A nation of 14 million people, of whom 95 percent are Buddhist, Cambodians should be perfect actors for change. Their Lord Buddha preached, "To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life." He counseled men to be activists and "actionists." Do Cambodians who talk Buddha's talk, also walk his talk? As Buddha asked: "What good will do if you do not act upon them?"Op-Ed: Sophan Seng
December 15, 2011
An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
CAMBODIA: The people must no longer wait for Preah Batr Dhammik to come to their rescue
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth
The end of 2011 is filled with less than happy news on Cambodia and her people that dampens the holiday mood. On the first of December, Radio Free Asia presented a somber broadcast on the culture of corruption permeating Khmer youth, starting with kindergarten children, the teaching corps, and moving up to education officials in government. Allegations of corruption at this foundational level do not bode well for Cambodia's future.
The report on corruption by RFA's Keo Pich Meta began with an illustrative Khmer saying "Tumpaeng snorng russei," which refers to bamboo shoots that will grow and replace aging bamboo trees. Bamboo shoots are the nation's future pillars. The saying counsels children to go to school, study hard, become educated, to help build a prosperous country.
RFA's report describes unspecified numbers of Khmer children and youth, the bamboo shoots, who are unlikely to grow up to become strong future pillars of a broadly prosperous society. They have fallen prey to societal ills, drugs, laziness, a lack of desire to learn, an avoidance of schooling, among other things. Of course there are children and youth going to school, the report says, but in the course of their schooling it has become customary to bribe teachers for better grades so students can move to the next level.
Having learned a culture of corruption at such a young age, these small bamboo shoots will probably carry the culture of societal ills with them as they grow.
Numbing the spirit, hurting the dignity
Neither was the news from Cambodia in November encouraging to those who advocate for Cambodians' civil rights. In late November, the small community of people of Boeung Kak Lake – those left from the original 4,000-plus residents who were victims of forced eviction – took to the streets to protest against the real estate firm Shukaku Inc., owned by ruling Cambodian People's Party Senator Lao Meng Khin. The people of Boeung Kak Lake were holding on desperately to the 12.44 hectares of land that remains after the lake and adjacent 120 hectares were co-opted by the government and leased for 99 years to Shukaku for development.
News accounts and photos of the encounter are available on the Internet. Khmer women linked arms to protest injustice. Police wielding riot shields closed in on them. Women were knocked to the ground. A woman protester cut her wrist. Some women removed items of clothing and used them to hit at police. Some women protesters were arrested and taken away. A week earlier, a 33-year-old mother of 2 had jumped off the Japanese Friendship Bridge to her death: What is life when one's home and land are taken away?
Around the same time, Amnesty International released "Eviction and Resistance in Cambodia," a publication in which four Cambodian women tell stories of their struggle and hardships endured during their fight against forced removal from their homes and land. One woman of the indigenous Kuy minority tells how she leads her community to protect the land, the natural resources, and the Prey Lang forest, where the Kuy have lived for generations. The stories and the photos in Amnesty International's report are compelling. These are reinforced by the growing number of videos available on You Tube that document contemporary events in Cambodia.
Readers should log on to see "Life in a Cambodian rubbish dump," an Online posting by Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Amy Simmons, of photos by Spanish photojournalist Omar Havana. Havana spent seven months secretly documenting the lives of a Cambodian community of about 500 people who "live – or survive – in a rubbish dump" about 30 kilometers from the world-renowned Angkor Wat Temple (located some 5.5 kms north of Siem Reap city, where a hotel room can cost more than $1,500 a night).
In Havana's words, "What I saw (at the dump) was from another world." "Most of the little children are aged between three and 15 and they are always smiling – that was what shocked me." Havana quoted a little boy: "I smile all the time, I'm lucky. Today I'm going to eat this (bag of blood) and tomorrow I will see the sun again."
