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Cambodia: Nationalism, Patriotism, Racism, and Fanaticism

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by Ronnie Yimsut

Modern Cambodia is a “Land-in-Between,” if one looks at the map of today. Shaped by geological, political, and cultural processes over the many millenniums, Cambodia struggles to maintain self-identity and survival as a nation. Cambodia today sits in a middle of a rich-flat alluvial plain, surrounded on three sides by Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and the Gulf of Siam (Thailand) to the south. Present day Cambodia appears to be physically and psychologically trapped in the middle of mountain ranges, including the Dong Rek, Cardamom, and often time the hostile and antagonistic neighbors, specifically larger and more powerful nations, such as Vietnam and Thailand. It wasn’t always this way in the glorious of Cambodia’s past.

Geologically (and also physically) speaking, present day Cambodia actually sits in the middle of a once deep, large gulf. Many millenniums of erosion has deposit vast amount of rich alluvial silt that created the flat land of today Cambodia. This natural process is still on going, even as of now. The natural wonder of Tonle Sap Lake (the Great Lake) and the Mighty Mekong River are the last remnants of this continuing geologic erosion process. Perhaps in another million years from now both the Tonle Sap Lake and Mekong River may become a forgotten memory, when the ever-shifting geologic process ran its natural course.

Politically (and also culturally and historically) speaking, Cambodia is much more difficult or even controversial to fathom. Cambodia is a very old, mysterious, and complex society for mortal man to comprehend. Yet, we should try to understand it as best as we could, based on what we know today, while leave the rest to imagination.

In order for us to take a little peek at Cambodia’s future, we must at least try to understand her past history and present situation first. The past, present, and future of Cambodia, I believe, are very much intertwined. Their relationship is interlocked and connected with one another, where the sense of “nationalism, patriotism, racism, and also fanaticism” are the primary causes and effects that fully described the glory of Cambodia’s past as well as her subsequent downfall. As the result, the chaos that followed continues to haunt present day Cambodia.

History, no matter how we look at it, has never been a sure thing. Unless one is actually right there and experienced it first hand, there is always a blind spot or two to overcome. Thus, those who study it, including scholars and historians, can only open history with interpretation and interpellation. They can only decipher the information and data available and make the best educated guess. History, in short, has always been a guessing game simply because no one knows for sure what had occurred in the past. Please keep this statement in mind when you study Khmer history, including my own version of interpretation of Cambodia history to follow.

No one knows for certain how Cambodia, specifically the Khmer people, society, and culture, got started. Modern Archaeology suggested that these people, who later proudly called themselves “Khmer,” may have begun to build their strong society and rich culture around 4200 B.C. or perhaps even earlier. From this small, early flicker of light became a bright and raging inferno before it was subsequently extinguished. This small band of original people, perhaps with the infusion of new bloods from other part of the region (some scholars and historians specifically dare to speculate and suggest Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese’ blood), eventually built one of the greatest Empires in Asia that rival the best of Europe and America. Many strongly believe that the Khmer great success in the past has always been credited to their superb ingenuity and their great adaptability to other people’s culture and know how. This important adaptation skill has led the Khmer to both great successes and also dismal failures, as I shall cover later on.

The influx of missionaries, traders, and merchants from around Asian and from other part of the world to the area helps infused new ideas, new knowledge, and also new technologies to the Khmer people. Scholars and historians have always used the term “Indianization,” repeatedly as the best example of the Khmer adaptation skill to foster and enhance their own indigenous society and culture. From Indian culture, which was never imposed on the Khmer by colonization or by force, the Khmer adapted to it as their own. For example, the Khmer embraced Sanskrit as their written language early on. They willingly took to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other folk religions imported from India as their very own. They also followed and accepted Indian’s folk tales and others to enrich their own indigenous culture and identity. In short, the Khmer adopted much of Indian way of life, and others as well, as their very own early on to enhance and enrich their lives.

When one speaks of Khmer pride then and now, it is the grandeur of Angkor that came to one’s mind. Today, Angkor eco-region as a center of cultural and religious importance became a designated “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. Regrettably, not all Khmer people have the chance to visit Angkor and see this great national and world treasure for themselves. Still, the pride is there as the story of Angkor civilization has often been proudly passed on from one generation to the next. The Khmer, in general, still take great pride in their rich heritage.

