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

Jean Monnet, regarded by most as the founding father of the 27 member European Union, once said, “Nothing is possible without men; nothing is lasting without institutions.” That statement has influenced my political thinking over time. I have reflected on Monnet’s inferences about ‘men’ and possibilities, and ‘institutions’ and longevity. A related concept is represented by a familiar quotation from President John F. Kennedy: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

As I needed for myself a sense of empowerment and of positivity, I inverted Monnet’s words to read: “With men and women, nothing is impossible.” And I added, “God willing.”

Last month in Phnom Penh, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told the Phnom Penh Post of Cambodia’s need for “democratic institutions” that benefit everyone in society. A few days ago, the Post printed Cambodian lawmaker Ms. Mu Sochua’s article, “A hard road to democracy.”

Thus, as I considered what to write for this month’s column, my thoughts have focused on Monnet’s ‘men’ and women, too, as sensitive readers reminded me of inclusiveness and on ‘institutions.’

Intelligent men and women make things happen. Throughout human history, they have used their capacities to discover, build, change, create and destroy. Some among them are remembered; others are forgotten. Their ideas, vision, and the institutions they created, remain.

Of Institutions 
An institution comprises groups of men and women working together toward common goals conforming to rules they established for reaching those goals. People create institutions, shape and reform them, live by them and are influenced by them.

Prime Minister Fillon’s urging that Cambodians establish ‘democratic institutions’ requires that Cambodians comprehend what ‘democratic’ is, and what ‘institutions’ are. Since the time of Angkor, Khmers have assigned their faith and allegiance to individual god-kings and leaders, not to ideas and concepts.

Ms. Sochua’s July 11 column examined the challenges of growing democracy on autocratic soil where the people’s interests and needs are superseded by their leaders’ personal interest in holding on to power.

Yet, Ms. Sochua expressed pride in the ‘light of hope’ for democratizing Cambodia that ‘shines each time our villagers stand up to defy arrests,’ and noted the countryside’s ‘tightly woven’ opposition networks. ‘Women’ she observed ‘take an active part in that grassroots movement.’

That observation is borne out by news photographs I compiled in a YouTube presentation. More than one reader who reviewed the compilation of photos noted the presence of women in protests and activities, an indication Cambodia’s fight for rights and equality has begun. Another reader asked, while those female protesters were pushed around and beaten by Hun Sen’s security forces where were the men?

The men were there, too, however. One bloodied and unconscious, having tried to present a petition to visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon some yards away; and male villagers with wooden sticks taking on the police who had been ordered to take away their land.

Cambodians are not so placid and their well-known patience has a limit.

Someone said, humans conquer space but never succeed in walking across the street to get to know their neighbours. Humans’ inner shortcomings are plenty. Thus, I write often on the importance of acting on the basis of those universal principles and values that have guided the actions of leaders who work for the common good. Those who are motivated by such principles and values can agree on their shared goals and establish rules for attaining them.

As a Cambodian born in a nation of 14 million of whom 95 percent are described as Buddhists, I have found Lord Gautama Buddha’s teachings to be an excellent guide for Cambodian leaders who govern the country, and for Cambodian democrats who struggle for rights and freedom in Cambodia. And so, I write continuously on Buddha’s teaching.

Actually, Buddha’s teaching can help in the building of ‘democratic institutions’ and the practice of politics, if only men and women choose to learn and follow his advice. Buddha’s search for answers to why there’s so much pain and suffering endured by the multitude, led to his long journey that ended with his Enlightenment.

Of Democracy

The Greek word ‘Demokratia’ (‘demos’ means people; ‘kratia’ means government) means ‘popular government.’ It is a system of government by the people, who exercise their governance indirectly through elected representatives, a system founded on the principles of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal treatment.

Democracy (demokratia) is a system of popular support of government; popular representation (the people elect representatives to act as their voice and protect their interests); popular consultation (the elected officials know people’s needs and demands and are responsive to them); political competition (to allow the people to choose from among policies and candidates); political equality (the people can participate and compete for public office); alternation of power (political power rotates and changes hands); majority rule (with minorities’ rights protected); and free press (a responsible free press gives facts, raises public awareness, and keep leaders responsive to the people).

