A Cambodian reader sees Cambodia’s political development as the Khmer Lakhon Preah Chinavong, a dramatic stage show that is long in ending. I am reminded of a ranking official of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations who, in the early 1980s in the United Nations, dubbed Cambodian factions’ enduring political negotiations, the Ramvong, a popular Khmer traditional circle dance, with participants moving continuously in a circle, around and around, with hand movements and simple footwork. “There is an end, be patient,” he said.
The Lakhon and the Ramvong may have had their intervals, but continue.
The 1991 Paris Peace Accords to end Cambodia’s conflicts and develop and promote human rights saw the investment of some $3 billion and 22,000 U.N. “peacekeepers” to bring stability and prepare for the 1993 general election.
Nine out of 10 registered voters voted for Prince Norodom Ranariddh to lead the country. But, the U.N. never put in place a neutral interim government, so Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party were in control of Cambodia’s governmental apparatus. Ranariddh, the winner, was forced, with the approval of world’s nations, to accept Sen’s power-sharing demand, making Cambodia a country with two heads, the winner as first premier, the loser as second.
“Ban, Ban,” the ASEAN official used to say in Khmer, meaning “Can do, Can do.” “National reconciliation” was pronounced by the world community and by Cambodians as a peaceful answer.
I wrote in the Sept. 30 1993 Far Eastern Economic Review about “an illusion of national reconciliation, a lull after the storm, a time to align, realign, regroup and devise new strategies. It benefits each faction to come together. … ” Some thought I was too cynical then.
In 1997, Sen, the second premier in control of Cambodia’s institutions since the Khmer Rouge were driven out of power in 1979 by Vietnamese tanks, staged a bloody coup against the country’s elected leader, killing many, and sending Ranariddh and his supporters fleeing the country.
It took Western pressure to bring Ranariddh back to Cambodia, to prepare for the 1998 election. Yet, Sen said he would not accept any election result not sanctioned by the National Election Commission, which he controlled.
I wrote in the July 25, 1998, South China Morning Post’s “Why back flawed polls?” that the world’s nations “have resorted to an election to legitimize a dictatorship” and that “Forsaking fundamental principles and ideals that underpin human behavior will support continued injustice and oppression and diminish peace and stability in Cambodia and in the region.”
When the July 1998 general election came, Sen and his CPP won the election, a victory repeated in 2003 and recently in 2008. How would anyone expect otherwise? Sen vowed to stay in power until he’s 90.
The Sept. 12 Liberation newspaper of the French Left called the electoral fraud “grotesque” and produced samples of documents of fraud to show.
Strong words had been used. Sen was angry when Radio France International broadcast opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s “I maintain my position against the unfair election,” and his threat to boycott the swearing-in ceremony with “an Assembly of thieves, ghosts and Yuons (i.e. Viets).” Sen revealed, the opposition actually negotiated seats in the National Assembly: “It is a shame to ask the thieves to share power,” declared Sen.
“Compromise” was struck through which Sen agreed to officially “recognize” the elected opposition! Rainsy joined the swearing-in ceremony. Even Ranariddh who had been in self-imposed exile in Malaysia since March 2007, returned to Cambodia with the King’s royal pardon and Sen’s nod.
One hears again of “national reconciliation” between two enemies who now call one another “brother.”
But it provided a needed period of respite. And, again, the respite allows “time to align, realign, regroup and devise new strategies,” until a new storm appears. “National reconciliation” seems improbable among former enemies in a culture that feeds the traditional “remembrance” for wrongs for “muoy cheat,” a period that lasts from great, great, great grandfather to grandchildren — seven generations.
Cambodian politics can be very ugly.
Mao Zedong wrote, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.” Winston Churchill said, “In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”
A college textbook reads, “From the cradle to the grave, we live our lives in the midst of politics.” For Charles de Gaulle, “I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.” And the great philosopher Plato wrote, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
Yet, a former comrade-in-arm writes with resignation, “A duck is a duck, you cannot and can never transform it into a handsome peacock.” But Lord Buddha says there is nothing permanent in life.
Asian and Western powers are eager to do business in Cambodia, and Sen knows it. Showing the same Lakhon and doing the same Ramvong will bring no change to Cambodia’s political landscape.
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.