As we all now know, successive Khmer “devarajas,” a Sanskrit term for “god kings,” ruled the Khmer Empire. Needless to say, some of these “god kings” accomplished little or nothing during their reign, while others had achieved such grandeur in their own right. The king’s power and authority to his people was absolute. The people have always been, “the king’s children.” Each successive “god king,” most of them, did his best to out do his predecessors. Whether it was war making with the neighbors to maintain the Empire power (as well as internally to maintain his hold of power) or monument building as an offering to the Gods, each god king did his best to make a mark. Indeed, big marks were made during Cambodia’s glorious past. Angkor complex in today northwestern Cambodia, with an estimate of more than 200 sandstone, laterite, and brick monuments, is considered to be the crowning achievement and the symbol of the Khmer god king’s absolute power during Cambodia’s ancient time.

The “Angkorian period” is believed to begin around A.D. 802 and ended in A.D. 1431, according some scholars and historians. In actuality, this period was neither the beginning nor an end in Cambodia’s Angkorian history. Indigenous Khmer people inhabited Angkor or Nokor region, meaning “city” or “nagara” in Sanskrit, long before and after. When the city was abandoned in A.D. 1431 (soon after the sack by the invading Thai’s army), the Khmer people still routinely used the area for various social and religious purposes. Visitors and pilgrimage from around the world continue to visit Angkor region. When Henri Mouhot reportedly “discovered” Angkor complex in the 1858 and expertly brought it into limelight, particularly in the European market, Angkor was still a place being routinely used and worshiped by the Khmer people. Angkor was never forgotten, albeit neglected, by the Khmer–perhaps to the lack of finance. It was and still is the heart and soul of Cambodia as reflected and symbolized in the national flag of modern day Cambodia. Various regimes have used Angkor as the symbol of their proud heritage, including the Khmer Rouge regime.

Perhaps the one king who may start it all, if not consider as the founder of Angkor, was Jayavarnan II (“varman” means armor/shield or protector of people). He appears to be the first to be officiated at the devaraja celebration where he proclaimed himself as the “universal monarch,” according to an inscription considered to be a major source of Cambodia chronology and religious history. Jayavarman II may be in fact the first officially proclaimed Khmer “god king” at Angkor; at least he was the first to be edged onto a sand stone inscription. His mysterious background is still being debated, but his “declaration of independence” from Java and his mobility through out this region, according to inscription of his biography, made him uniquely qualified as “founder of Angkor.” He appears to be the first to begin a trend of strong “nationalism” as well as organizing a “national unity,” perhaps to support his power base in order to rule this new Khmer Empire. He was in fact the first great unifier of numerous factions under the umbrella of the Khmer Empire.

As mentioned earlier, successive Khmer “god kings” spent a lot of time and other resources fighting wars and building monuments. With victorious wars come prisoners/slave laborers and perhaps fund, from war booty, to build those monuments. These so-called “god kings” were very successful in waging wars. The Khmer Empire was rapidly expanding in size and territory. This growing empire was big and powerful enough to have caught the attention of powerful China to the north, which provided much of the written historical records about Cambodia for us today.

There were two most well known and out standing “god king” builders of Angkor. The first is Suryavarman II, who started building the splendor of Angkor Wat at the beginning of his reign (perhaps 1131?) and was not completed until after his death in 1150. The second is Jayavarman VII, who came into power in about 1178. He was and is considered to be the last great builder at Angkor, credited with the building of the walled Angkor Thom (Great City), including the Bayon, a colossal and massive temple just north of Angkor Wat.

Both kings came to power when Cambodia was seriously fragmented by internal and external conflicts, including the second invasion of Cambodia by neighboring Kingdom of Champa (in today’s Vietnam) in 1178. Both kings were able to again unify the declining Khmer Empire and at the same time made their marks that are still being felt to this day. Cambodia during the time between Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII reign, according to historians, was in a state of almost total chaos and anarchy. It was falling apart because of infighting among the Khmer for control of power, following Suryavarman II death in 1150. Champa, after learning new war making skills from the Chinese to the north, took advantage of the weak Khmer Empire and successfully invaded Cambodia. The first invasion was made by land in 1177 and then by water (via Tonle Sap Lake and Siem Reap River) a year later in 1178. As usual, in those days, war booties and prisoners were the two primary motives and incentives for these invasions. Territorial expansion, as in capturing invaded land, was more difficult due to logistical difficulties.

