Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cambodia My Broken Homeland: A Personal Reflection of the Socio-Political Realities in 2017

Pictures taken at Wat Kompong Kor, Kandal Province, and Phnom Krom, Siem Reap Province

Cambodia My Broken Homeland: A Personal Reflection on the  Socio-Political Realities in 2017

 “The suffering of my people is my suffering”
Jayavarman VII

 “Vis consilii expers mole ruit sua”
(Force without judgment, collapses under its own weight)
Horace, Odes, 3, 4, 65

“The history of man’s progress is a chronicle of authority refuted”
Author Unknown 

The views, opinions, and words expressed in these writings below are personal and are not reflective of others. They are only intended to reflect on my own experiences so that others may learn from my sincere efforts to shed light on Cambodia’s problematic democracy. These testimonies are what I found from talking, listening and learning from people representing all walks of life who willingly expressed their deep dissatisfaction and grave concerns about the future direction of Cambodian democracy. They represent the voices of changes the majority of the people wish to see in Cambodia as the government’s abuse of its power against its own citizens with threats, intimidation, harassment, fear, and physical violence intensifies. To create a socio-political environment where all can benefit, it is important to make our voices heard and not be afraid to speak up in the face of any untruth or distortion. ‘Together, we need to pick battles big enough to matter: small enough to win for all our children’ (to paraphrase an activist and educator Jonathan Kozol in his book “Letters to A Young Teacher”).  

My main intention here is to helping those in power to come to terms with reality on the ground and build a better Cambodia and its people by promoting real democracy, with good governance and accountability. Addressing the issues of corruption, justice, and the delivery of basic goods and services especially to the poor, the vulnerable, and those who have less could actually enhance the legitimacy of the government. Trust, openess, and tangible actions matter at the grassroot level to increase public support. With this backdrop, the longer I live in Cambodia the more I realize: 

1.     It is not possible for me to understand everything that happen here; some things will never make sense. I have learned to accept this as an unfortunate and ugly reality of life. My homeland and the people are torn apart by a government that is ineffectual for the majority of average citizens, especially in remote areas. A good number of high ranking and elected officials have usurped their position from public servant to master of the people. It is important these public servants subsume personal and/or party interests in favor of actions that serve the majority of the people.

2.     While the country is at peace and enjoys strong and consistent economic growth (an average growth rate of 7.6 percent in 1994-2015 and ranking sixth in the world according to World Bank), it has failed to deliver tangible benefits to ordinary citizens. Daily I witness the enormous disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots". The basic needs and fundamental rights of the most vulnerable are not addressed in an adequate manner (i.e. education, health care, food, shelter, and living wage). As Nelson Mandela said, “Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish, regardless of race, colour, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference.”

3.     My country has suffered with ineffective lawmakers and elected or appointed officials at almost all levels who don’t put the interests of the people and the country first. They place their own welfare and personal benefits at forefront. Top policy makers are divided and they cannot put their difference aside to work together for the common interest of the nation. Social and political distrust have become the norm in Cambodian political culture and society.

4.     Many of us have forgotten the value of ethical and moral behavior. Whether I am at an intersection where many drivers ignore the signals or teaching at a university that has students blatantly cheating, I witness this behavior daily. It is a sad disregard for laws and rules as well as common decency that reflect the most basic teachings of the Buddha. When the people do not choose to respect the rule of law (Cambodia is worst in the region for rule of law - ranked 112 out 113 countries surveyed according to the annual Rule of Law index in 2016), how can one expect those in position of power to embrace it?

5.     The current government has failed to improve civil and political rights as well as equal access to employment opportunities, to quality health care and education. It is important to understand that in Cambodia the state is the main protector and guarantor of civil and political rights. The culture of patronage, nepotism, favoritism, and familial politics that permeates almost all the establishments in the country do not allow an environment where true democracy can flourish. Again, our leaders need to focus on creating this environment.

6.     There is an increasingly large number of landless people. Expropriation of land is real, alive and widespread among greedy political and economic elites, often in partnership with foreign interests as many reports and studies show. Land is life and offers economic and personal security for the people. The benificiaries of these land appropriations appear to be well connected officials and the owners of these agro-businesses, as there is no transparency to track financial profits especially to the villages affected.

