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Cambodia: Activists Need Foreign Support

FOR PUBLICATION
AHRC-ETC-035-2012
November 15, 2012

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

Cambodia: Activists Need Foreign Support, But They Themselves Must End Autocratic Rule

In my adult life, even as a political scientist conscious of the use petitions as a method of nonviolent action and persuasion, I have signed only three.

I signed a first petition a few years ago. The text comprised opposition to land grabbing in Cambodia. In the second and third, I joined others in appealing to President Obama not to visit Cambodia and participate in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Phnom Penh until the Cambodian regime agrees to release Beehive radio station director Mam Sonando; to allow opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia to participate in the 2013 elections; and to undertake reforms as suggested by United Nations Special Rapporteur Professor Surya Subedi.

Yet, I am more a student of the school of realism, power and national interest that acknowledges those elements as primary predictors of a state’s foreign policy actions.

United States President Obama is scheduled to be in Cambodia on November 17-20.

London-based Global Witness director Patrick Alley warned that those in Phnom Penh "simply don't listen" to urgings, and called on the European Union and the United States to "make their aid contingent on ensuring that democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Cambodia are strengthened."

The Asian Human Rights Commission which characterizes the world community as offering "nothing more than empty words" for the people of Cambodia and other peoples with similar problems, questioned the commitment of the United States and other countries: "When things are clearly negative can the United States as well as others ignore that situation and claim that they are committed to the promotion of democracy, rule of law and human rights in Cambodia"?

The AHRC sees the problem going to "the very root" of the Paris agreements and the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia: "Were not all these ventures merely an attempt to have an election to elect a government for Cambodia only? Did they have any bearing on democracy, rule of law and human rights?"

As democracy, rule of law and human rights cannot exist in Cambodia without a "professional civilian policing system and a competent and independent judiciary," AHRC urges Obama to "initiate a process (for) a proper understanding of the problems involved" with their development in Cambodia as a first step toward some "infrastructural developments relating to democratization, rule of law and human rights."

International and domestic rights groups have lined up to urge Obama to take a strong stand against rights abuses by the government in Cambodia.

I have often written that Cambodian democracy activists need and welcome international support for their cause, but in the end they are on their own and must rely on themselves to bring about change in the country. In Lord Buddha's words, "Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others." Unfortunately, though Cambodia is a country in which most profess to be followers of Buddhism, the ideal of adherence to principles that condemn "evil" acts and impure thoughts seems elusive.

A beginning

In an e-mail from Cambodia from a former comrade-in-arms in the Non-Communist Resistance that fought Vietnam's 1979 military invasion and occupation of the country, he vents his frustrations at the difficulties in trying to persuade the people to understand they are agents of change. My friend spoke of developing "thinking power" (quality thinking?) in a people who have little or no education and poorly developed capacity for logical reasoning.

Last month, my article in this space, The Citizens must help themselves, adapted from my speech to the Cambodian National Conference in Arlington, Virginia, dealt at considerable length with the entrenched Khmer mentality and culture that makes change to the status quo very difficult. Yet, even in such a place as Cambodia has become, change is possible and is never too late. It must begin with Cambodians on the ground taking the lead. Although some people have innate abilities to lead, leadership can be taught and learned, and leaders can be developed.

A few days ago, a young Cambodian graduate in political science from India's Pune University, Ou Ritthy, raised an important and pertinent question in his article, The country's contradictory development policy, published by the Asian Human Rights Commission, about Cambodians' habit of relying on foreigners to help solve problems. He wrote about Cambodian politicians' inclination to sit, talk, and discuss solutions, "only when foreigners act as mediators," and that the Cambodian government releases rights activists "only after foreigners like Americans or Europeans intervene." Ritthy asked: "Can't we, Cambodians, do this ourselves?"

It seems Cambodians are now asking publicly about themselves -- that is progress. A day after Ritthy's article, there was a discussion on the Internet by a Cambodian group about who is more a threat, Cambodia's eastern or western neighbor. A discussant presented his view, "for me the most worrying threat to our nation is ourselves. Many of us consistently downplay that threat and prefer instead to point finger at the neighbors."

