles, freedom, justice, rule of law), beliefs (in one’s ability, human dignity and worth), and interests (a harmony of national-societal-individual) are more important long lasting goals than physical and material change. Change in intangible spiritual matters precedes the tangible. Knowing is good. Productive quality thinking consisting of creativity and criticality is vital. Thinking smart and acting smart are good techniques.

About Khmer politics

In thirteen days, Cambodian citizens will go to the polls to cast their ballots either for the continuation of the status quo under Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer who was made Cambodia’s satellite Prime Minister by Vietnam’s invading forces since 1985, or for the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party led by self-exiled Sam Rainsy, sentenced to a 12-year prison term on politically motivated charges.

According to news from Cambodia, the CNRP has picked up increasing support from the population in general although Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is strong among the rural population. In general, the news reports indicate that people have grown tired of the same three old faces ruling Cambodia, that even some in the CPP feel it’s time for a change in leadership, and that there are senior CPP members who are anxious about the CNRP’s growing popularity and threat, an explanation for Hun Sen’s warning that a civil war will ensue should the CPP lose the election this July 28.

Some national and international observers predict Hun Sen’s election victory. Chairman of the US House of Foreign Affairs subcommittee on East Asia, Steve Chabot, led lawmakers in a hearing last week to discuss cutting off US aid (more than $70 million per year) unless Hun Sen allows free elections on July 28.  Chabot said he has no doubt Hun Sen will win through “political violence, corruption and nepotism” to remain prime minister for another new term (although Hun Sen has let it be known he will stay in power for another decade).

I believe that a free and fair election would send Hun Sen packing, just as the Cambodian people voted for royalist opposition leader Nororom Ranariddh in the first and last UN-supervised election in 1993. But Hun Sen threatened war in 1993 and had himself made second prime minister until he pulled a coup against Ranariddh in 1997. Today he is threatening war again. Why do that if he is certain he is going to win? The people in general, including some in the CPP want change.

To US lawmakers’ threat to cut off aid, the Hun Sen government responded that it is the right of the US to cut off aid and that the aid does not mean that Cambodia must be subservient to US wishes. The Americans “can say whatever they want, but the decision on the future of Cambodia” is in Cambodians’ hands.

Sam Rainsy’s Return to Cambodia

Some Cambodian readers have asked me for insight over the last six months on the subject of Hun Sen’s threats to arrest self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy upon his return to Cambodia. I quoted that hapless but eternally optimistic hotel manager Patel in the film Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.” In my article on February 1, I theorized a Hun Sen in control of government machinery since 1985 is unlikely to lose the election on July 28, hence, it is logically a “win-win” move for Hun Sen to seek a royal pardon for Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia to participate in the election.

In spite of Hun Sen’s persistent threats to imprison Sam Rainsy despite the international community’s appeals to let the Rainsy return safely, I reasoned that the Khmer Ramvong – a favorite traditional circle dance when participants dance around and around in a circle – is a relevant metaphor for the ongoing maneuvering in which the two politicians likely are engaged. I reminded readers of the great baseball catcher Yogi Berra’s famous saying, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Recently, the US State Department asked the Hun Sen government to allow Rainsy to return safely to Cambodia, free from arrest.  Police spokesman Kiet Chantharith told Radio Free Asia Sam Rainsy would be arrested upon arrival.

Things in Cambodia are not necessarily what they appear, however, and I kept looking for signs that behind the fog of words generated by the political Ramvong, negotiations were underway.

Then, in a video posted to his Facebook page, Sam Rainsy declared, “I agree to sacrifice my life for national homeland, daring to die myself to rescue the nation from catastrophe.” There’s no ambiguity in his words. He upped the ante as US lawmakers threatened a cut-off of aid. Following, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan urged Sam Rainsy to write to Hun Sen “asking for a compromise,” and suggested that Sam Rainsy could ask the Council of Ministers to seek a royal pardon from the King.

Wasting no time, Sam Rainsy told RFA on July 9, “I hope that there will be a negotiation … to resolve the issue among Khmers.”


On July 12, Hun Sen reportedly wrote to King Sihamoni requesting “in the spirit of reconciliation” a royal pardon for Sam Rainsy. On the same day the King’s decree granted the royal pardon.

Declared Phay Siphan: “All of his convictions are clear now. He is a free man, he is welcome back home and he can come back anytime.” A brilliant if not unforeseeable move.

Sam Rainsy declared he would return to Cambodia “in the next few days.” In a statement, he said, “I would have returned even in the absence of a pardon to highlight the condition of democracy in my country.”

Some thoughts

I have no crystal ball about the future. I think Cambodians and the international community spend too much time talking about a free and fair election. While Hun Sen is in charge and intending to remain in power for another 10 years there will be no free and fair election, no level playing field. Cambodians must think beyond July 28. The fight for rights, justice, and the rule of law will continue. Looking for a long pan to cook an eel is neither thinking smart nor acting smart. Information on how to fight and destroy a dictatorship is available from many sources. The strategies and tactics need to be learned and applied.

While CNRP Sam Rainsy’s return is a small victory for democrats, “it ain’t over” yet. The political Ramvong continues. Each side tries to tire out the other. It’s a nature of Khmer politics.


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-027-2013
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 15-07-2013