Initially, I planned to write about US President Barack Obama’s visit to Cambodia, during which he reportedly spoke forcefully to Cambodian premier Hun Sen regarding the administration’s abysmal record of human rights violations. But e-mails from Cambodians in the country and abroad reoriented my focus, hence, today’s article.

Don’t like to read

Last week, a young political science graduate from a foreign university vented his frustrations in an e-mail from Cambodia at many Cambodian compatriots who don’t like to read. If they don’t read, they don’t learn. And if reading articles is painful, they certainly won’t read an entire book!

He observed with frustration that there is no learning without reading, and life is not meaningful if one has no basis to compare, to understand, to improve. He dismissed suggestions that there is a dearth of reading material available in Cambodia. Cambodia, he said, lacks people who want to read.  Across the oceans I can sense his irritation– vexations of a young man who has put hours of hard work into a second language, to earn a degree from a reputable university. Now, back in his homeland, he is working to sensitize his relatives, friends, and colleagues to value education as a key to personal and national development. I have never met this young man. He sought me out through the Internet when he was a student. We discussed political socialization and political culture as he considered ways to bring about change to Cambodia’s status quo and to better serve society.

Still young, must think of living longer

A few days ago, he wrote about the low price growers received for their rice harvest. This has negatively affected his parents’ livelihood. As a result he may have to forego advanced studies and continue working so that his four siblings may finish their education in Cambodia.

Nevertheless, this young man remains committed to improving governance in Cambodia. To that end, he attended a recent workshop in Phnom Penh on the topic of governance and reform. He was disheartened by this meeting of “civil servants, military, police and royal armed forces” personnel. They rejected the need for adherence to the rule of law by a politically impartial police and military, blindly citing the regime’s party line in support of that position. During the coffee break, some told him that he is an “extremist,” that he is still “too young and still has a long time to live”; they advised him to be careful and live longer!

I have been made aware of this kind of threat and intimidation before – orchestrated accidents that take lives. Some incidents like the story of an armored vehicle from a security unit deliberately hitting a driver who had exited his vehicle at a security checkpoint.  The driver was hospitalized for three months as a result.  Other Cambodians relate stories of food poisoning and break-ins, among other violations.

Human Rights Watch published a 68-page report, Tell Them That I Want to Kill Them: Two Decades of Impunity in Hun Sen’s Cambodia. It describes cases of unsolved killings of more than 300 political activists, journalists, opposition politicians, among others by Hun Sen’s security forces since the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements. It identifies many senior Cambodian government officials involved in serious abuses and their current positions in the administration.

The report’s title is said to be a quote from the then deputy-chief of Hun Sen’s bodyguard, Hing Bun Heang. He answered a journalist’s question about his reported role in the killing of 16 people in the 1997 hand grenade attack that wounded Sam Rainsy. Heang was promoted to lieutenant-general and is currently deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

The report was released before Obama’s trip to Cambodia. It called for systemic reforms.

Dislike politics, Love ‘Thveu Bon’

At about the same time as my recent correspondence with the young graduate, an e-mail from a leader of a Cambodian non-governmental organization asked for my thoughts on an attitude she found to be prevalent among Khmers inside and outside the country. She wrote, many Khmers profess to dislike politics, an involvement they see as “scary.” She said they prefer Thveu Bon, engaging in a religious ceremony to earn merit in this life in order to cross into a “beautiful next life”; and that the hardships and sufferings of the people are a product of karma that sufferers must endure. This way of thinking is, she asserts, an impediment to the creation of a dynamic society of citizens engaged in improving circumstances for everyone.

Misdirected political socialization, a stagnant political culture, and the unavailability of high quality education are among the elements that cause such beliefs and behaviors to proliferate.


Those who profess to dislike politics have themselves practiced politics throughout their lives. We all exercise political skills on a daily basis as we navigate through life.

In China, early Chinese settlers practiced politics 350,000 years ago! They migrated, organized, worked together, planned, and made decisions. This included the use of psychological and physical power, the development of effective procedures on the best ways to attain objectives and goals to keep their settlements safe and prosperous. Each person, each group, seeks to maximize his/her or its interests as s/he defines them. In general, the human person develops interests comprising good health, the meeting of economic needs, and a degree of contentment in life.

