In a country governed by a democratic political system, it is
commonly understood that people have both a voice and the power to
choose their leaders. Moreover, the leader’s term in office is
usually limited to a specified number of years by the country’s
In Cambodia, however, while there is in theory a democratic system
in place, there are a number of obstacles to a democratic system
being enjoyed by the people in practice.
The first obstacle involves the prime minister himself, Prime
Minister Hun Sen. Unfortunately, he does not adhere to this
definition of democracy, for he appears to be afraid of hearing
people’s voices and opinions, and he is emotionally distant from the
Cambodian people. In fact, people’s voices and opinions seem to be
Since he is not connected with people’s feelings, his government
continues to seize, raze and burn people’s homes at will. People
around the world are heartbroken to see people being evicted from
their own homes, but not Hun Sen. Instead, he wants Cambodians to
smile to the world while they are in pain after losing their home
and their land and pretend they are happy.
In the July 2013 elections, I strongly doubt that they will be a
free and fair electoral exercise. As usual, the votes will be
counted before people even cast their ballots, and Vietnamese people
living in the country, the country’s largest ethnic minority, will
once again be mobilized to vote for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s
Party (CPP). In addition, he will distort, bribe, threaten or force
people to vote for the CPP through which he continues to subtly
destroy people’s lives, let alone their liberty and happiness.
A second obstacle to a democratic system in Cambodia is the
prevalence of corruption. In the environment of corruption that
permeates society and under Hun Sen’s system of control, no one is
allowed to have happiness, to live with dignity and freedom. Rather,
the majority of people continue to experience suffering, poverty,
forced evections, killings and the denial of their rights.
Meanwhile, a minority of the people—Hun Sen’s family, his inner
group of friends and his party members—are allowed to live freely
with a superior attitude and a happy life.
This imbalance of power and the privileged lifestyle that
accompanies it is supported by Cambodia’s media, which plays a major
role in maintaining the present status quo as 95 percent of the
media is controlled by Hun Sen. This lack of an independent media is
yet a third obstacle to democracy in Cambodia.
In such a suffocating context, it is difficult for democracy to
breathe, for people to enjoy life, liberty, dignity and happiness. I
strongly believe that Cambodia’s citizens want freedom. It is only a
small group—the CPP themselves—that want communist rule in Cambodia.
The people though do not want to live under the yoke of communism.
They want to have their own homes and to be able to love their own
families and children like those who live elsewhere in the world. To
establish in Cambodia a functioning democracy, to enjoy life,
liberty, dignity and happiness, is a challenge. Those who love
democracy should work together to bring hope to our people. We must
keep working with democratic nations and the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) against tyranny.
An initial step in this direction is teaching people to know and
understand their basic rights, international human rights and other
laws and treaties that offer human rights protection. Through
encouraging Cambodians and members of the international community to
work together in solidarity and with a common vision and goal to
promote and protect universal human rights, we believe that some day
the people of Cambodia will have a chance to see a new light, a
light of life, liberty, dignity and happiness.
I have a dream that when Cambodia becomes a truly democratic country
then individuals will be able to use their skills and talents
according to the rule of law that everyone obeys to bring about
prosperity and people’s dignity.
Corporations, for instance, pay individuals for their skills and
talents that they use to compete to make their products and services
better and to improve efficiency so they can sell their products and
services more cheaply and still make profits. Take the example of
buying a printer. Ten years ago it probably cost about US$500 for a
color printer, but nowadays a consumer probably has to spend only
about $60 for a color printer, and the company still makes a profit.
Individual knowledge for which corporations pay large salaries to
their employees makes it possible for us, the consumer, to enjoy the
product at a lower cost.
A great deal of successful economic activity in Cambodia is possible
if the country is led by a democratic leader. For example, Cambodia
can generate billions of dollars from Tonle Sap, the largest
freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, by selling fish caught in this
lake. Vietnam and Thailand each generate more than US$5 billion per
year from shrimp farming. Cambodians though can catch shrimp for
free in Tonle Sap and can farm shrimp too if needed.
Moreover, lumber that Hun Sen today sells so cheaply to foreigners
or even gives to foreigners for free can be used to make furniture
that can be sold on the international market to consumers in
countries like the United States, Canada, the European Union, etc.
Another way to create jobs for Cambodia’s people is to bring
high-tech companies to assemble electronics in Cambodia because it
is cheap to do so in the country. There are thus many ways to
improve people’s lives in Cambodia.
All of the above work requires individual knowledge. This process is
how Cambodia can create jobs for its people and put ever larger
amounts of money in their pockets and bank accounts through selling
these products and services to foreign markets that produce money
for Cambodia’s people that helps lift them out of poverty.
Under Hun Sen’s rule, however, the country will only continue to
experience its present destructive tendencies. The Hun Sen
government, for example, currently gives land concessions to foreign
corporations each week while Cambodia’s population increases at the
same time. This course of action means that in the future the
Cambodian people will have less land to farm for their survival
because most of the land in Cambodia will soon be owned by
foreigners. Consequently, Cambodia’s people will eventually go
Another problem is land fertility. Our ancestors depended on rich
natural soil that rainwater brought to their farmland from decaying
leaves in the jungle that enhanced the fertility of their soil for
growing rice. Under the present government, however, Hun Sen and his
clan cut down trees and sell them to foreigners for the benefit of
their pockets. Thus, Cambodia’s jungle will soon disappear, and
Cambodian farmers, who depend on the rich natural soil produced in
the jungle, will soon suffer from the disappearance of the jungle
through deforestation. When farmers try to compensate for this loss
of naturally produced soil by using chemical fertilizers, it costs
them money and affects their income from agriculture.
For instance, if a family has five members and has only five
hectares of farmland and each hectare can yield only one or two tons
of rice, then that farmer cannot sell their rice to pay for chemical
fertilizers because they need this rice to feed their five family
members for the whole year. In the long term, farmers thus cannot
survive on their farmland because they have to spend too much money
on fertilizers with less return.
This phenomenon is what I call “killing without bleeding.” Is it
perhaps another form of genocide? Cambodia’s people will suffer from
malnutrition and die, and no one will care.
It is therefore imperative to bring about change and create a
democratic government in Cambodia. With democracy, Cambodia’s people
will enjoy life, liberty, dignity and happiness. To enjoy life in a
free world, Cambodians need to practice democracy, a democracy that
gives people a voice and the power to truly choose their leaders.
* Hor Hen is a 2007 alumni of the School of Peace (SOP) conducted
by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) in Bangalore, India. He lives
in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.