Jayavarman VII, perhaps the first cousin of Suryavarman II, is considered to be the greatest and most powerful of all Khmer kings. After his succession to the throne in 1178 (shortly after Champa’s invasion of Cambodia), Jayavarman VII led a successful invasion of Champa. He sacked Champa and killed her King in a bittersweet revenge. He was crowned king in 1181 and Champa was never again a threat to Cambodia.

Thanks to Jayavarman VII, the Khmer Empire territory at this time was border to the north by Imperial China, south by the sea, east by conquered Kingdom of Champa, and the far west by the growing Thailand and Burma. Over the next thirty years or so, until his death as a great Buddhist king, Jayavarman VII personality and strong ruling style emerged. Cambodia was relatively at peace and prospered. It was an intellectual and cultural enrichment period as much of the population at Angkor was into higher learning. King Jayavarman VII believed that his task was to “deliver himself and all his people (who also considered as his children) from suffering. That he suffered from the illnesses of his subjects more than from his own; the pain that afflicted men’s bodies was for him a spiritual pain, and thus more piercing.” He was relentless in his pursuit of glory for his people and his empire. He began to modernize Cambodia through various public work projects throughout the kingdom. These massive undertakings, which including building numerous schools, hospitals, rest-houses, water reservoirs, and road construction, may have been undertake rather hastily, often with sloppy workmanship. Coupled with the massive temple construction, the kingdom’s treasure reserve may have seriously depleted by the time Jayavarman VII’s death in 1220. Regardless, Jayavarman VII had made his biggest mark in Cambodia’s history before he died.

Some scholars and historians have compared Jayavarman VII’s ideology of ancient Cambodia with that of modern day Pol Pot’s. The two leaders share similar ruling styles and traits, which include “nationalism, patriotism, racism, and fanaticism.” Both leaders, obviously with the best of intention, wanted to implement radical changes for Cambodia’s society. Both saw serious need for a serious “revolution” in order to “jump start” Cambodia’s society. The results were both magnificently successful and also dismal disaster for Cambodia. For instance, during Jayavarman VII 30 years reign, upon learning of his death, the craftsmen who were busy working at the not yet complete Bayon temple immediately abandoned the project (and perhaps even took off running). To this day, some of the sculptures and other work at the Bayon temple were never fully completed. People respected the king’s power to a point of almost fearful of his “iron fist” reign. As with Pol Pot, nearly a million Khmers (almost 1/5 of the population) took off running for the safety of either Thailand or Vietnam, before and after Vietnam ousted him. Both men were equally powerful (and perhaps also quite fearful to the Khmer) in their own rights. The differences? The two men were both radicals, whether by necessity or by choice is still debatable, but one was much, much more radical than the other. King Jayavarman VII unified and then built a great nation under his tight reign, where Pol Pot divided and then destroyed Cambodia through torturing and murdering millions of his people. Their ruling style can be so similar and at the same time so drastically different.

By the time Chou Ta-Kuan arrival at the gate of Angkor from China in 1296, Angkor and the Khmer Empire have already been in a steep decline. Successive kings following Jayavarman VII did their best to maintain the base of power and the glory of Cambodia past, but it was an uphill battle. Internal conflicts among the Khmer rivals, along with repeated invasions and attacks from the more powerful neighbors, including Thailand and Vietnam, cumulated in the down fall of Angkor and its abandonment as the Khmer capital city in 1431. The Thai was credited with the sacking and capturing of Angkor at this period that led to the abandonment of this ancient Khmer capital. Angkor, a city of over a million people, suddenly became ghostly overnight. The Thais, according to historians, made sure that Angkor was no longer a threat. They took just about everything that can be taken, including the people (those who survived the attack) as their prisoners. Angkor as the center of Khmer Empire universe was no more.

Cambodia after the glory of Angkor was in a period of darkness and pitiful state. Very few records were kept during this time period. Perhaps nothing much was happening this time? Perhaps it was a society in a revolution? One thing for certain was that the era of grandiose monument building came to an abrupt end. The “god king” concept in Khmer society for hundreds of years was also coming to an end. This period of time has a striking resemblance of the period of isolation under the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge brutal regime between 1975 and 1979. Perhaps the Thai’s invasion in 1431 did to Cambodia then what Pol Pot’s cadres had done to Cambodia later on, including the elimination of what a civil society needs, such as the intellectuals, the priests, the artist, the builders, and so on? The Burmese, Thai, and Cham invaders were just looting war’s booties in Cambodia, as any invading army would. However, they believed to have wisely taken Khmer prisoners back with them, instead of killing them, and at the same time succeeded in depleting Cambodia of the best and brightest. Pol Pot, on the other hand, was unwisely murdered most of Cambodia’s best and the brightest in the name of his revolutionary objectives.

