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

Two days ago, I gave an address to the Cambodian National Conference in Arlington, Virginia, on the topic of Cambodians Must Help Themselves, a topic assigned by the Conference organizers. Today’s article is an adaptation of that speech.

I was born to a Cham father and a Chvea mother. The Chvea migrated to Cambodia from the Malay peninsula in the 14th century; the Chams, from Champa, in the 1700s. My father was executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and my mother died of starvation in their labor camp. I was raised and cultured the Khmer ways in Phum Russeykeo, Cambodia, a country that registered some 96 percent of the population as Buddhist. I grew up learning Lord Buddha’s teaching that we humans are masters of our own destiny and that it is we who are responsible for our own hell and heaven. I thought then it was a fantastic teaching. I still do.

Growing up, I have learned from the teachings of the world’s great philosophers, Socrates, Confucius, Buddha, Muhammad, and the lessons of the wise men and women after them, the importance of our own thoughts in predicting our future path. Our thoughts predict our actions. Through our actions, we make our world.

Every person thinks and has opinions. But opinions often are hastily drawn based on anecdotal events, founded on emotion rather than careful consideration. Opinions are not thought, which is a product of careful reflection and analysis. And even so, all thinking is not of the same quality. Quality thinking is comprised of creativity (to make something that did not exist before) and criticality (to assess whether that which was created has led to a defined goal). Quality thinking can be taught to and learned by willing students, but as industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose life was a true “rags to riches” story, once said: “You cannot push anyone to climb a ladder unless [s/he] is willing to climb it himself [herself].”

Khmer World

For centuries the evolving Khmer culture has continued to favor a tradition of subservience and acceptance. Community is valued over individualism; harmony over kinetic discord. Khmer history and tradition show the pervasive elements in Khmer society that reflect the pressure to live without rippling the waters. For 2000 years, tradition has taught Khmers to korup, respect, bamreur, serve, karpier, defend the rulers toward whom smoh trang, loyalty, is required. Those principles made Khmers great fighters of the Empire and earned them the characterization of pouch neak chambaing, the warrior race. They were warriors serving rulers unconditionally until death.

Through history Khmer leaders make use of those characteristics for their political ends, trapping people into the fear that deviation is abnormal, and is eventually a disloyal and treacherous act, a fear that keeps them in line, even today.

The Khmer expressions Chaul stung tarm bawt, or traveling the river by following its bends, means, good Khmers follow the tradition. The thought of docking the boat, getting out of the river, taking a new path, is too creative, too “outside the lines” for those committed to the tradition of Chaul stung tarm bawt. This is a diktat to follow and conform.

A good friend in Phnom Penh reminds me of the current regime’s awareness of the Khmers’ general characteristics of the three Ks — Khliean, Khlao, Khlach, or hungry, ignorant, fearful. My friend says that the three Ks allow the regime to practice the four L’s of Luy, Leak, Lub, Luoch, or the god money, hiding truth, erasing evidence, and stealing. The continued adherence to the traditional culture allows the regime to continue, says my friend, by resorting to a system of Tinh or buy — to buy votes, buy minds, buy allegiance; Samlott or intimidating to achieve a goal; and Luoch or theft of anything that can be stolen.

So, how do we bring about change?

Masters of our own destiny

African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, told his people during their struggle for equal rights that, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”

2,500 years earlier, Lord Buddha taught that fate is a human creation: “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men [and women] however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.” “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Humans are creature of habit. We get up in the morning, shower and dress, drink a cup of tea or coffee with our breakfast, and follow a fairly predictable routine from day to day. We think and act pretty much the way we have always thought and acted. We are, in short, predictable. So, beware! Albert Einstein warned: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

A Khmer septuagenarian, former commander and instructor at the Khmer Military Academy, sent me the poem Khmer Oeuy, Oeuy Khmer… as he lamented how after an unprecedented hell in Cambodia during which millions were killed, little if anything has changed. French critic Alphonse Karr famously said, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, or “The more things change, the more they are the same.”