7.     Doing what one has to do to survive can result in devastation to one’s identity and self-esteem. Life is simply not fair for the majority of Cambodians. For those just getting by this might entail selling a daughter into slavery or having to sell the family land out of desperation. For those fortunate enough to be placed in high positions, this can mean being forced into unethical actions without question. And, for the vast majority, it translates to going about one’s daily business without asking questions, voting out of a fear for one’s personal safety rather than the good of the nation or simply focusing on making more money and then happily spending it.

8.     If I don’t have the strong will and ability to change this society, it will change me. I have learned to swim against the current. I try to influence those with whom I come into contact, but the vast machinery of pervasive corruption (Cambodia is among the most corrupted countries in Southeast Asia - ranked 156th out of the 176 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2016), patronage by the powerful elites and stealing land seemingly continues unabated. Most Cambodians are lacking either in knowledge or confidence in working together to improve society as a whole. Participation and solidarity, two important social values, have been lost for the past decades.

9.     There exists an absence of policy development where inclusive consultations are held, multiple voices are heard and active debates take place. At many administrative levels there is a lack of transparency, rule of law, justice and respect for human rights. Public trust in the current government is scarce. To gain trust, the government must develop a genuine feedback mechanism that accepts and empowers constructive criticisms especially in evaluating if the implementation of the reforms succeeds or fails in achieving its goals and objectives.

10.  Justice is in the hands of the powerful and benefits mostly the riches and well connected elites. With the current system, I have learned to expect the unexpected with regards to bending rules and amending laws to win at all costs. I have so many socio-political constraints to voice my opinions and constructive concerns without being portrayed as a radical dissident. Political life for those who dissent is extremely difficult because it has become a norm that all rules are applied and interpreted in a way that brings the most benefits to those in power and keeps critical voices as silent as possible. To agree with (or keep quiet about) every government decision is considered good citizenship, whereas to speak out, even for valid violations, is to risk being considered an enemy of the state and be put on a list of undesirables and troublemakers to be intimidated or ostracized informally.

11.  Liberty and dignity belong to all and not only to a few that are powerful and wealthy and well-connected individuals. Many people are still not free from fear, not free from want, and not free to live in dignity. Disparities between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak exist across the country. Social conditions such as economic inequality, social injustice, and lack of rule of law continue to fester in marginalized communities.

12.  Mistrust, conspiracy, suspicions, and doubt are embedded in the hearts and minds of political leaders. Often the official version of the truth is spoken only through the government blaming political enemies or external factors for their own failures. The top leaders are motivated by misguided values. Power, control, status, and wealth come first before peace, stability, and people security.

13.  Justice exists only in words not deeds by the current government. After the savage beating of the two opposition CNRP lawmakers Kung Sophea and Nhay Chamroeun outside the National Assembly on October 2015, three members of the bodyguard unit of Prime Minister Hun Sen found guilty of the assault were promoted to higher ranks instantly after their release from prison and serve only one year of a four-year prison sentences. This type of reward shocked me and many others.

14.  Money politics and corruption rule the country, which is ingrained with political patronage. Powerful people are rarely wrong while vulnerable people are seldom right. The current administration has brought the country into the verge of darkness with many people stuck in economic distress, indebtedness, and land insecurity. The current government has failed to reduce inequality between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the vulnerable, the strong and the weak.

15.  The ruling party can do whatever they want and whenever they want. The ruling party and the main opposition parties do not trust each other enough to produce constructive solutions for the most burning issues in this country. The culture of mistrust, self-serving, ‘divide and rule’, ‘have it all’, and zero sum games must be eliminated. The authorities often use courts, extreme violence, intimidation, and political persecution to discipline its populace to promote a culture of obedience.

16.  Cambodia is a country weary of hopeless existence where the impossible becomes possible, the immoral becomes acceptable and the insane becomes normal. The vast majority of  people accept corruption as part of their daily life. “Small man gets small bribe while big man gets big bribe” has become a popular Khmer saying. The “Money Is Everything” doctrine can be seen and felt everywhere.