No one knows for sure of what was going on due to the lack of record keeping during this time period. We know that the Khmer once glorious society and culture was in a chaotic state at this time. The mighty Khmer Empire was crumpling during this period. According to Chinese references about Cambodia, internal conflicts, and struggle for power among Khmer rivals continued. Cambodia’s foreign policy, especially one closely related to or aligned with powerful China, was evidently clear. The present of two more powerful, antagonistic neighbors (Thailand and Vietnam) has forced rival Khmer kings during this period choose one or the other in order to maintain their power and control of the declined kingdom. The Chinese “trump card” was being used as a neutralizer of the two neighbors when all else has failed. Cambodia leadership today still very much followed this example, by seeking assistance from either Thailand or Vietnam when must, along with the use of the super power as a neutralizer and also as a counter balance, to the detriment of Cambodia as a nation. We can only speculate and second-guessing the annexation of Champa by Vietnam, but I suspect that this is how an entire kingdom and people just disappeared. Perhaps this is how Cambodia may one day disappear from the map also? This is the worst fear that almost every Khmer are facing then and now. Why? It is simply because Thailand and Vietnam are still continuing the policy of interfering, devising, and conquering of Cambodia to this day.

During French colonialism era of the 1800s, Cambodia was no longer in charge of her own fate and destiny. Khmer kingship, which was still very much an important part of daily Khmer life, continued to be institutionalized by the French. However, the French was very much in charge and the master of Cambodia until independent was granted on November 9, 1953. By this time, Cambodia once vast and glorious empire has dwindled into a tiny and fragmented territory of approximately 180,000 square kilometers in area. The Khmer people and Cambodia once vast territory were decimated and split up between today’s eastern Thailand and southern Vietnam. By 1962, according to a national census, Cambodia population was a mere 5.7 million people. The rest of the Khmer population, an estimate of between 4-6 millions more, were either in today’s Southern Vietnam (in Prey Nokor/Kampuchea Krom area) or in eastern Thailand (in Surin, Buriram, Sisaket and so on).

The young Khmer prince, Norodom Sihanouk, whom the French perceived as not a treat to its colonial reign in Indochina, was installed to the throne in 1941. King Sihanouk ruled Cambodia under the French controlled administration rather loosely as the French had predicted and expected. This was also a period of Cambodia modernization, as well as a sharp rise in “nationalism and patriotism” in Cambodia. A few names, such as Archar Hem Chieu, Pach Chhoeun, Son Gnoc Thanh, and others, invoked the strong nationalistic era during the modernization of Cambodia. These people became enshrined in Khmer people’s psych and folklore for their heroism and self-sacrifice for the sake of Cambodia’s identity. Later on, King Norodom Sihanouk jumped in the “nationalism and patriotism” bandwagon and finally help secured Cambodia’s independent from France in November 9, 1953. Soon after, the young King proclaimed himself the “Father of all Cambodia and her people.” Later on, King Sihanouk chose to abdicate his throne (and became a prince again) in order to legally participate in politic. He emerged himself in Cambodia hardball politics until his ouster in 1970.

Cambodia following independence from France was a mixed blessing of both good modernization progress and also serious turmoil that eventually led to the sharp rise in “racism and fanaticism.” Both the rightist Republican and leftist Communist were born during this time period, under the now Prince Sihanouk’s strict reign. The combination of a young-independence nation mixed in with “nationalism, patriotism, racism, and fanaticism” led to perhaps one of the bloodiest history of the 20th century. Cambodia history would never be the same ever again.

If a name, such as Archar Hem Chieu, Pach Chhoeun, Son Gnoc Thanh, and others, invoked the sense of “nationalism and patriotism” in Cambodia, two other names became synonymous with “racism and fanaticism.” The first is Marshal Lon Nol. The second man is no other than the infamous Saloth Sar (aka Pol Pot).