In the United States’ system of government, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, made clear that a government exists to serve the people who have the right to resist government directives that no longer serve the people’s will, and to replace it with a new one.

Thus, Fillon’s ‘democratic institutions’ are institutions that benefit all, inclusively.

Today’s Cambodia is far from being democratic. Democratization as a process is not democracy.

Of Leaders and Bureaucracy

Actually, two ‘governments’ are in existence simultaneously in a democracy.

One is a government of representatives elected by voters, the citizenry, to serve and protect the people’s will and interests. In this government, elected leaders stay in power for the terms specified in the Constitution. It is a ‘temporary’ government: A group of people that governs today, and will rotate its power to another group of people tomorrow. Democratic election winners do not see their victory as permanent, and democratic election losers see the setback as temporary: Today is your turn to govern; tomorrow, mine.

The other government is one that stays permanently in office regardless of which political party is in power. We refer to this government as a bureaucracy, or a civil service. Government cabinet ministries form this bureaucracy. It is a large scale organization of appointed officials, civil servants, and support staff whose major role is to carry out the policies developed by elected officials, the policy decision-makers, and to apply and follow government policy guidelines, laws, and regulations. In a democracy, the military, the police, and the courts are strictly impartial, neutral, and independent, with functions well defined by the Constitution, and are not instruments to serve elected leaders’ personal wishes.

In today’s Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party rule through fear and intimidation, bribes and deceits. The government in place is in no way illustrative of the concepts represented by the Greek word ‘Demokratia.’

Yet, Cambodian democrats should remember that though bureaucrats are technically subordinate to elected or appointed officials, as career governmental personnel and support staff they can, nevertheless, influence their boss’s policy decisions in several important ways. They can inject the bureaucracy’s perspective and values when they pass on information to the decision-makers; they can provide a recommendation that favors their department’s views; and they can shape events by tempering the efficiency with which certain policies are carried out.

Thus, regime opponents should connect with, and persuade Cambodia’s bureaucrats to come up with creative measures that can influence Hun Sen’s policies to benefit the struggle for freedom – and even to derail what damages the people’s interests.

Change is Possible
Buddha says, ‘Nothing is permanent,’ and that ‘Everything changes.’ He also teaches, ‘He is able who thinks he is able.’

I wrote about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.’ Gladwell posits that ‘a bedrock belief that change is possible’ is what underlies the ‘successful epidemics’ that bring change. He said we might think the world around us may seem like ‘an immovable, implacable place,’ when it actually isn’t. He advised, ‘With the right kind of impetus … the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.’

“Believe you can and you’re halfway there,” said President Theodore Roosevelt. “Yes, we can,” and Barack Obama became the first non-white American to become president of the most powerful country in the world.

Hun Sen’s grip on power may seem irreversible. But it’s not. Remember Tunisia. On Dec. 17, 2010, a 26-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, from the hardscrabble town of Sidi Bouzid, some 200 miles south of Tunis, was slapped and beaten by authorities following a disagreement about his permission to sell his fruits. Bouazizi was denied an opportunity to lodge his complaint. In despair and as a protest, he doused himself in paint thinner and lit himself on fire. His self-immolation sparked local riots that spread and turned into a tsunami of revolutionary fervor that sent an autocratic ruler of 23 years, President Ben Ali, fleeing the country. That tsunami keeps dictators near and far guessing until today.

Events, Actions, Circumstances
Some say Cambodia is not Tunisia. Others point to conventional wisdom that sees Cambodians as placid, passive, accepting, and accommodating. There’s no Cambodian Bouazizi, they say. Professor Joel Brinkley’s “Cambodia’s Curse, The Modern History of a Troubled Land” may paint Cambodians as pathetically unable to bring change to their country, a thesis I don’t accept. I nevertheless like the book and many things Brinkley said in it. Yet, I maintain that change is not only desirable in Cambodia, it is possible in today’s Cambodia under Hun Sen. Some express pessimism because the challenges are steep, but they are not impossible to be overcome.
Ms. Sochua presented some significant statistics about Cambodia: Four million Cambodians live below the poverty line; over a million have lost their homes, their land, and the source of their livelihood to a government that needed their land for economic development; almost a million hectares of land has been given in economic concessions to men and companies with ties to the CPP through 99-year leases.

