Friday, April 27, 2018

The Troubling Truths in My Broken Homeland

Roadblocks and tight security force on Samdech Sothearos on 16 November 2018. The Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the viable CNRP and banned 118 party officials from politics for 5 years. The National Assembly redistributed the 55 seats of of CNRP to government aligned-parties.

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

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

The Troubling Truths

These personal reflections and difficult realizations are what I found from traveling across the country conducting fieldwork on human security as well as 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 change many citizens wish to see in Cambodia as the government’s abuse of its power against its own citizens has created deepening fear, intimidation, harassment, humiliation and both threats and acts of physical violence. Lasting Peace cannot be sustained and secured without justice and the support of all citizens.

Below I have listed some of the most pressing issues that need to be addressed and resolved before true democracy, national reconciliation and lasting peace can be achieved for all. What I am about to express here is may not be new to many, but my intent is to raise these troubling truths in a different light by offering suggestions and possible solutions. This list is not meant as criticism of the present leadership but more as a suggestion of areas to study and on which to focus change to make Cambodia a nation of prosperity for ALL with lasting peace and equal opportunity.

1. It is not possible for me to understand everything that happens 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 some members of government that are ineffectual for the majority of average citizens, especially in remote areas. A good number of high ranking and elected officials have recast their position from public servant to master of the people. It is important that 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 more than 7% for two decades and ranking the sixth fastest growing country in the world along with commendable poverty reduction of 13.5% in 2014 compared to 47.8% in 2007 according to the World Bank), it has failed to deliver tangible benefits to ordinary citizens. There is deeply embedded inequality across the country. Going forward, it is important to create an economy that is more inclusive and equitable.

3. The wealth gap of the nation is widening rapidly. 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 a living wage). Many citizens have experienced the systematic disadvantages of the social, economic, and political structure of the present regime (structural violence). It is important that everyone sees for themselves that they are benefitting from this strong economic growth as welll and only the ruling members. 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, color, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference”.

4. 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 and foremost. They place their own welfare and personal benefits at the forefront. Top policy makers are divided and they cannot put their differences aside to work together for the common interest of the nation. Deep fear, social suspicion and distrust have become the norm in the Cambodian political culture and society. My country should embrace governance by law instead of governance by powerful and greedy leaders. The hallmark of a effective and responsive government is that it adheres to the rule of law, features transparency, and is accountable for its actions or failure to bring necessary development.

5. 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, how can one expect those in position of power to embrace it? Cambodia is the worst in the region for rule of law - ranked 112 out of 113 countries surveyed according to the annual Rule of Law index in 2016.

6. 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 any nation, the government 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 institutions in the country, do not allow an environment where true democracy can flourish. Again, our leaders need to focus on creating this environment.

7. There is an increasingly large number of landless people. Expropriation of land is real, alive and widespread among greedy and powerful 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 beneficiaries of these land appropriations appear to be well-connected officials and owners of agro-businesses, as there is no transparency to track financial profits especially to the villages affected. At one of the public forums in Phnom Penh on land issues, one participant disclosed, “All this development is destroying our lives”.

8. Poverty is rampant over the world, but there is nothing like being poor in Cambodia. It is very fashionable to talk about the poor so that top leaders can get more foreign aid. Unfortunately it is not fashionable to talk with the poor to find out the reality of their real suffering. The environment that most Cambodians are living in now is hurting the next generation. We have lost many, many traditional values and cultural markers (for example honesty, mutual trust,…).

9. 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 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.

10. 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 criticism especially in evaluating whether the implementation of reforms succeeds or fails. Freedom to debate critical issues and to express convictions without fear and intimidation must be encouraged at all levels.

11. There are many unresolved injustices in Cambodia. Social justice is in the hands of the powerful and benefits mostly the rich and well-connected elite. With the current leadership, I have learned to expect the unexpected with regard to bending rules and the truth and amending laws to remain in power 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.

12. Liberty and dignity belong to all, not only to the few that are powerful and wealthy and well-connected. 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. In general, most Cambodians want to be rid of the corruption, rid of the hypocrisy and rid of the lip service paid by authorities to right the wrongs and apply the law for all.

13. 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 onto the verge of darkness with many people stuck in economic distress, indebtedness, and land insecurity. The current government has failed to reduce the substantial inequality between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the vulnerable, the strong and the weak.

14. Mistrust, conspiracy, suspicion, 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. They have failed to see things as they exist for the common rural citizens. They only see things as they are in order to remain in power with the ability to earn great wealth. Power, control, status, and wealth come first before the people’s well beings and livelihoods.