Marshall Lon Nol was Prince Sihanouk’s right hand man. Following the coup of 1970, to which former King Sihanouk was overthrown, Lon Nol declared Cambodia as a Republic. Thousand years of kingship, including the “god king” era, came to an unceremoniously end in Cambodia. Lon Nol was the first “usurper” to come to power and institutionalize “ethnic cleansing” on a grand scale in modern day Cambodia. The Khmer historical and most feared enemy, the Vietnamese, was the primary target. According to some reports, an estimate 250,000 ethnic Vietnamese, some have resided in Cambodia for generations, were essentially eliminated from Cambodia territory within the first three months of Lon Nol coming to power.

As an up close and personal example, Lon Nol’s Republican Army herded my childhood neighbors and friends out of their home and business soon after the 1970 coup. These neighbors, who have always considered themselves Khmer of Vietnamese decent, have resided in my hometown of Siem Reap for many generations. The father was a barber in the neighborhood for as long as anyone can remember. All the children, some of them were about my age and went to the same school at the time were born in Siem Reap. Without a doubt, some of my other ethnic Vietnamese neighbors, most of them professional fishermen, were new migrants to Cambodia. They speak very little or no Cambodian, which is a dead give away that they were newly arrived aliens. They and many other ethnic Vietnamese, according to some reports, were massacred and their bodies were dumped in the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, which flow toward Vietnam. Many others managed to escape the slaughter and became refugees in Vietnam. Some of them were never to return to their country of birth again, which is Cambodia, while other return only to be butchered by the Khmer Rouge as late as in 1993.

Despite the fear, threat, and intimidation, Vietnamese illegal immigration continued to pour into Cambodia like burst water out of a breached dam, following Vietnam invasion/liberation of Cambodia in 1979. Some have claimed (but not proven) that there were as many as four million Vietnamese illegal aliens in Cambodia. However, according to one United Nations’ estimate in 1993, ethnic Vietnamese population in Cambodia was at about 400,000 strong. When the Khmer Rouge again declared war and started killing more ethnic Vietnamese in 1993, many decided that it would be safer to go back to Vietnam. Many of them, mostly boat people/fishermen from Tonle Sap Lake, are still seeking refugee in Vietnam today, while others have managed to trickle back into Cambodia.

Lon Nol killed very few ethnic Khmer, Chinese, and others–unless of course they were suspected Khmer Rouge or Vietnamese. If Marshal Lon Nol was a small time racist, Pol Pot was even a bigger fanatic. Pol Pot, who also cooperated with Prince Sihanouk in the jungle of Cambodia during their fight against Marshal Lon Nol, was the “Brother Number One” in the Khmer Rouge organization. He was another “usurper” who took power from Marshal Lon Nol (and also indirectly from Prince Sihanouk) by force following a bloody civil war between 1970 and 1975. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge exemplified the term “fanaticism.” The Khmer Rouge, individually and collectively, also embraced racism as a matter of “ethnic cleansing” policy. Ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham, and others were their primary targets, according to some scholars and historians. In the end, their own kind, the Khmer, were among the Khmer Rouge most numerous victims.

In less than four years, under the Khmer Rouge “Democratic Kampuchea,” an estimated of 1.7 million of all ethnicity in Cambodia had perished from overwork, exhaustion, starvation, disease, and systematic execution. This was a great lost for a small country with a population of about seven millions people. No one, except the communist party most faithful cadres, is immune from the tragedy and systematic killing. No one can deny this fact, except the perpetrators of the crime against humanity, against the Khmer people.

Under this genocidal regime, Cambodia was conspicuously absent of what the country needs for a civil society: the artists, bankers, monks, civil servants, accountants, engineers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, professors, teachers, and countless others. Those who managed to escape the Khmer Rouge went to the refugee camps, in both Vietnam and Thailand, and thousands migrated to a third country. According to the word of former president Jimmy Carter, who was also a peanut farmer, “Cambodia lost is America gain.” He was referring to his policy, which brought in and saved thousand of Khmer refugees who have since settled throughout the Union.

President Carter also proclaimed that, “The Khmer Rouge is the world worst human right abuser in our modern time.” Still, the Khmer Rouge managed to hold a seat at the United Nations, in spite of this fact. The Khmer Rouge as an organization, succeeded in taking Cambodia back to “year zero” for an already poor and rural society by eliminating most of the middle class and the educated. Precious human resource and knowledge were whipped out almost completely. It is a sad legacy that, no doubt, will haunt this poverty stricken nation for a long time yet to come.