I felt numb reading the text and indignant at the poverty depicted in Havana's photos. Affected in spirit and in heart, I am haunted by American civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.'s observation that "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
So I grouped some photos available in the public domain of Cambodian citizens' human rights protests, made a video title "Tor Sou! – Struggle!," and put it on YouTube, accompanied by Cambodian Messenger Band's Khmer song, "Land and Life." I wrote a short note to Khmers asking that they do something to help their countrymen, the poor and marginalized; to non-Khmers, I pleaded they not forget those shown in the photos.
It was not the kind of end-of-the-year message I had in mind.
Incredibly, this video on forced eviction elicited instead some anonymous comments, both supporting and decrying the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia. Whatever happened to critical thinking that requires one to stay with the topic and ask only relevant, necessary and indispensable questions on the issue at hand?
Hurting the brain
If the images of a government orchestrating brutalities against its citizens were not dispiriting enough, Hun Sen also managed to assault those who appeal to a thoughtful audience. In public remarks, Hun Sen lambasted reporters from Radio Free Asia for their coverage of his wife and followed up with personal attacks on broadcasters from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia for coverage he deemed critical of his government. Earlier, he threatened: "Close the door, beat the dog!"
While some expatriates exclaim that a prime minister should not lose his temper and scream at reporters like that, I was considering if there is any difference between the behavior of former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen's behavior, and his former boss, Pol Pot's demand for unquestioned uniformity backed by the slogan, "No gain to keep (a person), no loss to waste (a person)".
In addition to the demoralizing news described above, Cambodia Daily reported on a finding by the UK-based Maplecroft Deforestation Index 2012, categorizing Cambodia as at "extreme risk" as "1.4 million hectares" of forest have been lost over the last decade from illegal and uncontrolled logging, large scale agro-industrial development, and weak governance. Some 60 percent of the forests "richest in biodiversity" have been lost. Cambodia ranks 9th worst for deforestation among 180 countries.
Maplecroft's analyst Granziera singled out China as "driving forest loss in Cambodia through illegal timber" collection. The Daily reported deforestation surging to new heights last year, and that rights groups alleged "land concessions have topped 2 million hectares."
Still last month, the Berlin-based Transparency International, engaged in the fight against corruption, released its Index (based on such factors as bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts), ranking Cambodia 164th (out of 183 countries) – a fall from 154th last year – with unchecked graft. Cambodia scored only 2.1 points on a 10 point scale, with 10 points indicating a corruption-free government.
Also, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal's saga continues. The KRT was meant to try people responsible for deaths of 1.7 to 2.5 million people during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, provide justice and closure for victims and their families. But it has become a show trial that ultimately will not achieve the stated aims.
Cambodians say "Chheu kbal," or "headache." It's no secret that I am one of many countrymen who seek change to the status quo.
Lord Gautama Buddha taught 2,500 years ago that "Nothing is permanent," that "Everything changes." Humans are not the children of inevitable karma: "I do believe in a fate that falls on (humans) unless they act," Buddha said. Action, on the other hand, will result in an altered outcome. Buddha said, "I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done." Thus, if we don't do anything our lot would not change; no one is responsible for our fate but ourselves. We are what we think, Buddha said, and we make the world with our thoughts.
A nation of 14 million people, of whom 95 percent are Buddhist, Cambodians should be perfect actors for change. Their Lord Buddha preached, "To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life." He counseled men to be activists and "actionists." Do Cambodians who talk Buddha's talk, also walk his talk? As Buddha asked: "What good will do if you do not act upon them?"
Change is what Cambodians in general say they want in Cambodia. Opposition parties and opponents to Hun Sen and the ruling party want regime change.
Understandable, but how?
On Nov. 25, self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy declared on the Voice of America's "Hello VOA" program, that he has "no more trust" in the Hun Sen regime, and called for "regime change": Cambodians must break off and liberate themselves from the corrupt regime that sells land and natural resources to foreign companies, gives away national territory, and now engages the people in billions of dollars of public debt that no government can pay back.