Not long ago, a manuscript with restricted circulation written by a former American foreign service officer dealt poignantly with what the writer called Cambodians' "dependency syndrome" and all that the term entails, including displacement, blame, avoidance of responsibility, among others – a manuscript worth reading.

Incidentally, I see the annual Cambodian gatherings in different foreign capitals to appeal to the international community to "reactivate" or "implement" the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, as a perfect example of the "syndrome." Of course, Cambodians don't like that I think so. Even so, not one signatory power nor the United Nations organization has responded with a willingness to initiate the reactivation or implementation of the Paris Accords.

A Cambodian speaker told the Cambodian National Conference participants with gentle humor that one would be wise when being beaten time and again in Taekwondo tournaments to rethink his/her combat techniques and self-defense, or to look for a new martial art master! Listeners laughed but the speaker was not joking. I, too, reminded the conference of Albert Einstein's oft-quoted definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

A reminder, once more

As I have noted previously, I never desired to be a politician or a statesman, and left the Khmer Nationalist Resistance at the Khmer-Thai border before the development of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements. I chose a teaching career in the United States because I never believed the Khmer Rouge or their descendents (Khmer Rouge defectors who fill today's government) were capable of "national reconciliation." Free and fair elections with them were an illusion.

As a teacher and an educator, I follow the conventional goals of a political scientist: To describe as accurately as possible; to explain (interpret) and analyze (look for causes and effects); to forecast what is to come; and to suggest future course(s) of action. This practice is evidenced in my writings. Readers' actions and reactions to what I write are their own.

Based on my direct experiences, my schooling, and my political socialization process, I write to share and hope my friend in Cambodia – and other democracy activists – will be inspired and gain insights to carry on the struggle against autocracy.

A framework

Today, with a simple click of a mouse, we can acquire untold information and learn about anything. But no person learns anything if he or she doesn't want to. We can know a lot. To know a fact is good, but information and knowing are not knowledge. We are capable of storing quantities of data in our brains, but unless we can relate data to other facts and to other situations all around, and unless we can sort, evaluate, and synthesize, all that specific knowledge we acquire is like "rocks in a box." We must learn how to exercise those attributes of synthesis and analysis. Learning may require relearning and unlearning.

Reproductive thinking

Humans are best at reproductive thinking (thinking the same way as they have always thought); and at self-piloted, fossilized responses (acting automatically in the same way as they have always acted). There is no thought required. Happy this way? Why change?

Humans are biologically and socially conditioned. We are conditioned to fear failure, to have low tolerance for risk, to be obsessed with labels, to think in black and white, and constantly look for an easy way out. In anthropology, human beings are seen as creators of their own webs of significance.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt elaborates: Humans live in a world of their own creation, a world of "insults, opportunities, status symbols, betrayals, saints, and sinners." They believe in that world. Haidt reminds us all the world's cultures possess an "excessive and self-righteous tendency to see the world in terms of good versus evil" -- "We are good, they are evil" -- or a "moralism (that) blinds people" and makes agreement, compromise, peaceful coexistence difficult. Haidt encourages us not only to "respect" but to "learn" from those whose morality differs from our own.

Two thousand five hundred years ago, Lord Buddha taught that our capacity to think makes us what we are. In the 19th century, American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) wrote: "The ancestor of every action is a thought." Today, Burma's human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi echoes: "Action comes out of thought."

Productive quality thinking

An advocate of direct action as a route to social change, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically."

An opinion, however, is not thought. Thinking is hard work. All thinking is not of the same quality; left to ourselves much of our thinking is "biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced" But the ability to think well can be taught and learned and includes the development of both critical and creative thinking skills. The first is an analytical skill, the second empowers us to expand our horizons and see new paths.

Aung San Suu Kyi believes every person is capable of developing a "questing mind" – a mind that always questions and always seeks answers. She urges every person to develop that questing mind. As The Foundation of Critical Thinking puts it, "A mind with no question is a mind that is not intellectually alive." The Foundation says, it's impossible to be a good thinker and a poor questioner.

Tim Hurson of a firm that provides global corporations with training, facilitation, and consultation in productive quality thinking and innovation, advises us to "keep asking new questions" and to "resist the urge" to reach a conclusion. A conclusion, by definition, suggests that there is no need for more information, as all questions have been answered.