15. Justice exists only in words not deeds by the current government. The judicial system in Cambodia is a politicized cobweb which efficiently catches the small flies – political dissents, activists, and the poor but let the big flies - the rich and powerful elites – break through. After the savage beating of the two opposition CNRP lawmakers Kung Sophea and Nhay Chamroeun outside the National Assembly on October 2015, the three members of the bodyguard unit of Prime Minister Hun Sen who were found guilty of the assault were promoted to higher ranks instantly after their release from prison, serving only one year of a four-year prison sentence. This type of reward shocked me and many others.

16. The ruling party can do whatever they want, whenever they want. The ruling party and the main opposition party do not trust each other enough to produce constructive solutions for the most burning issues in this country. The culture of mistrust, self-serving actions, ‘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 the populace and to promote a culture of obedience. The “Win-Win Policy” of the government has been used exclusively by the ruling party to consolidate power and to destroy the opposition. One Cambodian woman described good governance as: “A good government is a government that does not abuse the people, that gives the people the land back, and that allows people to earn a living”.

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 government officials at all levels. Providing employees a fair living wage will reduce the need for bribes and lawlessness. Many intellectuals and opposition politicians, in less pleasing terms, are willing to sell and trade their own principles for the enticement of titles, status, wealth, and power. Only the well connected individuals through Ksae (string) and Khnorng (backing) have benefited the most from stability and economic growth.

18. Speaking the truth to those in 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 of top leaders, not weakness.

19. The current government has failed its people and appears to govern 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 than the concentration of power and wealth to create a society of more equals. Cambodia has become a failed state – not a democracy – because there is no fair application of the law and a lack of enforcement. The lawmakers and the policy makers at the very highest level violate the laws with impunity and incessantly abuse the constitution.

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 society and 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 filing punishing lawsuits against prominent political critics have suppressed dissent 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. One of the diplomats in 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, the gunning down of the environmental activist Chut Vuthy on 26 April 2012, the assassination of the union activist Chea Vichea on 22 January 2004, and other innocent victims who dare to speak out against excessive nepotism, corruption, social injustice, and the rapid escalation of illegal logging and land grabbings broke my heart and the hearts of many Cambodians as well as those in the international community. In my broken homeland, freedom is not free, truth must be fought for and justice must be demanded.

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 to destroy the opposition. 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. Only when reason prevails on both sides can a meaningful solution be found.

24. Cambodian democracy is in crisis with the exile of the country’s opposition leader, Sam Rainsy and blatant arrest of another, President Kem Sokha, in a midnight raid on 3 September 2017 at his house over accusations of inciting social instability and on charges for treason for conspiring with the United States and fomenting ‘a color revolution’. Furthermore the dissolution of the main opposition party stemmed from a complaint by the Ministry of Interior of colluding to topple the government and the banning of 118 senior individuals from conducting political activities for 5 years by the Supreme Court on 16 November 2017 have worsened the political situation and undermined the protection of human rights and Cambodia’s liberal multi-party democracy as enshrined in the Constitution in article 51 on Political Regime. The government has used lawfare (namely the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations or LANGO in 2015 and the enactment of controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties in 2017 which empowers courts to dissolve any political party for ‘jeopardizing the security of the state’ and ‘provoking incitement’ and to allow for the distribution of the CRNP seats in the National Assembly and commune councils), the power to tax, threats and force as means and weapons to bring down the opposition and to silence all forms of dissent before the upcoming election. By completely destroying the only viable opposition party, more than three million people who voted for the CNRP in the Communal elections in June 2017 have been effectively silenced in the name of maintaining peace, stability and social order. Many democracy proponents are living in fear and total darkness with regard to even exercising their freedom of expression and their rights to speak up against social injustice, inequality, and oppression. In Cambodia, it is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong. This systematic repression reminds me of the Khmer Rouge ideology during my country’s darkest past which top leaders used against its own people under the adage “To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain”. This extreme Maoist regime led to the death of an estimated 1.75 to 2 million Cambodians and left the country devastated.

25. The government needs to embrace a constructive and cooperative resolution to the issues currently confronting Cambodia by discarding the use of threats as a means by which to deal with political dissents and adopt a more peaceful and tolerant approach. Ensuring social order through peaceful means is in the best interest of all people and all political parties. In a truly democratic society, the authorities cannot ignore the demands of the citizens because the true power of democracy rests with the people. Political reconciliation norms through open and critical dialogue, consultation, compromise, and a genuinely democratic legislature all are keys to resolve this latest tension. The alternative is untenable. Using the typical Khmer strategy “When the water rises, the fish eat the ant; when the water recedes, the ant eat fish” to eliminate the opponent in this political environment benefits no one and reflects a severe distrust among the people. No real victory prevails for any party. Once again, the country is facing its worst political crisis since its return to democracy 25 years ago. The unraveling of democaric norms calls for treating the opponents as rivals rather than as enemies and condemning all forms of violence and bigotry.