The Daily reported a Finance Ministry statement released on Nov. 7 saying by late 2010, Cambodia owed foreign countries and development partners a debt of "$3.3 billion, or 29 percent of GDP" – whereas Hun Sen claimed the debt totaled "only $2 billion"; the National Bank said the debt is $5.4 billion of which $2.5 billion was borrowed from foreign countries; while CPP legislator Cheam Yeap said the debt stood at $7 billion or 63 percent of gross domestic product. Take your pick!
On Nov. 21, three Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers resigned from the National Assembly. The purpose was to render the assembly "unconstitutional," hence, any law it enacts is not valid. Article 76 of the Constitution stipulates the National Assembly "consists of at least 120 members." Rainsy says, with three SRP members resigning, the assembly does not have 120 members, hence, it is not constitutional.
On the day Rainsy spoke of regime change from Paris, 22 SRP members and 3 members of the Human Rights Party boycotted the assembly's deliberation on the 2012 national budget law. The idea was to invalidate the law that allocates $2.7 billion in public expenditure and allows the regime to incur $1.1 billion in foreign debt through concessional loans.
But the CPP-controlled assembly met and voted 86 to 0 to pass the national budget law after only three hours of deliberation. No opposition member was present to challenge it.
The Lotus Revolutionists
The Khmer Lotus Revolutionists have attempted to group Cambodians of all political-ideological tendencies into a movement to pursue three goals: 1) to liberate Cambodia from the Vietnamese colonization; 2) to liberate the Khmer people from the dictatorship of royalists-Communist Khmer Rouge-CPP/Hun Sen "puppet of Vietnam"; and 3) eventually, to build a free, independent, democratic regime based on human rights and free choice.
The Lotus Revolution members call for a boycott of Cambodia's elections – which they charge are "rigged, manipulated, under threats and intimidation, therefore, unfair and nonfree " that only serve to "perpetuate" Vietnamization and dictatorship over the Motherland. They declare it Cambodians' "sacred duty" "not to go vote, not to register as candidates." Without effective implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the 1993 Constitution of Cambodia, the "end justifies the means (as a last resort!)" to attain their goals, they say.
Some Cambodians speak
One year ago I wrote in this space about Makara, a graduate in English literature from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, who accused Hun Sen of being "a thorn, the source of the country's many problems," but asserted "not everyone" in the current regime or in the opposition is "all virtuous" or "all evil"; that Cambodia has "good people … but we have a powerful, selfish, greedy, family-ism (sic) leader."
Makara, who gave me permission to quote him in my article, said the democrats can be an alternative to Hun Sen and cronies; that democratic values and free expression are solid essential elements of durable stability and order; and that there's no alternative to a good education for all Cambodians. He saw opposition leader Sam Rainsy as "smart and clever … but a bit cowardly to face Hun Sen." Rainsy "doesn't need to dare to walk to prison," said Makara, "but who cares for a leader speaking from abroad?"
Those were his words in 2010. Last Monday, a clearly more discouraged Makara wrote: "I have no hope for Cambodia's prosperity, nor for the future of poor Cambodians. The (economic) development is only for Chinese and Vietnamese companies, and for the Vietnamese living in Cambodia."
And there is Sambath, a young political science graduate from a foreign university who returned to Cambodia, about whom I have previously written. He said last week that as long as the current "violent" government continues its "activities disastrous to the nation, change will occur unavoidably."
Sambath's words echoed Khmer senior citizen, Lokta Mek So, who also said last week: "Distressful atmosphere is on the rise, so is the repression. If both continue, there will be a collision in few more years." But Sambath thinks in terms of "the next decade."
Even as a student, Sambath has been a strong advocate for political socialization and political acculturation as necessary catalysts for political change. He sees that the absence of "independent, critical thought" among youths and cadres of opposition parties makes the opposition's failure inevitable. "They talked and discussed in the same way I have heard their political leaders or bosses have done. They colored others in the same manner too. Sambath found the youths and cadres of the CPP to be aggressive and disciplined.
