A. Gaffar Peang-Meth
via CAAI News Media
By A. Gaffar Peang-Meth • March 24, 2010
Lord Buddha teaches, "Everything changes." This eternal truth takes me to, among many thoughts, German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes."
Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea."
My columns on Cambodia brought e-mails from Cambodians and non-Cambodians. Many supported the change in Cambodia in one form or another; some solicited ideas on how to bring change; some complained my columns left out this and that; and there were venomous comments from anonymous senders .
People who reject what doesn't conform to their thinking generally put up a roadblock against new knowledge.
I have mentioned a Web site by retired Johns Hopkins professor Naranhkiri Tith, a Cambodian who migrated to the United States in 1960 and later became a naturalized citizen. He is author of a forthcoming book, "Internal and External Factors Underlying Cambodia's Ongoing Tragedy Since Independence (1953-2010): Reflection of a Cambodian Expatriate." It purports to explain reasons for Cambodia's slow disintegration, based on "what I knew, observed, and understood about main events and personalities (practically all notable contemporary Cambodian leaders) and their role" in Cambodia's tragedy.
Tith says the book's "main purpose" is to "attempt to challenge (the) various aspects of Cambodian conventional wisdom, and its impact on the destiny of the Cambodian people and society."
Tith knows his blunt language and hard-hitting style compromise his popularity with the generally passive, accepting and non-confrontational Cambodians. And he knows many are interested in what he has to say.
Tith lists four purposes for his Web site: the search for "real and lasting justice" for Cambodia's people; the "rebuilding" of a shattered society on the basis of international legal/judicial standard; the debunking of the myth of Vietnamese "liberation" of Cambodia; and the publication of "open and constructive" articles on issues affecting Cambodia's destiny.
The site contains interesting sections: news and analysis; the Khmer Rouge trial; the role of King Father Sihanouk in the Cambodian tragedy; and an analysis of the "fundamentals" -- raison d'etre, ideology, organization, strategy and tactics -- of Vietnam's "Nam Tien" (southward movement), the understanding of which, Tith says, is "necessary but not sufficient for a successful roadmap to freedom."
I find Tith's "A Suggested Roadmap to Freedom for the Cambodian People" most significant.
Tith sees Cambodia as "a failed state," -- systematic and pervasive corruption; a concentration of wealth and land ownership; a gross abuse of rights; a politicization of the judiciary; uncontrolled illegal Vietnamese immigrants. On Cambodia's external problems, he sees a less problematic future with democratic Thailand than with autocratic and totalitarian Vietnam.
To break the stronghold on power by Vietnam-supported and Sihanouk-backed Premier Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party, Tith calls for "isolating Sihanouk" and protection and implementation of Cambodia's constitution. He suggests Cambodians learn from the experiences of Thai and Vietnamese societal reforms, and start reforming Cambodia's own society from within.
Tith sees the "main causes" of Cambodia's economic, institutional, legal, political and social problems as resting mainly on "the legacy of the past, especially the institution of the monarchy," which has instilled in the people "blindness and irrational trust and belief" in the "god-king" concept.
Combining the monarchy's "pervasive and crushing role" with "the conservative nature of the Cambodian society, such as the belief in prophesies and the rigidity in social organization and behavior," Tith argues, has produced "inertia and the inability to allow new ideas and capable leadership, and entrepreneurial spirit to emerge."
What to do?
"Only by a progressive and systematic overhaul of the Cambodian society" can these problems be improved gradually to enable the people "to survive and prosper."
Tith sees as important issues: dealing with extreme income inequality between the "few politically powerful families and friends" and the peasants; making the rich and the powerful pay due wealth and income tax; using expected income from oil and gas resources to develop intellectual and physical infrastructures; dismantling the monopoly of Vietnamese-owned SOKIMEX company in industrial and financial sectors; adopting an anti-corruption law; setting up a program of economic structural diversification backed by reform in the quality and level of education to bring about an increased level of productivity and competitiveness; making the judiciary independent and non-political; and instituting "an honest, capable, and responsible government."
The United Nations and nongovernmental organizations can help here.
Tith says the Cambodian diaspora "can and must play a positive role" in the countries of their residence "to influence and bring about international support to Cambodia ... (but) the main effort remains in the hands of the Cambodian people themselves to rise up and defend their land and culture."
"Intractable, yes; impossible, no!" Tith says.
Tith's challenge to Cambodian conventional wisdom and call for a systematic overhaul of society touches the roots of Cambodia's ills.
A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org .