26. In geopolitical terms, our top leader is banking deeply on China as “the most trustworthy friend” of Cambodia (from describing China as “the root of everything that is evil” in 1988) and as Cambodia’s largest foreign donor and provider of loans in order to consolidate his power. Total investment from Beijing in the country topped $11.2 billion in 2016. The international community, mainly the Western liberal democracies and their allies, have all raised grave concerns about the dismantling of the main opposition political party and the US and the EU ended their financial support to the National Election Committee over the most severe crackdown on opposition politicians ahead of the general election in July 2018. Conversely, China has stuck closely by Cambodia’s side and continues to support the present regime openly to protect political stability, maintain national security, and attempt to strengthen economic development. Beijing is also helping by donating cars, motorbikes, computers, printers, ballot boxes and voting booths for Cambodia's 2018 election. Lessons from the past have revealed that putting all the eggs inside a Chinese-shaped basket will not improve human rights, good governance, social justice, or economic inequality. It is vital for the present leadership not to turn Cambodia into a diplomatic and developmental playground where uncontrolled Chinese developments with close ties to the incumbent party leadership flourish at the expense of the well being and rights of the local populace. Given this exclusive relationship between Cambodia and China, Chinese investors have better access to business opportunities, can undermine competition and could sway economic prospects toward their own projects by having this special relation to political and military elites. Many visible projects such as construction of government buildings and stadiums were approved by political elites with little to no consultation with the public sector. It is clear that China’s influence is back, big time. The Cambodian government has now buried the past and has embraced China firmly. While China provides ‘unconditional’ economic and political support to the present government with no questions asked, Cambodia, in exchange, advocates Chinese international goals and interests in ASEAN, including its claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea. As a small and weak country, Cambodia would be better off politically, militarily, strategically, economically and socially to avoid self imposed isolation from the Western powers. As a small and weak country, Cambodia would be better off politically, militarily, economically and socially to avoid self imposed isolation from the Western powers and build friendships and partnerships with all countries.

27. Life can be challenging to those who are marginalized and powerless, but in this darkness I see hope and light. These forgotten people are strong, resilient, and adaptive to navigate difficult circumstances and make do with little - from street vendors to hair cutters on a sidewalk to fixing a bike with a screwdriver and some string to creating a business with minimal investment. They accept the challenges and continue to persevere against all odds. Most of them live in abject poverty but they want a school, a caring and uncorrupted teacher in the classroom, and a better future for their children. They understand education is the answer to fighting poverty.

28. 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 and values of each individual, and live according to the teaching of the Buddha by “abstaining from all unwholesome deeds or do not engage in any harmful actions; always perform only wholesome ones those that are good, subdue and purify your own mind”. The Buddha advocated leadership by example and taught the leaders of the Sangha to have sufficient virtue, meditation experience, and wisdom before allowing them to be preceptors and teachers. There is an immense need for character building for individual and national healing in Cambodia. Real peace can only be sustained through being and not having.

29. Life is more about giving than receiving. My heart doesn’t feel right unless I know that all children can get a good quality education. 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 and not to be discouraged by failure. I can never be certain of a final outcome. I can only be sure of my tireless effort. I cannot erase all the dark sides of the current government, but I can change the way I deal with it, I can rise above it and stay strong and true to myself. It is better for me to suffer for doing good than doing evil. I try to influence those with whom I come into contact, but the machinery of corruption is pervasive and vast. Cambodia is among the most corrupted countries in Southeast Asia – ranked 161 out of the 180 countries in the world listed on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2017. The culture of patronage by the powerful elites and grabbing 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 in the past decades.

30. Cambodia is a country weary of hopeless existence where the unthinkable 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. Corruption affects everyone, whether it’s paying a policeman at the stoplight, or giving money to the teacher in the classroom, or paying an informal fee for filling a report to the government official, or bribing a medical practitioner to get better health care. Corruption also erodes trust, confidence and faith that the people in the government. It is time for the authorities to eliminate all forms of corruption and lawlessness to prosper from top to bottom.

31. ‘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. Conduct the research on the candidates, go out and vote, and make your voice heard to improve the future of the country.

32. Finally, if ALL the Cambodian children are provided with the same opportunity and 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. When all Cambodians have good education, they can think and make good rational decision based on morality, facts, national interest, and patriotism instead of self-interest, political party interest, and nepotism, then they become more aware of the situation, begin asking questions, have debates, offer dialogues, seek answers, find common solutions and act conscientiously.

More than ever, the Cambodian people desperately need unity and virtuous politicians to bring political transformation, social change, lasting peace, stability, and prosperity for ALL.