Behaviorists urge us to avoid reproductive thinking, through which we engage in repetitive thought and response patterns. As Hurson puts it, "patterned thoughts box us in and hold us back from being as creative as we could be." Skilled at following old patterns and at not developing new thoughts and actions, we humans are prisoners of patterning.

The Foundation of Critical Thinking urges us to "think through," to avoid asking peripheral questions but to focus on asking essential questions that deal with "what is necessary, relevant, and indispensable" to a matter we examine. Essential questions "drive thinking forward." An incurious mind does not engage in substantive learning.

Some Cambodians' observations

Cambodians today who are engaged in political discourse are inclined toward debate that belittles or deprecates those who disagree rather than to respectful discussion that produces a useful dialogue in which multiple points of view can be safely shared.

Humility – the opposite of vanity, arrogance, and pride – is in short supply among many Cambodians, who tend to personalize and who like the sensational. It seems that regardless of what topic someone discusses, someone else echoes the same thoughtless messages.

This self-righteous approach breeds a climate of accusation and counter-accusation, and demonization of those who do not share one's opinions. That outsider is likely to be branded a "traitor," a "Vietnamese spy."

Cambodians' environment fits a model described by political columnist John Avalon in his book, Wingnuts, which describes American "professional partisans ... unhinged activists ... hard-core haters ... paranoid conspiracy theorists" who are submerged in a "hydra-headed hysteria" – cut off one accusation, another emerges in its place. Accusation and demonization may hurt and wound another, but they do not promote one's agenda.

Two Cambodians have shared their views through electronic media. James Sok, a systems administrator, and Dr. Lao Monghay, a former senior researcher of the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Sok's three-paragraph piece in Khmer entitled Ignorance is our big problem, posted on the Internet, touched a nerve. He wrote: Cambodians enjoy fabricated stories and perpetrating historical fictions (for example, Queen Monique is alleged to be Vietnamese); Cambodians don't care for serious study on important issues (for example, the deaths of a few million Khmers during the 1975-1979 rule of Pol Pot are said to have been perpetrated by the Vietnamese). For these comments and others, Sok has been subject to considerable personal invective.

In Dr. Lao Monghay's interview broadcast over Radio Free Asia, Lao incited some Cambodians with his statement that Cambodians spend too much time and energy on long-settled territorial disputes involving Koh Tral island and Kampuchea Krom. Now, he suggested, it is time to build friendship and harmony with their neighbors. Dr. Lao, too, has suffered severe and unwarranted personal attacks from his countrymen for expressing this view. Both Sok and Lao are demonized on the Internet as having Khmer bodies with Vietnamese heads.

Sok and Lao said they would not let go of their intellectual integrity, "a rare commodity in the world these days," says Lao; "We have an opinion and others have theirs." "I'm welcoming evidence or reasons to prove me wrong and then we'll have the truth of the matter."

An Arab proverb goes, "Examine what is said, not him who speaks."

Concluding remarks

Here's a thought worth reflection: There are only two kinds of problems, ones that can be solved and those that cannot. Cambodian democracy activists would do well to solve the solvable problem immediately and they should resort to productive quality and positive thought to tackle the problem that appears intractable.

I suggested to the Cambodian National Conference that democracy activists establish long term goals and short term objectives, institute guiding principles for their behavior toward one another and in the wider world, and begin the process of change with areas that constitute common ground for most Khmers. To alleviate fear that a removal of the iron-fisted regime would unleash instability and chaos, it is urgent that activists incorporate guiding principles found in the many great belief systems in the world, and especially in Buddhist principles, into their thoughts and actions.

The time for attempting reconciliation with dictators has passed. The dictators don't cooperate, and they hold on to power through oppressive measures. They sell the nation's natural wealth, they evict people from their homes and their land. Democracy and rights activists need to pool time, energy, money and talent to develop nonviolent strategies that will initiate the end of the dictatorship. Many with expertise in nonviolent action methods have been offering training workshops for Cambodian activists, who should not let this opportunity pass.

As Buddha teaches mankind, "Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone."


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The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

# # #

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.

Visit our new website with more features at www.humanrights.asia.

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