Washington, DC, United States, — No stone has been left unturned by writers in Cambodia and abroad in exposing the Hun Sen regime’s violations of human rights and lack of good governance. Endless appeals for change have been made by reputable national and international nongovernmental organizations.
But this is merely water off a duck’s back to the regime. It’s futile. Besides, the duck may even enjoy the water.
A former comrade-in-arms, now in the ranks of Premier Hun Sen’s armed forces – neutralized, sidelined and mistrusted, like others who chose to remain in the country and join Sen to earn enough money to live – tells me of the ruling Cambodian elite’s philosophy: “Write all you want until the cows come home. Nothing will change until we are ready. Besides, we can sue you!”
But Sen and his elite continue to fatten themselves with amassed wealth as they ride above the law, while the poor scavenge city dumps for food and are evicted from their land so it can be developed for others’ profit. The country’s natural resources are looted for personal gain, and many in the international community continue business as usual with Sen because it’s profitable.
It is an evident truth that the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, intended to establish democracy in the country, were never implemented.
Many have been sued by the government; the main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, faces jail should he return to Phnom Penh from Paris. Earlier, royalist opposition leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of King Sihanouk, half-brother of current King Sihamoni, swore off politics to be allowed to return from self-imposed exile in Malaysia. Ranariddh is quiet; as all the royals are quiet. The king continues to be Sen’s rubber stamp – even signing a royal decree nominating a neighboring country’s fugitive leader as advisor to the government.
Not that Cambodians and non-Cambodians don’t see and don’t know these things. They do, but most don’t think these things affect them directly and personally. Worse, many brush off what is unpleasant as they scapegoat others, assign blame and absolve themselves from culpability.
“There’s none so blind as those who will not see,” a saying goes.
Another former comrade-in-arms who has read my columns over the years and is now also with the Sen regime, asked me, “You still want to transform ducks into peacocks?” The Greek philosopher Plato said long ago: “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”
Plato’s “fools” are dangerous because they are ignorant. Martin Luther King observed, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Last week, I emailed an acquaintance two quotes, one from prominent psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, “The system isn’t stupid, but the people in it are”; and another from Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Who and what people are, I wrote, determine their actions. Thus, we must begin change with ourselves.
Back to Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Although Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party do have support inside and outside the country, Cambodian Action Committee for Justice and Equity president Serey Ratha Sourn’s pertinent question deserves consideration. “If Hun Sen and the ruling party have no fear of Cambodians at the grassroots level rising up at the right time in a People Power against them, why did he and the CPP rush a new criminal code limiting the number of demonstrators and block the rights of expression?”
Sourn doesn’t believe that an election in contemporary Cambodia would have any meaning. With power concentrated in the same hands that suppress dissent, trample laws and instill fear, Sen is certain to win and the election is only a tool to legitimize his oppression.
A grassroots activist, Sourn sees “People Power” as possible, and as the only route to bring change. He and his supporters are working to implement a strategy of “One Mission, One Message and One Multitude” – Sourn’s three M’s. So they devote their time to setting up networks of people, monks and youth.
While a Western reader wrote that “most people” in Cambodia “have accommodated to the prevailing political situation” and are moving on “to make ends meet rather than worry about how change could be brought about,” some Cambodians in the country have told me the people need to read my articles, but in the Khmer language – confirming Sourn’s and others’ contention that as Cambodians understand, they will rise up.
Talk of creating a government-in-exile has dissipated. Such an action would be futile. It would be easy to create and announce it. World governments might sympathize with Cambodians’ plight, but realpolitik dictates that they balance between the devil they know and the devil they don’t know.
Some history does seem to repeat. As it was in the 1970s and 1980s with the Cambodian Non-Communist Resistance and the associated coalition government, in the final analysis, foreigners called the shots.
Cambodians, like others in the world, are generally impatient with slow results in an era of push-buttons and of instant gratification. Many want change in Cambodia – and wish a government-in-exile or armed resistance would produce the change.
It is those impatient Cambodians who scoff at retired Johns Hopkins professor Rananhkiri Tith’s call for a “systematic overhaul” of Cambodian society as a way to slow down and perhaps “save” Cambodia from disintegration. Tith’s scheme would take a long time to be successful.
Lasting change has a chance as a population becomes more educated. But it could take 20 years before education bears fruit.
Sadly, while the Sen regime consolidates its power, his critics are in disarray. Cambodians have learned since their youth, “l’union fait la force,” or unity is strength. And many have learned U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin’s words, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” as he called on American rebels either to band together or find themselves hung individually at the British gallows. Thus, E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one: the 13 colonies banded together as the United States of America.
Thus 233 years later, in July 2009, the 44th U.S. president, Barack Obama, told Ghana’s Parliament, “We must start with a simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans,” and, “With strong institutions and a strong will, I know that Africans can live their dreams.”
Cambodians should hear Obama’s words.