Politics refers to human activities in their interpersonal relationships to achieve targeted objectives and goals. There are family politics, peer group politics, office politics, pagoda politics, community politics, national politics and world politics.

When Cambodians, like many a people, say they “hate” politics, they usually mean the politics of government: They don’t like demagoguery, demonization of opponents, corruption, cruelty, the accumulation of power, or the trampling of the rights of the less-privileged.

But didn’t Lord Buddha teach against the “evils of the tongue” that humans practice? Didn’t Buddha teach mankind to do all good, avoid all evil, and purify the mind?

There is an old saying, “You get the government you deserve.” It means in a democracy, citizens can take actions to elect candidates they deem best to form a government to serve them, or citizens can remain inactive and get a government that doesn’t serve them well.

Classical Greeks used the term politikos to describe the relationships between the citizens and their city state. In the 5th century, Athens emerged as the world’s first democracy: demos means people, kratia means government – demokratia, a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Athens was built on the principle that citizens’ free and well-informed participation in Athens’ affairs was an honor and the duty of every citizen.

But as my young correspondent noted, without reading one does not learn about his/her own and his/her government’s rights and duties.

It is worth recalling that when the French General, Charles de Gaulle entered politics, he declared, “I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”

How “serious a matter” is politics? According to China’s Mao Tse-tung, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.” For England’s Winston Churchill, “In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”

More than 2,000 years ago, Greek philosopher Plato (428B.C.-347B.C.) warned that, we would end up “being governed by those who are less intelligent” or “inferior” to ourselves if we refuse to participate in politics.

“Thveu Bon” for Next Life

I have written a great deal about politics and the teachings of Buddha. But learning requires a desire to both learn and unlearn. Without the motivation to learn, as the Khmer saying goes, Doch chak toek leu kbal tia – literally, it’s like pouring water on a duck’s head.

A former Khmer Buddhist monk, Bouawat Sithi, a graduate of Thailand’s Djittabhawan College, affirmed time and again that Lord Buddha never taught humankind to believe in fate, but “to believe in our own action (karma).” He lamented that Buddha’s teaching has been incorrectly taught and understood. This has led to the situation where many Cambodians have been overwhelmed with “egoism, anger, greed, delusion, desire, craving, hate and aversion.”

“Nothing is permanent,” Lord Buddha says, and he preaches, “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done,” Buddha says, and “We are what we think, with our thought we make the world.” Men and women are masters of their own destiny.  We should be self-reliant and take responsibility for our own lives, Buddha urges, and “work out your own salvation.”

Believe in ourselves?

In my last article I quoted from Cambodian Ou Ritthy’s article, published by AHRC, about the Cambodians’ habit of relying on foreigners to help solve problems. Politicians sit and talk “only when foreigners act as mediators,” the government releases rights activists “only after foreigners . . . intervene.” “Can’t we, Cambodians, take these actions ourselves?” Ritthy asked.

Last week, Cambodian Pong Pheakdey Boramy’s writing in Facebook and communication posted on the Internet, spoke of Cambodians’ excitement to see President Obama. “He came, he came out of his airplane”! Boramy wrote: “What I learned is we actually do not rely and trust in ourselves . . . we do not trust ourselves but Obama . . . to help our country.”

“Why do we not choose to be ourselves, to believe in ourselves?” Boramy asked. He referenced the Phnom Penh Post and other media outlets that reported “how people felt very disappointed when Obama did not say a word to give them (a) stimulus” upon departing from Cambodia.

In spite of the enormous problems that emanate from Cambodians’ attitudes toward change, and from the lack of a broad-based quality education system, I conclude this article not pessimistically but positively because Cambodians have come a long way. Now there are increasing numbers who ask questions.  As we know, this is the first step in developing the capacity to think critically, analyze, and take action.  A questing mind is being developed.  It is late, yes, but better late than never.

The road ahead is still long and unknown. But if nothing is possible without human engagement, so I would like to think that nothing is impossible when men and women become engaged and develop the will and the imaginative creativity to achieve a goal.


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-038-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 24-11-2012