Khmer elders, themselves, have passed along several expressions that are descriptive of the strategies that rulers employ to keep the people in line, or that Khmer employ to stay alive in perilous times:

  • M’neus phnaek m’noah or humans with pineapple eyes, refers to the many eyes of a pineapple. Many of today’s Cambodians choose to interpret this as a warning to be careful of the regime’s “pineapple eyes” that catch every move. Yet, those pineapple eyes are thickly covered with heavy lids and cannot really see.
  • M’neus tracheak peang, describes humans with ears of a water jar. The ears of a water jar are just attachments; they don’t hear.
  • M’neus kbal khsear, mocks those who are so willing to accept abuse that they have a head of a smoker’s pipe. The face carved on the pipe bowl smiles in all circumstances. The smoker forces tobacco into the hole on the carved pipe bowl, lights a match, 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.

Yet even in such a place as Cambodia has become, change is possible.

Guiding principles

Last month, I received an advertisement for a book, Change is good… You go first, by Mac Anderson and Tom Feltenstein. Let me go first and talk a bit about how Cambodians can learn, in fact must learn, to defy their traditional culture and help themselves.

To begin, we must take an assessment of who we are. I’ve described to you my view of the impact of the culture we share and how in this 21st century, that culture is an impediment to our progress as a people and as a nation.

Next we must agree on the goals we set for ourselves and the intermediate objectives we must attain to move forward to achieve those goals.

And we must agree on those principles that guide our behavior toward one another and in the wider world.

Some might say that Cambodians are too humble, but I believe that humility – the opposite of vanity, arrogance, and pride – is lacking among many Cambodians. Humility is the quality of being courteously respectful of others and should be a core value as we Khmer learn to get along, to collaborate for our own betterment and the betterment of our nation.

Many great belief systems describe the humility I’m talking about. In Christianity it is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Confucius said, “What is loathsome to thee, do not to another.” North American Indians had some version of a phrase that has been popularized as “Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his moccasins.” We Khmer would do well to hold our tongues – roll our tongues 7 times, as my father taught me – before we indulge in angry words or hurtful gossip. There are not so many of us Khmer any more. We must learn to get along, even if we disagree.

The roots of our successful future can be found in our past, in the Buddhist values most Khmer share. In simple terms, Lord Buddha’s teaching may be categorized into: Do all good; Do no evil; Purify the mind. He explains evil, “Killing is evil, lying is evil, slandering is evil, abuse is evil, gossip is evil; envy is evil, hatred is evil, to cling to false doctrine is evil.”

The principles I’m talking about are cleverly described in an acronym, RESPECT, developed courtesy of Steven Ventura of the Leadership and Learning Center. Listen: RESPECT

Recognize the inherent worth of all human beings.
Eliminate derogatory words and phrases from your vocabulary.
Speak with people – not at them… or about them.
Practice empathy. Walk awhile in others’ shoes.
Earn respect from others through respect-worthy behaviors.
Consider others’ feelings before speaking and acting.
Treat everyone with dignity and courtesy.

Goals and Objectives

A goal is long term and broad. It is an end to be achieved. It can take years to achieve, or a lifetime. An objective is short range and specific, a step toward attaining a goal.

A goal that is long range and broadly described is vague. A vague goal is hard to implement. For example, no one would likely disagree that justice and democracy are worthy goals, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. Once we agree that we would like justice and freedom in Cambodia, then what? What are the short term objectives we can agree upon that will begin to demonstrate to our people and to the wider world that a healthy opposition movement is a better partner than doing business as usual with an aging dictator?

In her book This Year I will… How to finally change a habit, keep a resolution, or make a dream come true…, change specialist M.J. Ryan suggests that in defining the changes we want to make we apply to each certain criteria she has described with another nifty acronym, SMART:

The objectives we develop that will lead us to change unwanted habits should be

• Specific
• Measurable
• Achievable
• Relevant, and
• Time-Bound

Ryan warns, a non-specific (broad and vague) goal sets you up to fail; progress that can’t be measured doesn’t tell you how far you have come and how much further you have to go. If what you want to achieve is not possible, you will fail. She suggests we make what we want relevant (important), and that we provide ourselves a timeframe to achieve it.

