By Gaffar Peang-Meth
Washington, DC, United States, — A “progressive and systematic overhaul” of its society is what Cambodia needs, according to Dr. Naranhkiri Tith, a specialist in country risk analysis, former civil servant with the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and a former professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Overhaul Khmer society? Tith says that only by freeing itself from its past can Cambodia gradually resolve its economic, institutional, legal, political and social problems.
Cambodia has been a monarchy since the first century A.D. – except briefly under the 1970-1975 Khmer Republic under Lon Nol, and the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot. That is the legacy Tith refers to, although he knows that criticizing something that has been the only way and the only thought of a people for 2,000 years will not make him popular.
Yet Cambodia is the land of his birth, he insists, and no one is going to prevent him from thinking and applying his best thoughts to help bring change, even if he has to step on toes.
Actually, that’s what leaders do, says bestselling author, entrepreneur and blogger Seth Bodin. Leaders have curiosity, they ask questions, they challenge what is, and they commit to working to bring about change.
From the standpoint of former Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel, who became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1993-2003, that’s what an intellectual does: to “constantly disturb … bear witness to the misery of the world … be provocative by being independent, rebel against all hidden and open pressures and manipulations … be the chief doubter of systems.” An intellectual “stands out as an irritant wherever he is,” says Havel.
And to borrow Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, it is important for a person to have a “questing mind” that is always questioning and always seeking for ways and means to get out of and solve problems. For Suu Kyi, a questing mind is necessary to help withstand violence and oppression, especially in a society in which people are generally conditioned to obey without questioning the situation.
Khmer-born and Western-educated in Europe and the United States, Tith migrated to the United States in 1960-1961 because “I felt that I was not allowed to be myself,” he says. In other words, he could not grow.
Tith sees the “pervasive and crushing role of the monarchy,” combined with the conservative nature of Khmer society – “such as the belief in prophesies and the rigidity in social organization and behavior” – as contributing to the “inertia and the inability to allow new ideas and capable leadership and entrepreneurial spirit to emerge.” In the final analysis, this keeps Cambodia “perpetually underdeveloped,” he says.
For nearly five decades now I have reflected on Cambodia, which is also the country of my birth and of my primary and secondary education. I have thought about Tith’s descriptions of inertia and the inability to allow new ideas, capable leadership and entrepreneurial spirit to grow in Cambodia.
I remember reading a Cambodian statesman’s political analysis of Khmer history while doing research for my doctoral dissertation in the early 1970s, about Khmer valor, the Khmer Empire and the builders of Angkor, the Khmer “warrior race,” when Hindu influences were paramount. Then Buddha’s doctrine of peace, kindness, compassion and acceptance came to replace the old ways.
I have asked myself if there is a dichotomy within a person with an inner tug-of-war between the combative warrior personality and the peaceful Buddha-like personality.
I have read the late Khmer professor Sar Sarun’s “Proloeng Khmer” (1973) – and re-read time and again the translation, “Khmer Mentality,” in Tith’s website. Sarun describes the Khmer mentality as insensitive to social and legal rules except where there is coercion; an artistic spirit in a soft, fanciful and romantic state with a tendency to be confused about commitments.
I have asked myself, who and what is this Khmer whom Sarun was describing?
Visna Sann, author of “Who is Khmer?” (2005) wrote in Tith’s website, “Some Cambodians adhere to a policy of exclusion in which only 100 precent ethnic Khmers may be considered Khmer.” He described prejudices recounted by a Cambodian of Chinese heritage.
"I am disturbed by these examples of exclusion,” he wrote, “We cannot afford to exclude our own people.” Sann charged that Cambodia’s “policy of exclusion … has contributed to our country’s decline in the same way as Khmer fighting against Khmer.”
Tith includes in his website Marie A. Martin’s “Cambodia: a Shattered Society” (1994). She writes that, “respect for elders and for hierarchy remains sacrosanct” in Cambodia, and reminds us that, “In the traditions of Khmer moral training, to protest against a parent’s decision, to criticize one’s boss or spiritual master, to rebel against a husband is inadmissible.”
"It is understandable how such a mentality can lead to an abuse of power but also how dangerous a lack of wisdom and scruples can be, for once the link of confidence is broken, the divorce is irreparable and the authority is forever rejected. Younger persons must keep quiet,” wrote Martin.
"And adolescents have no chance to express themselves, much less to argue. It is not surprising if later they allow themselves to be trampled by an ‘elder’ who is in the wrong or less competent than they are, if they remain defenseless in the face of a national tragedy or prefer to let a foreigner speak or act in their place,” said Martin.
Of course, all these are not really pleasant to hear. But Tith isn’t afraid to confront them. As the saying goes: “The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it. The present is here, live it.”
(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. Copyright Gaffar Peang-Meth.)