17.  Inadequate salaries have partly fueled a system of informal fees and bribes collected by almost everyone – police officers, military officers, judges, health practitioners, customs officers, teachers, and dishonest government officials at all levels. Providing people a fair living wage will reduce the need for bribes. Many intellectuals and opposition politicians, in less pleasing terms, are willing to sell and trade their own principles for the offer of titles, status, wealth, and power.

18.  Speaking the truth to power can be viewed as a revolutionary act.  Life can be risky or short for those who dare to critique the current regime openly and directly. The country has become unsafe; it is all too often a place where people fear speaking in public about critical political issues. Accepting the truth and welcoming new ideas for improvement without rigid reactions and vindictive retaliation reveal strength for top leaders, not weakness.

19.  The current government governs predominantly for the benefit of a close network of friends, associates and family with the aim of consolidating power, controlling and enriching the network. They do not see and feel what the majority of the people want and need. There is insufficient thought of delivering justice and providing equal treatment and opportunities for all. The government should promote and favor the diffusion rather the concentation of power and wealth to create a society of more equals.

20.  The country cries for justice and reforms that include upholding democracy, better governance, rule of law, as well as respecting and protecting human rights (The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, article 31). Despite significant progress, the government has failed to carry effective political and judicial reforms to improve human rights. The ruling party continues to assail opposition parties, civil societyand media, and restricts freedom of expression, individual and political rights and peaceful assembly and association (The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, article 41). True democracy struggles to work under the present administration. 

21.  Good cannot come from force and fear. Killing, imprisoning and punishing lawsuits against prominent political critics have suppressed dissents and created deeply rooted mistrust and made the government less and less credible. As Venerable Fa Thai said, “When your own home is healthy and happy, others will come to you. It’s like being a good cook, a good teacher, or a good leader. If you are good, you never have to force your food, force your lessons, or force your directions, on others.”

22.  Joseph Mussomeli, former US Ambassador to Cambodia, was absolutely right when he stated: “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.” The cold blooded murder in broad daylight of the well respected government critic Kem Ley on 10 July 2016, broke my heart and the hearts of many Cambodians as well as those in the international community.

23.  The separation of powers and independence of the legislative and judiciary branches is the key to provide checks and balances and prevent the executive power from becoming supreme. The government has relied heavily on the judicial system and violent mobs to weaken and possibly to destroy the opposition.

24.  Terms like “culture of dialogue”, “dialogue of peace” or “constructive dialogue” are invoked when those in power break agreements and want to shift the blame to others; a pact made between the mouse and the cat is rarely binding when the cat grows hungry or upset and pushes for party supremacy.

25.  Life can be challenging to those who are marginalized, but in this darkness I see hope and light. These forgotten people are strong, resilient, and adaptive to difficult circumstances and make do with little - from fixing a bike with a screwdriver and some string to creating a business with minimal investment.

26.  I believe all of us can make a difference for the present and future generation not only to pursue material abundance but more importantly to nurture the dignity, values of each individual and live according to the five precepts of the Buddha – abstain from harming others, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. The Buddha advocated leadership by examples and taught the leaders of the Sangha to have sufficient virtue, meditation experience, and wisdom before allowing them to be preceptors and teachers.

27.  ‘The powerful leaders in this country can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but they cannot fool all the people all the time’  (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln). The Cambodian people are better informed and fully aware of the current political situation. Most of them want change. ONE VOTE CAN HELP CHANGE CAMBODIA’s FUTURE. Elections for commune councils will be held on 4 June 2017 and the general election will take place on 22 July 2018. Conduct the research on the candidates, go out and  vote, and make your voice heard to improve the future of the country.

28.  If ALL the Cambodian children are provided with the equal right to primary health care, good nutrition, quality basic education, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and protection from neglect, abuse and violence, ten years down the road, our society will be able to veer away from the direction it is heading today.

