December 2012

 

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Working for Cambodia’s Democracy

Hor Hen


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 Constitution.

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 his enemies.

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 hungry.

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.