Friday, May 30, 2008

Cambodia’s Image and the Western World’s Perceptions and Expectations

It has been a while since I last posted a commentary here. Sometimes people have to earn a living and don’t have the time to engage in their field of interests. This will also be my last article for a long time as I will be busy with a different project, unless my two co-authors on this blog contribute something in the meantime.

Besides, not a whole lot has happened – just the normal fare. The Sam Rainsy Party is still losing members. The overseas Khmer still keep slamming Hun Sen and his government. Various NGOs still publish their mostly negative findings about Cambodia. But in Cambodia itself the people go about their lives as usual. They don’t seem to care what everybody else is saying, least of all the pundits who don’t live in Cambodia, the NGOs who are seen to line their pockets with donor countries’ money, and the various self-proclaimed experts who publish blogs and lecture everybody who will or won’t listen what the government should do to better life in Cambodia.

Time and again this writer has voiced his opinion that the development of one of the most backward nations on earth will take a long time. Cambodia came out of the Age of Darkness in 1992 and started developing seriously in 1998. The time in between was lost to internecine fighting within the government. Both coalition partners wanted to claim sole power for themselves. Naturally, only one came up the winner.

In this context two recent publications stand out as they seem to run counter to the conventional perception of Cambodia. One was the Global Peace Index (GPI) put out by the Vision for Humanity, Australia, and the other one was a poll taken by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Cambodia about voting preferences and whether the country is moving in the right direction.

Astonishingly enough, Cambodia is ranked 91 on the GPI of 140, Vietnam is 37, Thailand is 118, Laos is 51, Singapore is 29, Malaysia is 38, Burma is 126, and the United States is a mere 97. All the rankings can be found here

The GPI is a very complex index and the mere rankings can be misleading. At first glance the U.S. appears to be at rank 97 because of its ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, its threat of force against Iran, and other so-called rogue nations. In order to understand it completely one must look at the methodology.

The most peaceful countries are in dark blue, the least peaceful in red.

Nevertheless, some people were disputing the validity of Cambodia’s ranking alongside the U. S. out of hand. This couldn’t possibly be. Never mind, that Cambodia is enjoying peace it hasn’t known for a long time. Never mind, that people can travel everywhere without risk of guerilla warfare. The country is at peace with its neighbors, whether by accommodation or not. The fact in itself counts. Never mind, that people can pretty much do what they like. Pundits blast the GPI for being slanted and unscientific (who has the qualification to judge?). Never mind that the most renowned peace researchers of the world who compiled this study are members of the organization.

So far overlooked has also been the so-called Happiness Index put out by the New Economic Foundation.

Dark green = very good, light green = good, yellow = medium, orange = poor, red = very poor

Cambodia ranks 91 on this index, Vietnam 12, Thailand 32, Laos 109, Singapore 131, Myanmar 77, the United States 150 out of 178.

This foundation used three criteria in its assessment: life satisfaction, life expectancy, and the ecological footprint. For further details of how this index is calculated please visit their website. It would lead to far to go into detail here.

What is noteworthy, though, is the fact that Cambodia’s index is poor alongside Western Europe’s and Canada’s, and still better than the U. S’s. It appears as if the rat race in the industrialized world makes people rather unhappy, while people in a Communist country like Vietnam are happier, where practically all decisions are made for the people by the government, and where they don’t have this kind of rat race driven by avaricious consumption.

Now, looking at these two indices life in Cambodia, though not entirely bliss, can’t be that bad, or can it?

The IRI conducted a poll of 2000 eligible voters in February this year and found that 77% of those interviewed said the country is moving in the right direction, with 20% saying it’s moving in the wrong direction.

They also found that 55% would vote for the governing CPP in the coming July elections with 25% undecided.

This prompted the Prime Minister to glee saying again and again that this proves they are doing a good job, and that the opposition had better not doubt any election outcome, as they had indicated. The opposition rejected this poll outright, arguing it was flawed, probably they asked the wrong cross-section of people, maybe even people selected by the CPP, etc. Nothing new there – it just again goes to show that the opposition is rather hapless when it comes to real politics. They don’t see that people vote with their stomachs and not with their minds.

This quote from a blog about Cambodia called ‘Details are Sketchy’ sums it up pretty succinctly.