Visit Khmer websites to see how Cambodian opposition organizations are increasing in number inside and outside the country, offering public forums and training, and with daily public demonstrations here and there – a testimony to the efforts being made to bring change. A video, “Stories of Change,” on YouTube shows change is taking place.

I have created and posted on YouTube several PowerPoint presentation comprised of photos of events that occurred in Cambodia, accompanied by Khmer music and songs. I intended the presentations to inform and to educate, and I’m glad some Cambodian and non-Cambodian viewers have written to tell me they found the slide shows informative and educational. Some have asked that I provide written context to describe the photos.

In the presentations viewers can see some photos of what Asian Times Online’s Julie Masis, a Cambodia-based journalist, called the “bustling urban metropolis” of Phnom Penh with tall buildings and fast food restaurants marking the rapid rate of economic growth (9 percent annually) over the past decade. Viewers can also see the dark side of this rapid expansion: Forced eviction at Boeng Kak Lake, a community of some 4,000 families, with a giant metal tube pumping sandy water to fill the lake, flooding and burying people’s homes; a back hoe pulling down homes, uniformed police with sticks forcing people to lie on the ground while their thatched homes were set on fire.

Last week a ceremony took place at Boeng Kak Lake to inaugurate construction of a 133-hectare housing and commercial project by a firm linked to a senator of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Several hundred families who remained at the Lake continued to fight furiously against their eviction.

The divide between the very rich and the very poor is wide and growing.

In the PowerPoints, viewers can see how increasing arbitrary and oppressive measures by the regime have resulted in some localized rioting, such as in Kompong Speu where 200 villagers with wooden sticks, knives, and slingshots, battled and routed 300 police sent to evict the families from their land. For a people known for their peaceful and accommodating nature to battle police and post a banner under Hun Sen’s photo, ‘Would die for ricefields,’ is revealing of the low ebb of Khmer patience.

As Ms. Mu Sochua said in her Phnom Penh Post column, “The only way to stop those people fighting for justice is for the ruling party to realize that sharing power is a must.”

But why should an autocrat accept to share power when he’s in complete control? A Cambodian opposition figure said, “Nothing will stop those who want a government that reflects the true will of the people from starting an Arab Spring in Cambodia.” The politician viewed Hun Sen’s warning that he will close the door and beat the dog as evidence of his past background as a Khmer Rouge commander.

“Work out your own salvation”
While I believe events, actions, and circumstances can converge to precipitate a tipping point of change, it seems that unless opponents to Hun Sen’s autocratic rule can overlook one another’s shortcomings, and unite toward a common goal, the struggle against oppression and for the rights and freedom of the Cambodian people is at risk.
As a United States forefather, Benjamin Franklin, said more than 200 years ago, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Hun Sen has affirmed that he and the ruling CPP will be happy to hang opponents, one by one.

There is an element of desperation in some Cambodians’ hope that the international community will insist, at this late date, on the implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accord. In fact it was the warring Khmer factions that disregarded the Accord soon after it was signed. The Accord is a dead letter, and opponents to Hun Sen’s autocracy are on their own.

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may,” Buddha told mankind 2,500 years ago. He advised not to rely on others but to “Work out your own salvation.”

Thus, Cambodians of different political tendencies must unite, move on steadfastly with their activities, increase pressure on the dictatorship, and believe that nothing is so firmly rooted that it cannot be changed. If the rights spots are pushed at the right time, change will occur.

As Roman philosopher Seneca said more than two thousand years ago, “A kingdom founded on injustice never lasts.”



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

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-032-2011
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 18-08-2011