These are my personal reflection on the socio-political realities in my homeland prior to the communal election on 4 June 2017. If tomorrow is the product of today, then 2017 is covered with dark clouds hanging over our heads and our nation. The light of freedom, social justice and equality will have an extremely hard time to break through for the benefit of ALL. More than ever, the Cambodian people desperately need unity and virtuous politicians to bring social change, lasting peace, stability, and prosperity for all. Better is possible. The current leader has the strength to bring these changes about. He has the ability and power to make meaningful democracy happen.

May all Cambodian people seek and see the truth of what really is happening and support those who will make real democracy work for the country. May ALL be free from fear, free from want, and free to live in dignity so together we can have a place we are proud to call home and a future we are honored to pass on to our children.

Special thanks to the brave men and women who have the courage to stand up for what is right and dare to speak up for the benefit of ALL. They believe that doing something right for the betterment of others is better than doing nothing and being silent. They have inspired me to write this reflection to express my deep concerns about the direction Cambodia is heading now.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Another Cambodian voice gets silenced

A reflection of another Cambodian voice gets silenced

The cold blooded murder in broad daylight of Kem Ley on July 10, 2016, broke my heart and the hearts of many Cambodians from all walks of life as well as those from the international community. I cannot help but to reflect on the repeated failure of our most trusted institutions to protect our own people.

Must life be short for those who dare to critique the current regime? It seems Cambodia has become a country where people cannot talk openly about equal justice, nepotism, corruption, deforestation, international involvement in illegal logging, the loss of border territory and the accumulated wealth of elected officials.

Cambodia does not adhere to the ideals of its constitution when extreme power overrides the rule of law. With these assassinations and lack of impartial investigations, the people have lost faith in their cherished institutions.

While the country is in mourning over the loss of another prominent political critic, repeatedly the political leaders in Cambodia have failed to understand the depth of the people’s resentment towards a system where well-connected individuals get richer and evade justice.

They have failed to see what people see – a country where the less fortunate are going through an existential crisis. They have failed to feel what people feel – the labour of finding food and the fear of holding onto their lands.

They have failed to do what the majority of the people want them to do, which is to serve the people by delivering justice and equal opportunity for all Cambodians. Lastly they have failed to heed one of the fundamental teachings of Buddha: “Hurt not others in ways that they themselves would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5:18).

Even though top government officials condemn the savage killing and reject the claim that this is another political act to silence the opposition and spread fear, the national and international communities at large have lost faith in the investigating authorities to find those responsible.

It has been revealed that Choub Salab (meaning Meet Kill), the assassin, lived in desperate poverty, so it defies belief that he could lend $3,000 to anyone. Furthermore, the fact that he never mentioned this loan to his wife leads us to doubt its veracity as well.

Most Cambodians as well as the international communities believe that Kem Ley’s assassination was politically motivated and the chain of command of the killing should be fully and independently investigated in line with international standards.

There is no real peace without real justice. Those in power must stop using violence, intimidation and oppression to discipline the populace to produce quiet obedience and stability. A relationship between the state and its people that emanates from coercion, repression and domination won’t produce enduring peace and nor long-term stability.

Today, Cambodia cries for justice and the right to free speech. These appeals are made for the soul of Kem Ley and other brave, outspoken heroes of the Kingdom, including union leader Chea Vichea (2004), and environmental activist Mr Chut Vuthy (2012) – May you all rest in peace.

Note that this reflection was in The Phnom Penh Post on 18 July 2016

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Doing Research in Cambodia: Making Models that Build Capacity

Dissemination of Doing Research Key Findings at Svay Rieng University on 12 January 2016 to more than 450 Students, Faculty, Researchers, and Government Official
“Doing Research in Cambodia: Making Models that Build Capacity”

Cambodia’s bitter and tragic past has had a detrimental impact on the number of educated professionals available to conduct endogenous research. It is therefore unsurprising that previous studies have found that social science research is frequently conducted by foreign consultants, while donors and external stakeholders often dictate the research agenda. To address this lack of endogenous research, there was still a need to profile the ongoing evolution of the Cambodian research lanscape and provide actionable recommendations to build future capacity on both sides of the policy-research community.

