November 1, 2013
An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
As Cambodia’s government is delegitimized by ongoing political deadlock resulting from the dispute between the Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party over the outcome of July elections, it is unfortunate that very few Cambodians understand that there can be no winner in this feud. The country is stuck in stalemate and neither of the parties sees value in compromise for the good of the nation.
It is tragic that the international community that spent four billion dollars to bring the four Cambodian warring factions under the umbrella of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements today appears helpless as the free and democratic Cambodia envisioned and enshrined in the Agreements is instead a fractious place whose leader for four decades defiantly clings to power.
I have written before about this political deadlock. I am aware that Cambodian democrats are disappointed with some of my expressed views, as they have expected me to uphold the political line of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Therein is the nub of a problem when dealing with Cambodians and politics: Cambodians tend to see others as being with them or against them. Their political perspectives do not often make room for inclusive collaboration. They enter the political arena with fists clenched. Each group blames the other for the stalemate and a concept that is essential to all functional relationships – trust – is absent.
Here and there I’ve quoted the great human rights advocate, Martin Luther King, Jr.: “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
I still have some acquaintances and friends in the Monarchist, Republican, CNRP and CPP circles. Whether I was at Johns Hopkins or at the University of Guam I told my students I came to build bridges to connect one side to the other, not to widen further the gaps between them. I wrote recently about life as a series of choices and compromises. Humility helps make life more pleasurable; being considerate of others’ opinions and feelings. And so, I espoused in my writing some time ago the necessity for Cambodian Buddhists to brush up on their Lord Buddha’s teaching as guiding principles in the struggle for freedom, justice, and the rule of law.
A former political prisoner at Koh Tral during the French rule of Indochina, Boun Chan Mol, published a book in 1973, Charet Khmer, or Khmer Behavioral Traits, dealing with more than two dozen cultural traits common among Khmer which he saw as impediments to progress at best, destructive at worst, and worthy of change.
The trait ranked first among those needing to be changed is Kumnit A’thma Anh, or the Idea of “I’ism,” practiced by Khmer leaders through history, through which the idea that the leader is the best and only one qualified to lead is advanced. Chan Mol lamented Khmer leaders’ lack of any intention to develop the capacity of others to become successful leaders. He appealed to Khmer to be considerate of others’ views and to reject a self-centered opinion that is disrespectful of others. Everyone has ideas to contribute.
Among other traits, two are worth examining. In Kumnit Sangsoek Suor Pouch, Chan Mol deals with Khmer behavioral propensities for generational vendettas. These “blood feuds” are perpetuated even when the reasons for the original rift are forgotten, as actors seek to eradicate physically and by undermining their moral authority all members of families engaged in these long-standing quarrels. Kumnit Ph’chanh Ph’chal refers to the destructive propensities: Even in a physical fight when an opponent is knocked down one rushes to kick him over and over until he loses consciousness and dies. “If the fallen opponent is still breathing, this is not victory. This is charet Khmer,” or a Khmer behavioral trait.
Not all Cambodians like the writing of Boun Chan Mol, who despite his critique says at the end of his book, “I die for Khmer, am born for Khmer, and live for Khmer,” and expresses a wish to be reborn as Khmer.
Fortunately for Cambodia, the great majority of the country’s population is young and most likely not interested in nor tainted by what their elders have inherited through time. Unfortunately, many of those elders from both political parties are in the thick of today’s political impasse.
The question is can this political deadlock be broken? And how?
Absent trust, the gap that separates the two political factions seems only to have widened. Hardliners on both sides relentlessly push forward, sure that their party can be the “winner” – A’thma Anh – regardless of what the other side, or anyone else, thinks or does. There’s only one sun that shines in their universe: their sun. Those in their party with a different perspective are in danger of having their loyalty questioned. As the fabric of the political parties is frayed, the prospect for fruitful negotiations between them is lessened.