Here’s something the current crop of opposition parties don’t seem to understand: people don’t vote on the issues, they vote with their guts. When rural people look at Hun Sen they see somebody just like them, a simple, hard-working farm boy. When they look at Sam Rainsy, they see the urban-elite stereotype personified: raised in France, speaks French, and looks like he’s never known a minute of hard work in his life. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter one bit. That’s the perception. City people might like Sam Rainsy, but rural people will never identify with him, not in a million years.

It is the opposition as well as their supporters both inside and outside Cambodia who paint the bleakest picture of the country sending an image to the world at large that in no way reflects reality for the average Joe, or should I say Sophal, in the country itself.

We do know what’s wrong with the country and its government. We do know corruption is rampant, 35% percent live below the poverty level, the judicial system is controlled by the ruling party, the educational system is largely dysfunctional, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer (or are they?), there is no public health system, the economy is based on two or three key industries, a very unhealthy basis for future growth and development. We do know there is land grabbing and forced evictions. We do know as we are reminded on a daily basis by all those NGOs who make a living pointing out those inequities and the disparity with what should be and what is.

But if you compare the country to 1988 (the first time I set foot in it) and 2008, this is like night and day, like the Dark Ages and the onset of the Modern Age. This belies what the opposition and their supporters are claiming day in day out. Of course, they are encouraged by the many critical articles in newspapers and magazines written by journalists who do a good job pointing out societies’ ills but don’t have a clue of how to cure them. They are encouraged by human rights organizations whose job it is to reveal the truths about abuses and violations of basic rights. And, yes, we do need those reminders and critical articles.

This writer does not support the current government and its policies, but he does see what reality is like for normal people in Cambodia. There can be no doubt in anybody’s mind that life is better for more people than ever before. Progress is slow, but there is progress. This brings me to the dominating thought for this article. Why do people with a Western background want to impose on other countries their set of values and their philosophies, neglecting the different cultures, traditions, ways of thinking, and expectations of life? After all, the West took almost 300 years to develop a kind of system that allows people to flourish and fail of their own free will, giving them all the freedoms we all so cherish, but also abusing those freedoms on occasion when it fits the purpose.

The first modern democracy passed a constitution that laid down the written groundwork after which all subsequent democracies are patterned, albeit with variations. But we also know that even after 232 years this democracy is flawed, the society it produced is far from free, civil rights are still being abused, voting rights are impaired for minorities, women are not treated equally, the judicial system is far from perfect, and happiness and well-being are terms widely and frequently used by politicians, but the stark reality is a far cry from this.

This country is held out as the shining example of what other countries ought to strive for. It is perennially depicted as the richest, the freest, and the most powerful country on the face of the earth (as politicians of all stripes and colors are wont to say). But this is also the country that

· annihilated the native Americans to a mere shadow of their former existence
· imported slaves from Africa to work their plantations
· exploited immigrants as a cheap labor force upon which its wealth is built and continues to be built
· did not abolish slavery until 1876
· was in large part lawless well into the early 20th century
· did not grant their women voting rights until 1920
· did not grant native Americans voting rights until 1924
· did not pass the Civil Rights act until 1957
· did not pass the Voting Rights act until 1964
· did not abolish segregation until 1968
· that bombed an officially neutral country and killed its innocent people
· conducted a war with chemicals and napalm that cost Vietnam 2 million lives.
· had a President who was driven from office for criminal acts committed for his re-election
· sends innocent people to prison and even executes some of them due to a flawed judicial system based on the Anglo-Saxon jury system and common law (with grandstanding district attorneys wanting to win at all costs)
· continues to profile people of non-Caucasian descent, especially African-Americans
· has 15% of the population living below the poverty level
· has 45 millions that cannot afford basic health insurance
· has 6% of the population controlling 85% of the wealth
· has wide-spread corruption reaching into the highest circles of government (governors, senators, congressman convicted of corruption are found in the prison population - $360 million was sidelined by New York City officials)
· had a President who was hounded by his opponents for his liberal policies and was impeached for sexual dalliances with obstruction of justice as a legal pretense.
· has a President who deceived his country and the world and led the country to an unjustified war
· has a President who signed laws severely limiting civil rights
· has an Administration that eavesdrops on innocent and harmless people’s lives
· calls itself Christian but conducts wars almost every decade of its history. Lest one forgets the Fifth Commandment says ‘Though Shalt Not Kill’.
· calls itself Christian but continues to execute people
· lets people perish after natural catastrophies due to sheer ineptitude
and so on, and so on.