He posited that change cannot occur "now" not because the CPP is strong, but rather because the "opposition parties are hopeless," preoccupied with "dividing villagers" for votes in the elections. Then Sambath offered an opinion he had not shared in the past. He said his generation of younger people has grown "fearless" of the authorities, and "more self-confident," while Cambodians in their mid-50s and older, who have experienced social and political turmoil and war, are "too fearful" of the government, and have not been forthcoming and helpful to the younger generation.
Sambath says Hun Sen has exploited the situation psychologically, making threats of social and political unrest and war if the CPP is not in power. The logic seems to be that a weak government will be torn by internal divisions and unrest. With the CPP in power, however, there is no need to fear unrest because the government is too powerful to be challenged.
Last week, Sambath confided: "We (my peer group and all my friends) have concluded our primary objective is to raise political and social awareness among Cambodian youths through a ‘youth-educate-youth' program." He explains that the better informed will guide the less-informed to understand their "important roles" in society.
Recall Teveakor, who was introduced in my last column. He and Lokta Mek So and Sambath do not know one another. Teveakor, a homegrown activist, also believes change is inevitable, but several "most important" things need to be developed: An effective system/method of work requiring a "new thinking," "the right people" with leadership skills, a more politically aware citizenry. Not unlike Sambath or Lokta Mek So, Teveakor sees the current regime as weak, with Hun Sen the only person holding the CPP together; but regime opponents are in disarray and tend to act "without vision, plan, strategy," and are selfish, opportunistic exploiters who can be bought.
Teveakor believes that a good education and a more effective political socialization of Cambodians are the best way to bring durable change to the country, and the older generation must pass general knowledge to the younger generation and help develop more leaders.
Though he mocked Cambodians' inclination to pray for an imaginary Cambodian messiah, the mystical Preah Batr Thoarmmoek (Preah Batr Dhammik) to come to their rescue, Teveakor lamented Cambodians have no leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.
A monk named Monychenda
Recently, an e-mail from a former Buddhist monk, Bikhu Monychenda, arrived in my box. I was happy to be reconnected with him. In 1981-1982 he traveled along the Khmer-Thai border, where we met. He was in his yellow robe traveling Lord Buddha's path, and I was in the Khmer Resistance traveling a different road.
The Bikhu left the monkhood and earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1998, but has remained a "passionate Buddhist scholar writing many books and papers relating to Buddhist values," wrote an interviewer in 2008.
Monychenda's "In Search of the Dhammika Ruler" (2008) discussed Cambodia's declining "moral order." Fascinating was Monychenda's analysis from a Buddhist scholar's standpoint of what has caused Cambodians such "great suffering."
In his book (in Khmer), "Preah Batr Dhammik" or the "Just Ruler," (1991) Monychenda examined how Cambodia's rulers' failure to follow Buddha's advice (to practice the "12 duties of the great ruler"), the Buddhist monks' failure to provide adequate teaching on the dhamma (the way of life), and Cambodians' inability to understand and identify Preah Batr Dhammik, as being causes for Cambodians' suffering.
Monychenda argues that Preah Batr Dhammik is just a "title" for one who upholds Buddha's "tenfold virtues" – charity, morality, self-sacrifice, honesty, kindness, self-control, non-anger, non-violence, tolerance, conformity to the Law. As such, not just the king or ruler, but any person "can and should be" Preah Batr Dhammik in contemporary Cambodia.
"I therefore propose that Cambodians begin to actively cultivate a new Preah Batr Dhammik instead of passively waiting for Preah Batr Dhammik to appear. It is time that we start to save ourselves before a Preah Batr Dhammik arrives to perform his task."
In other words, Monychenda says, wait no longer. Each Khmer can start to develop and apply the Buddhist self-help concept – first you help yourself. I shall return to Bikhu Monychenda later in my writing.
As 2012 dawns, there are small but hopeful signs that a growing number of Cambodians – young people and scholars among them – who understand the need for Cambodians to shed their cultural tendency to be dependent and submissive and replace that with a more affirming cultural value to act on behalf of oneself and one's community as Lord Buddha has encouraged.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.