Today, the Khmer have been scattered and dispersed all over the planet as the Cham people were in ancient time. We are slowly losing our home and our cultural identity. Our national unity, which is the fabric of our lives, has been severely fractured. We have been split into many different “camps” or “factions.” We are killing one another like we are bitter enemies. In the mean time, Cambodia’s more powerful and antagonistic neighbors are still doing the same old trick of divide and conquer the Khmer people. They will continue to do their best to destroy the Khmer unity, the single fabric that binds us together and made us great in the past, present, and possibly in the future. The sad part is that we have allowed this unnatural process to happen over and over again. In short, we have not learned from our past mistakes or past glories.

Cambodia today remained a shattered and ruined wasteland where a sense of impunity, injustice, and hopelessness continue to reign supreme. The majority of the people still live below poverty line, while the rich and the ruling elites continue to prosper. Cambodia currently is on the mend and its current leadership is doing its best to get Cambodia back on track with the rest of the world. Yet, the process is like a slow boat to Shanghais, China with nothing to eat except salted egg and rice, when available. It is a dysfunctional as well as uncivil society where anarchy reign and the rule of laws are not respected. It is a troublesome society in which the most powerful and corrupt flourish and the weak languish. Hopelessness is a constant companion for the majority of the population who lives in the countryside and lives in fear. Justice is a term too valuable for the ordinary and the poor to dream of where the sense of impunity reign unchecked. Those with guns and money sat on top of the food chain. Abuses became routine and accepted norms.

Cambodia today is a society that necessarily lives in the present with little regard for the future. The plundering of the country’s precious resources for individual gain, including its cultural resources, its forests, fishes, and gems, continues to wreak havoc on the environment with devastating results. Severe drought and terrible flooding became a common occurrence where crops often failed. As a direct result, the people went hungry again and again. For a country, which was once self sustained and proud, Cambodia has now rely mostly on the generosity and hand out from the international community for its survival. It has become in fact a “beggar state.”

According to the 1998 U.N. development index, Cambodia ranks 140 out of 174 nations surveyed. The average life expectancy is just over 50 years; the infant mortality rate for children younger than one year is 110 per 1,000 live births. Only a third of Khmers have access to clean and safe drinking water. The majority of children are severely malnourished and their growth is stunted. A recent study conducted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization indicates that Cambodia has the lowest average calorie availability per person per day in all of East and Southeast Asia. The literacy rate is a dismal 65 percent for the general population, and even lower for females. Per capita income is only about $250. One in approximately 240 Khmers has been the victim of a land mine, a direct result of three decades of warfare. Cambodia is now well known as the narcotic transit of Asia, according to the U.S. Department of States.

As though Cambodia has not suffered enough, it has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in Southeast Asia, a direct result of a thriving sex industry that includes women and children (both male and female). “Sex tourism” to Cambodia became an accepted business practice, and according to recent reports, was encouraged by some unscrupulous tourism officials. Tourists are often bused directly to the local brothels, which were supposed to be illegal under the current law, from the airport. Women and children are once again victimized by this industry.

Cambodia today is slowly backed on the right track and joining the world community once again. It is an agonizingly slow process. The current leadership has begun to change, I believe, its entrenched communist ideology and took to capitalism and market economy like fish to water. The leaders also realize that, in the past, ideology and power was good, but now power and wealth are much, much better. The leaders, most of them, also has somewhat embraced plural democracy and slowly moving away from dictatorship. However, the old-bad habits die hard, but they are slowly and surely eroding as time passed.

The current leadership also realizes that it can no longer operating in a “vacuum” and live in a tight “cocoon.” These new (and old) leaders are still committed themselves to the patronage of either Vietnam or Thailand, but they are also learning to appeal to outsider powers, such China and the United States for support and neutralization of the powerful neighbors. The country has opened up a great deal in the last few years, since the U.N. Peace Keeping operation in the early 90’s. More than 300 local and international NGOs, the None Governmental Organizations, currently operate in the kingdom to bring and ensure constructive changes. The government is now a full pledge member of the United Nations. It is also a member of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, and a regional economic and security organization. It is looking to join the WTO, the World Trade Organization, to improve its global economic trade. Cambodia’s primitive economy is growing between 4 and 6% per year, with the assistance of the international community financial aid, injection of foreign investment, and a sharp rise in tourism, which brought in hard currency Cambodia is desperately needed. The inflation remains low and in line with the Gross National Products.