But this is 2008. And mind you, this is the role model country for democracy and human rights, at least in their own view. And this is the country where democracy was formally established in 1776 with a model constitution passed in 1778.

Now, I am asking, ‘Why aren’t people willing to give Cambodia some more time to find its way into the future – a future that will eventually make all Cambodians more prosperous and happy with their lives in their native country? Why must Cambodia achieve the things in 10 or 20 years when other countries have taken ten times as long only to achieve imperfection?

We can see that this is not an easy road; it is full of rocks and potholes. So bringing people together, even you adversaries, will accomplish more and bring about the necessary change. Only this will pave the road to true well-being.

This is why I say to all those people blasting each and every one holding a different opinion: ‘Shut up, get off your butt and get to work!’

Jay Rupert
Cambodia, May 2008


Anonymous said...

You advocates the idea that Cambodia is moving in the right direction, what it needs is just a matter of time. Could you tell why?

Free-Thinker said...

Yes, I do believe it is moving the right direction despite the mismanagement and the corruption taking place in today's Cambodia. I commented on this in previous blogs many times. The current leadership, and that includes the opposition, does not have the know-how to govern an underdeveloped country. sThey need to learn the ropes the hard way, by trial and error. The inherent corruption, of course, is one of the greatest roadblocks in the development of Cambodia. But one has to understand that this inherent in all underdeveloped countries, as sad as it is. Besides a few highly educated ministers, e. g. Hor Nam Hong (yes, I am sorry to say) all high-level bureaucrats were either educated in Communist Moscow or in Hanoi before those governments looked at a more liberal economic environment. The opposition is no better. Though Sam Rainsy is well-educated he is an investment banker and does not have any experience in public administration. There are renowned universities in Europe and the U. S. with those faculties. So the opposition would not be in a position to lead the country without making grave and serious errors, perhaps not the mistakes being made by the current government but their own.
So what's needed is a new generation of public servants educated in appropriate universities in the West or in Singapore, etc. The current leadership is still learning, which is taking time. The new generation is not ready yet, so this will take time as well. And finally, countries do not develop in the span of 10 to 20 or even 30 years. It took the West more than 70 years starting with the age of industrialization and two world wars to arrive at a point where there was freedom, justice, equal rights, and opportunity for the majority of their populations. Cambodia certainly needs to be given more time.

Anonymous said...

I have an opposite view. I think Cambodia's moving in a wrong direction. I look at the most fundamental part of a nation - the people, and that fundamental is gravely spoiled. Evil politicians from both the government and the opposition has been instituting misleading ideologies that has no sign of ending, and the people themselves are so fragile because of their low level of education, inactiveness and selfishness. I really can't be optimistic that a country can move in the right direction with such a corrupted fundamental.

Free-Thinker said...

I think we need to clarify the term 'right direction'. It surely does not mean that the current course of the government and opposition politicians is the correct and desirable one. When I contend it is moving in the right direction I am saying that countries such as Cambodia have basically only one way to go, and that is on the path to further development. Compared to other underdeveloped nations in Asia and Africa Cambodia does not fare too badly. Despite the recent arrest of a newspaper editor the press is relatively free, although not unharrassed, the people have their basic liberties, although not all human rights are afforded to everybody, the economy is on a course beneficial to the further development in all fields. Nobody is saying everything is perfect or that there isn't a lot to be done but the fundamentals are there. If you say that the current misleading ideologies are not conducive to this, you are right, but as opposed to you I firmly believe there is a self-correcting mechanism in every population that enjoys at minimum partial civil liberties. It will be for the next generation and the one after that to lead the country into something resembling the Western ideals of a free society. The biggest hurdle to this is, of course, a functioning educational system. But ever more young people are learning about the truths of this world, which will not go without making its mark on Khmer society in general. The selfishness is typical phenomenon of a people that has suffered for a long time and material goods are seen as part of a fulfilled life. Only with greater material well-being will come a more altruistic attitude. The U. S. is again a good example. Its people developed from a free-for-all capitalistic robber-baron mentality in the late 19th century to a society that has many philanthropic traits. A lot of those are rooted in their Christian belief, but Cambodian society with their strong Buddhist background has the same fundamentals. As said before, it will take time. Don't be so pessimistic.