Our long range goals of justice and civil rights in Cambodia should remain constant. But we must create short range SMART objectives, which can be flexible, to accommodate more effective pathways to change.

Examples of short term objectives could include:

  • Merging opposition parties into one Cambodian Democratic Movement for National Rescue, and finally, the Cambodian National Rescue Party
  • Educating cadres and the people on the essential elements of democracy – rule of law, transparency, separation of powers, etc.
  • Implementing one or more of the nearly 200 methods of nonviolent action
  • Demanding justice for the killing of environmentalist Chhut Vuthy or environmental reporter Heng Serei Oudom, or the jailing of radio broadcaster Mam Sonando
  • Mobilizing Cambodians abroad to vote in the 2013 elections

The annual gathering of activists to appeal for the “reactivation” of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements does not fall under the suggested SMART scheme; the rally at the United Nations Human Rights Council headquarters in Geneva to urge the representatives of 47 UNHRC member states to support Dr. Subedi’s Report, does.

SMART actions empower us and give us strength and hope to move forward.

International Support

We need international support.

We live in a world of unprecedented political, economic, social interconnectedness, in which what happens in one place will sooner or later affect other places, directly or indirectly. This world is not blind to the Cambodian regime’s hold to power through threats and intimidation. World leaders are aware of the Cambodian government’s granting of economic land concessions that destroy people’s lives, take away their land, dismantle their homes; the regime selling Cambodia’s natural wealth to private and foreign firms and governments while a third of Cambodians live at a subsistence level. All these, among others, constitute the regime’s violation of Cambodia’s Constitution and of the 1991 Paris peace Agreements.

Conforming to Buddha’s teaching of Anicca, that everything is impermanent, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s hold on power is not permanent. No government can hold on to power without the support of those they rule, their citizens. Many governments are sympathetic to Cambodians’ struggle for civil rights and justice. But they do not see it in their overwhelming interest to initiate a struggle that the Cambodian people, themselves, have done little to undertake. We need to think smart and act smart.

Cambodians Must Help Themselves

A nagging fear about change in Cambodia is the fear that the removal of the iron-fisted regime will unleash instability and chaos. This demonstrates a lack of trust in the ability of the democrats to keep order and security, and provide a better Cambodia than the one that is familiar. Old wine in a new bottle is not a new wine.

While that insecurity among the people is understandable, the antidote must come from within. Change will not come from those who call for change but then look around to see who will start. You Go First! Imagine what it is that you want to achieve, break it down into small pieces, and go to work on implementing one piece at a time, or work on a few pieces at once. Get a friend to help you. Have him or her bring a friend. Imagine. Do the work. Tell others. Change will come, bit by bit. The process of creating change can be taught and learned.

Coincidentally, Cambodian Buddhists need to brush up on their Lord Buddha’s teaching and practice it. The idea is not to seek Chaul Nippean or go to Heaven where earthly attachments end, but to become good men and women, hence, good citizens. By so doing, we diminish the likelihood that a corrupt dictator will be replaced by a corrupt demagogue. True Buddhists are not oppressive and autocratic.

Meanwhile, Cambodian democrats must close ranks as they have never before, and work hard to bring about nonviolent action that would remove Cambodia’s current autocracy. I am not in support of some Cambodians who call for blood. It doesn’t work. It has no appeal to the people nor to an international community riddled with violence-fatigue. The path forward should be nonviolent. We don’t destroy, we repair. We don’t kill, we co-opt.

The message I hope you will take away today is simple. The seeds of change are within us, and can be found even in our own culture. We must choose those teachings from our history that encourage us to live good lives and undertake change that will benefit the common good. These teachings that should guide us come from Buddha, and are reiterated throughout cultures and religions all over the world: Each of us is responsible for our own future and together we are responsible for the quality of the society in which we live.

It is never too late to change!


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-029-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 15-10-2012