The future is looking a whole lot brighter with the advance of political stability. The infighting amongst factions had effectively ended. They are now too busy making easy money rather than making wars. Peace has finally prevailed after nearly three decades of turmoil. The Khmer Rouge, as a political and military organization, is effectively dead. Its former senior leaders, those who are still alive and cleverer ones, are seeking a dark hole to hide in order to avoid being prosecuted. A few sat in jail awaiting a trial, whimpering. They would pay for their heinous crimes in this life or the next one. They can no longer play Gods with innocent people lives as they did before.

Cambodia needs a little time to recover from a national nightmare and a tragedy. It will take some time for Cambodia to regain a solid foothold in a civil society once more. With a lot of perseverance and hard work and luck, Cambodia will get there, I am most certain.

Khmer history and society is several thousands years old. The Khmer people are a strong and spirited people. The Khmer would not survive this long without being a resilient people. These people are the descendants of those who had built the splendor of Angkor for the world to behold. There is always hope! Why? Simply because the Khmer people just don’t quit so easily. The Khmer are relentless in their pursuit of glory.

For every bad person out there in Cambodia, there are ten of thousands of good, clean, and decent people who are continued to work very hard to improve their neighborhood, community, and society as a whole. The Khmer Rouge had tried to eradicate the decency and kindness in the Khmer people, but they failed miserably. The Khmer need time to heal and to reconcile after more than three decades of turmoil. The Khmer also need help in order for them to learn how to help themselves once again. The Khmer are doing their best to help themselves during this transition period. It is also a very difficult time of learning to live again for the Khmer people following years of untold suffering.

There is a fine line between “nationalism, patriotism, racism, and fanaticism.” Both Pol Pot and King Jayavarman VII’s reign are two classic examples of this “fine line.” Each and every Khmer, I believe, considers him or herself as a “nationalist” or a “patriot,” as Pol Pot and King Jayavarman VII did. However, very few dares to admit that he or she is a “racist” or a “fanatic.” The final results, including both success and failure, are what defined the differences. Like it or not, there will always be “nationalism, patriotism, racism, and fanaticism” in Cambodia and in Khmer society. It is part of human nature. These traits are what made Cambodia great, or not so great, as clearly proven by Jayavarman VII, the greatest Khmer “god king” of ancient Cambodia, and Pol Pot, the greatest Khmer “evil king” of modern day Cambodia.

The issue of “ethnic cleansing” in Cambodia under Lon Nol and Pol Pot’s regime, especially against ethnic Vietnamese, is still being debated and hotly contested by some. As with the holocaust from around the world, including Nazi’s Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, there are those who still “naively” claimed that such atrocities against human kind never existed. They never occurred, according to a few who saw it as simply “propaganda.” Evidence of such heinous occurrences, especially against ethnic groups in Cambodia, speaks louder than denial by those few naïve people. Recognizing the problem is part of or half of the solution, I strongly believe. Denial of such a problem only led to more of the same problem again and again, as history was never learned from through denial.

What would the future bring for Cambodia? Like Cambodia’s humble and mysterious beginning in ancient time, no one knows for certain what tomorrow may bring. Perhaps this is one attempt, my own attempt so to speak, to try to predict the future of Cambodia.

Just as the geological and erosion processes that physically made Cambodia today, the process of territorial encroachment by Cambodia’s neighbors are on going. Just as certain as the Sun rises, Cambodia shall continue to shrink until there is nothing left one day, as the Cham people found out centuries ago. Cambodia had already lost Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam and much of western part of Cambodia to Thailand in the recent past. Without a doubt, Cambodia will continue to loose more territory to our neighbors even of today.

To the Khmer, Vietnam has always been our mortal enemy. Ever since we are old enough to remember, we are taught to “hate and fear” the Vietnamese. We are taught that the Vietnamese are evil because they did bad thing to the Khmer. They are completely different people, with different culture and language. Ironically, both Thailand and Vietnam have invaded and have always been a threat to Cambodia since ancient time. Yet, we have tendency to readily accept the Thai more so than the Vietnamese does. Why is that? Could this be because of the fact that Thailand and Cambodia have similarity in culture, language, religion, and others? Perhaps we are cousins? Perhaps we are closer relatives than Vietnam? I believe our hatred and fear for the Vietnamese is rooted deep in racism, since we in fact have bitter past experience with both Thailand and Vietnam.