With support from the Global Development Network and the ‘Doing Research’ peer review workshop, a research team from CICP undertook a one year action research study to capture – and to help transform – the current state of Cambodian research. In early 2015, a roundtable of experts created a list of 25 institutions to interview, including both rural and urban universities (president, senior academic staff, faculty members, researchers, and students), NGOs, think tanks, donor representatives, and government ministries. Our bottom-up approach focused on giving voice to participants and achieving practical problem-solving outputs. It aimed to reduce dependence on donors in the long term by strengthening the endogenous capacity of the research community and improving collaborations between researchers.


Our findings show that the primary impediment to research is insufficient funds for research, training, and dissemination. The government cannot adequately fund projects necessary to guide policy decisions, as even the national census is donor financed. Furthermore, instructors and students are generally responsible for funding their own projects. Since universities are tuition-driven, instructors are given little time or money to conduct research. This implicitly communicates that research is a non-critical afterthought.

Respondents admitted that many staff lacks the ability to conduct research, while dissemination activities are limited. Researchers commonly present findings at academic workshops. Therefore findings, embedded in reports, often overly technical and written in English, remain largely inaccessible to wider audiences.

English proficiency proved another obstacle, preventing many Cambodian researchers from conducting literature reviews and increasing their workload when translating results for publication. With few academic publications, no accessible research database, and insufficient provincial libraries, research outreach is severely limited. And, since reports are written using technical English, it is unclear whom the research is targeting.

Due to funding and human resource limitations, most research is dictated by donors, led by outside consultants, and financed on a short-term basis. Consequently local capacity is stunted and short-term studies do not capture complex societal issues adequately. Donor institutions are often reticent to tackle controversial issues or report results without government consent.

Cambodian research production is at a transitional stage. While we found general ambivalence toward research among older interviewees, younger Cambodians demonstrated a growing enthusiasm and receptivity. Few women participated in our study due to a gender imbalance in senior positions. Equal opportunity policies and equal access to education are needed to reverse this trend. However, Cambodia is improving; as evidenced by the increasing number of female students in tertiary education.

The Policy-Research Environment

Policy-research connections are restricted by entrenched structural challenges. For instance, policy makers often lack the education required to understand reports. Perhaps Consequently, scientific research is often not perceived as valuable within this sector. As one government official admitted, “Government policy is not produced through research”. Instead government officials make policy decisions based predominantly on personal connections, entrenched beliefs, and potential profit. Some policy uptake indifference may be due to many researchers gearing their research toward academia.

Some NGOs can exert pressure on the government by publishing polished research that is read by foreign officials. Donor institutions with close governmental relationships can influence policy by avoiding flash point human rights issues and playing an important and constructive role on non-sensitive issues like job creation. However the most troubling human rights issues often remain either ignored or watered down.

The elephant in the room is that taboo, politically sensitive research topics remain too dangerous and difficult for most researchers to attempt. Results that are openly critical of the government are usually self-censored or diluted in order to avoid anticipated political pressure.

Going Forward

Our respondents made many constructive recommendations: increase institutional cooperation; mentor Cambodian staff/students; create collaborative research; plan research dissemination prior to collecting data; incentivise research; fund an accessible national research database; and promote capacity building.

There is cause for optimism. Respondents noted that the government increasingly uses local research on issues like migration flow and job creation. Human rights NGOs continue to have success using their research and international advocacy networks to pressure government on key issues. More universities are creating funds for research through international collaborations and even creating in-house publications.

This research project has provided an essential empirically-based understanding of the state of research in Cambodia and potential avenues for improvement. It also serves as a pioneer model for reciprocal, action research designed to build capacity within the research community. Specifically we went beyond data collection in 3 ways:
1.     Provided a research methods training course for students.
2.     Presented results at several institutions to increase dissemination and discussion.
3.     Created an on-going website ( to inform people about available funding and serve as a networking conduit.

It is our intention that this project, and the conversations that emerge from it, will play a part in transforming Cambodia’s research environment. There is still much to uncover about research in Cambodia but hopefully this study will provide an impetus for further research.

Please note this blog piece was also published on