In the present Khmer context, Hun Sen and CPP strategists know they cannot govern Cambodia while half of the electorate takes to the streets to challenge their rule and demand a leadership change. The CNRP leadership, too, knows it cannot remain on the political sidelines basing the party’s relevancy on populist policies and mass protests that fortunately have been relatively peaceful and nonviolent until now.
The July 28 election was a wake-up call for Hun Sen and the CPP. The party and its leaders are not as secure in their roles as they had thought. Even with 55 parliamentary seats, an increase of nearly 30 seats from the last parliament, the CNRP won an outstanding victory. As the CPP is a bit off balance, the CNRP is basking in the popularity and support of a people known culturally to kowtow to authority but who now are active, vocal, circulating in the streets of the capital, and expressing their views and grievances against the regime and demanding leadership change without fear. Both parties eyeball one another and are carrying their political brinksmanship to an unknown conclusion.
The rhetorical duel between the two parties only fuels their rift. Both sides are responsible. One side says red, the other says blue. One side suggests, the other puts up roadblock. Both sides recognize the need to negotiate, but how can negotiations take place without trust and a political will to make things happen? How is trust developed if confidential discussions are leaked and agreements misrepresented for political purposes? How can talks get underway when the players insist upon unacceptable pre-conditions?
Meanwhile, the UN and the 18 Paris Peace Accord signatories must acknowledge that Article 3 of those agreements, affirming for Cambodians “the rights and freedoms embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant international human rights instruments” has been trampled upon, yet they conduct business as usual with the discredited government.
At a conference on ASEAN attended by academics and ASEAN officials, I declined a private impromptu lunch meeting sought by a ranking CPP official. Later, I agreed to meet the official on neutral ground. I found the gentleman, accompanied by two aides, to be likeable, pleasant, moderate, and relatively open with his views.
After friendly conversation in Khmer for a period, the official asked if I would share with him what I see as problems for his government to tackle as it seeks to bring about reforms. Rather than deal with individual issues, I spoke more broadly, suggesting that unless Hun Sen and the CPP believe there is truth in Sam Rainsy’s allegations of election fraud, the prime minister should accede to the request that a bipartisan committee investigate the assertions of irregularities.
Observing that the official was open to hearing my thoughts, I observed that his prime minister would have won admiration and support from many had he seized the moment to create a democratic balance with a CNRP in the National Assembly as a counter-balance to the Executive branch under the CPP. Its actions seem to indicate that the CPP has no desire to reconcile with the CNRP, but to divide and weaken the CNRP by sowing distrust among its rank and file toward its leadership. I expressed dissatisfaction with the Machiavellian way the Prime Minister revealed Sam Rainsy’s alleged request for the position of President of the National Assembly.
My host engaged in a provocative discussion about public and confidential agreements and asked where I have seen a minority party presiding over a legislature? I later read that those were actually Hun Sen’s words as he laughed off questions from the press. But, was it not Hun Sen himself who, after losing a national election supervised by the UN in 1993, threatened war and had himself appointed Second Prime Minister after Prince Ranariddh, First Prime Minister, thereby making the royal government with two heads, and then in 1997, before the next election, pulled a coup sending Prince Ranariddh fleeing into exile, as Hun Sen had more than 100 royalist officers and soldiers killed?
That the official was sitting and listening to my diatribe was amazingly positive to me. He took it well when I suggested he admit that at least half of the country did not vote for Hun Sen and the CPP, and that today’s Cambodians have demonstrated no fear of authority. The official responded that this lack of fear among the Khmer was thanks to Cambodia’s embrace of democracy. Not quite the case, but a fair comment, I thought.
I could not let the meeting conclude without a parting thought: From what I observed and read, today’s CPP is following a course of action similar to that undertaken by the Lon Nol regime in the 1970s. That particular strategy led to the disintegration of the Lon Nol government.
Moral of this anecdote: I reminded the smiling official of John F. Kennedy’s words, “"Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” I also recited a Khmer proverb, Sa’orb Chumpup Leu, or One (will always) encounter what one hates, and Klach chaul oy chit, or Fear something get closer.
The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.