Only the Khmer people can decide, for ourselves, if we wish to go down in history as Champa did centuries ago or they learn from the past in order to have a brighter and more glorious future. The greatest of Khmer god king, Jayavarman VII, always respected, but he never fears his enemies. He was a great “nationalist and also a patriot.” He was able to achieve great glory for Cambodia and the Khmer people during the ancient time. On the other hand, Pol Pot always feared, but he never respects his enemies. He was in fact a “racist and a fanatic.” His legacy will be set in stone as a dismal failure and destroyer of Khmer people in the Cambodia’s contemporary history.

The chance for us to regain lost territory and people again is next to nothing. It is simply a wishful thinking, a nice and naïve dream, with little regards for today’s world reality. The best that we, the Khmer, can do is to maintain our identity and hold on to what we have now. Even this task alone is an uphill battle for as long as we remain fractured and bitter rivals. United we stand, but divided fall. This is more true now than ever before. According to the wisdom of Mr. Kenneth T. So, an ethnic Khmer living in the U.S., as he wrote in 1999: “When Cambodia becomes a nation with an economic strength parallel to Thailand’s and a social justice system parallel to the western world’s, then the Khmer living in Thailand and Vietnam will have a great affinity. Khmer Surin and Khmer Krom are like two children separated from their parents during a war. One child was put in an orphanage; the other was adopted. The adopted child may have an easier time than the orphan child growing up, but both long for their parents to come and take them back home. The adopted child who lives with relatively rich parents may not want to go back home to his real parents if these are poor and drunk. Yes, Cambodia right now is poor, drunk, and undisciplined. The same may be less so for the orphan child, but he nevertheless wishes for good parents. Until the real parents are sober, good providers, full of tender and loving care, then and only then, will the children respect their parents. I believe that Cambodia can be a good parent to her children. Don’t let artificial frontiers separate us: we must be united in spirit and action. One day we will all come back home and rejoice as a united Khmer family.” I, as a native Khmer who live far in the West, could not have agreed more with this view. My heart and mind is still very much with my Cambodia.

I believe Cambodia is in a desperate need of a strong and yet compassionate leader, such as King Jayavarman VII. We need a leader who is not only respectful, but also fearless in the face of his or her enemies. The one who can feel his or her subject’s pain and suffering through the sense of empathy-not necessary sympathy. A leader who can see Cambodia’s past as the key to the survival of the Khmer, as a race and a people. Why? Simply because one can’t just “dig a hole and bury the past” as PM Hun Sen dared to declare in late 1999 when the last surviving Khmer Rouge leadership finally returned to Khmer society from the jungle, after more than 30 years in hiding and fighting. Cambodia’s past is like a shadow that cannot simply be buried or discarded, but learn from it. It can be a burden as well as a blessing in disguise. In order to go forward, Cambodia must look to her past glory for strength and also for lesson learned from past mistakes of the not so glory in Cambodia’s history.

Finally, Cambodia really needs a leader who honestly believes that Cambodia as a nation cannot survive without her people, a unify people, regardless of ethnicity or where they currently reside. Whether these people are in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and overseas, Cambodia needs to unite all of them. Without such a strong, capable, and compassionate leader, Cambodia and the Khmer people fate is doomed as with the Cham people centuries ago.

Suggested Reading

Becker, Elizabeth. When the War Was Over
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Chandler, David. Second Edition. A History of Cambodian History
Bangkok: Silkworm Books, 1993.

Chandler, David. The Tragedy of Cambodian History
New York: Vail-Ballou Press, 1991.

Dagens, Bruno. Angkor, Heart of An Asian Empire
New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1995.

Findlay, Trevor. Cambodia: The Legacy and Lessons of UNTAC
New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Gilley, Bruce. “Dancing with the Dragon”
Far Eastern Economic Review. December 11, 1997.

Kamm, Henry. Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land
New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998.

Thayer, Nate. “Medellin on the Mekong”
Far Eastern Economic Review. November 23, 1995.


Written by Kolbot Khmer

April 28, 2010 at 6:41 am

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