Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Obama's words ring true for Cambodians too

By Gaffar Peang-Meth
July 22, 2009

Washington, DC, United States, — U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech to a special session of Ghana’s Parliament during his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa earlier this month could well have been addressed to Cambodia’s Parliament and the Cambodian people. “We must start with a simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans,” Obama said. Africa could be replaced with “Cambodia” and Africans with “Cambodians.”

Obama declared, “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy; that is tyranny. And now is the time for it to end. With strong institutions and a strong will, I know that Africans can live their dreams whether in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Congo, or in Ghana,” he said.

Referring to those who have stood up for democratic principles despite grave danger, he said, “Make no mistake. History is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power.”

There is nothing new in stating that a nation’s future is up to its people. Leaders and politicians have said that throughout history. But Obama added, “With strong institutions and a strong will,” people can live their dreams. So can Cambodians.

Two weeks ago, I wrote in my column in this space that the 1991 Paris Peace Accords promised Cambodia a liberal democracy whose citizens could enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms. After being subjected to three years, eight months and 20 days of former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s rule and the loss of an estimated 1.7 million lives, the Paris Peace Accords offered Cambodia and its citizens the best anyone could have wished for.

Yet, almost 18 years after the accords were signed, Cambodia is neither a liberal democracy nor do the people enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms.

The 18 signatory states to the Oct. 23, 1991 Final Act had declared “to commit themselves to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.” But their commitment has fallen short.

Denial – a defense mechanism to escape from unpleasant reality or a painful truth – is not a monopoly of any group in particular but a general human behavior. But one who accuses others generally seeks to absolve himself from culpability for an unforeseen consequence.

As the signatory states to the peace accords and Cambodia’s faction leaders vowed commitment to liberal democracy in Cambodia and to human rights and fundamental freedoms for the Cambodian people, the unsuccessful attainment of the common goals is a collective failure.

A respected Western commentator said the “international community can assist in creating the opportunity for a more democratic system, but it cannot force the local politicians to behave in a democratic fashion.” True, the accords provided precisely that – the opportunity for a more democratic system.

“Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy,” stipulated the accords, which outlined in Cambodia’s Constitution provisions for the powers and limitations of each of the three branches of government – a system of separation of powers and checks and balances – and for conflict resolution through regular channels, among other things.

The architect of the European Union, Jean Monnet, said, “Nothing is possible with men; nothing is lasting without institutions.” And the great forefather of the American Constitution, James Madison, said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

While Madison saw people as the primary control over government, he counseled the need for “auxiliary precautions” when framing a government “administered by men over men.”

Keeping in mind the warnings of Monnet and Madison, it is nevertheless true that men create, staff, and run admirable as well as corrupt institutions. Consequently, the man or woman at the helm of a political ship will carry sway over the course of the nation.

A leader of high integrity, high values, and strong democratic beliefs would steer Cambodia’s ship to a better shore than those who sell the nation’s natural resources for private gain; evict the weak and the underprivileged from their land to allow development by the wealthy and the powerful; sue and lift the immunity of lawmakers; and jail or run out of the country those whose words and opinions differ from theirs.

One Western commentator wondered if Cambodia ever had the social and cultural basis for democracy to succeed, and a Cambodian commentator spoke of the necessity to empower institutions to enable the country to follow a course of liberal democracy in which the peoples’ constitutional rights were secure.

Indeed, the Paris Peace Accords provide a good foundation for liberal democracy and for human rights and freedom of the Cambodian people. But the bottom line is that Cambodians need to strive toward these goals, and foreign donors need to insist on the application of the framework outlined in the Accords, with a consequence attached for non-compliance.

Man can learn, unlearn, and relearn. Encourage man to think freely, to innovate and not to shy away from risks; dare man to read, write and speak without fear; instill in man hope, which specialists define as “energy and ideas that drive people to change their circumstances,” to reach goals, to have motivation, and to seek improvement. This is the road to a better way for Cambodians.

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