Doctrine divides, Action unites


  January 2014

The Selfishness Epidemic in Cambodia

Hor Hen

The skulls in the Killings Fields Museum on the outskirts of Phnom
Penh remind visitors of the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s and the
devastation it brought to Cambodia. Decades later, its people are
still trying to overcome the poverty that the country’s violent
history has planted. (Photo by Bruce Van Voorhis)

Cambodia has a reputation as a poor country in Asia and, indeed, in the world. Cambodians live in poverty and, in general, face many hardships. Why though is Cambodia poor? Why are its people living in poverty and suffering? Why is Cambodia so weak? Why are Cambodian people selfish in such an environment?

First of all, these questions can be answered simply: it is because of poor government leadership and corruption. From one generation to another, the Cambodian people have been faced with many problems that have resulted in years of suffering and insecurity. Because of the violence and fighting in the country, people are poor; people live with fear, feel hungry and suffer, all of which push them to become selfish. Meanwhile, corruption has taken root in the Cambodian system of government, among the people and throughout all of society. The government created a corrupt system from the top to the bottom; they fomented corruption among the ruling family, ruling party and the institutions of government.

For example, the government created the security apparatus—the police and military—and uses a system of corruption to maintain them. Prime Minister Hun Sen has increased their power and unleashes this power to abuse and exploit the people, deny their rights and expropriate their property. With this power and a culture of corruption, Hun Sen has confiscated and exploited Cambodia’s natural resources.

In an impoverished nation, the government should plan how to develop the country and cultivate the capacity of the people. In Cambodia, however, this recipe for national improvement is not exercised as the Cambodian government merely thinks about how it can utilize corruption to gain more money and resources to maintain its power and position. The government of Hun Sen never considers how to improve the living standards of the Cambodian people or how to develop the country as neighboring countries have done, countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia. Instead, the government asks for support from countries that have become more affluent rather than work to alleviate the nation’s poverty. Hun Sen never thinks of developing people’s knowledge, capacity or skills that would help people to develop the country. Rather, he wants Cambodia to remain poor with uneducated people so that he can use the power he has accumulated over the years to control and manipulate them. When the people are poor and uneducated, it becomes easy for Hun Sen and the government to exploit the people and to sell all of Cambodia’s natural resources to benefit his family and political party.

Since I was born and was in school, I have been faced with civil wars. When I was in secondary school, for instance, I learned a great deal about the history of Cambodia, a history filled with the catastrophe of conflicts and wars. I also learned that the people believe that the king or the government are the parents of the people and have to fulfill their duties and responsibilities to keep the country at peace, to develop the country and to fairly provide education to all people.

What I learned and what I experienced though have been very different. I learned and heard people say that the country has lived through one national disaster after another because of its wars and conflicts, that the leaders fought and killed each other. They even killed their own families—brothers and sisters and other relatives—just to remain on the throne or to get to the throne to have its power. In their minds, they just wanted to take control of the Cambodian people. They never took any time to contemplate about how to promote love, to build a peaceful country or how to create solidarity and harmony among the people. Rather, they initiated wars and conflicts and harmed their own people, driving them into a life of poverty and suffering.

When I look back at the history of Cambodia, it really hurts me so much that every king and government of Cambodia has created such a destructive history. Most leaders created a history of wars and suffering for the Cambodian people. Consequently, people do not have any faith in them any longer.

One can witness this pattern by looking at just a brief history of the country. From 1970 to 1975, for example, when the country was governed by President Lon Nol, Cambodia experienced a time of conflict and war. People lived in fear and insecurity and suffered. Then another government came to replace it from 1975 to 1979 led by Pol Pot—the Khmer Rouge regime—that abused its power and killed millions of Cambodian people and led Cambodia into even more years of fighting that killed even more people and made people’s life a living hell. In 1979, Pol Pot was defeated by the Vietnamese, and Hun Sen took power and became the prime minister of Cambodia from that time to the present.

Living under the Hun Sen government, people were hopeful that they would no longer suffer, that they would no longer experience wars, killing, starvation and death. This hope though has never been realized. People have thus been disappointed as they must still live with civil wars, insecurity and starvation. The Cambodian people and, indeed, the world knew that the Hun Sen government was communist and a dictatorship. Is it any surprise then that Hun Sen has continued abusing and killing people, instilling fear in them, misusing his power over them? Rather than serving the people, he has fostered in the country a political, social and economic system that is rooted in corruption and exploitation; a culture of class and discrimination is pervasive in Cambodian society.

Looking at Cambodia’s leaders, most of them have a very poor education and limited leadership skills; they fail to offer a vision, mission and plan for good governance. Their plans are always short term with most benefits flowing to them. Based on their actions and policies, one can conclude that they lack patriotism: they do not love their own country and its citizens. Otherwise, they would not treat them so poorly and with such disrespect.

Cambodia’s leaders are, in fact, very selfish and only love power, their position and greed. Their lust for power and greed makes them blind; they cannot see or feel the suffering of their own people who they allow to live in poverty, who are hungry and who are filled with insecurity. When people have power in Cambodia, they abuse, dominate and exploit other people’s rights and dignity. This indifference toward people and their rights and dignity is merely to protect their position, to maintain their power and to make it even stronger. It is safe to say that Hun Sen and his government does not work for the benefit of the people; it does not work to protect or serve the development of the people. Rather, the opposite is true: they only seek to protect their group, their family and their party. I believe that nothing though is permanent in this world; it must change one day.

It must be underlined again that the poor leadership and example of Hun Sen’s government has created corruption everywhere—in government ministries; in offices; in short, in both the public and private sectors. Corruption has now become a culture that is rooted deeply in people’s mind. It makes people become selfish, an attitude and way of life that are hard to extinguish. People who have a high government position use their power to make money in a variety of ways through cheating, stealing and even killing people just to make money. They destroy the forests, mountains and other natural resources just for their benefit. Corruption is like a drug to which people become addicted. They need to become richer and richer in order to maintain their status and power. They never think about saving the forests or other natural resources. They never view these resources as the national property of the Cambodian people that they should sustainably develop for the benefit of the people of both the current and future generations. They never think of doing even some small good deed to help the people that they, in theory, are supposed to serve as a public servant.

Garment workers in Cambodia called a strike on Dec. 24, 2013,
calling for their minimum wage to be doubled to US$160 per month
 that would help address the imbalance in wealth in the country
that corruption and exploitation have created. Their protests
though were met with the arrest of 23 demonstrators and the fatal
shooting by security forces of at least five people and injuries to
dozens more. (Photo from [top] and

Moreover, there are also the rich men and women, the employers in the private sector, who also dive into the cesspool of corruption. They use their knowledge, skills and expertise to exploit their employees, who are often very poor people. They never consider how hard it is for their workers to survive. They do not see the suffering and staving stomach of their poor employees who are no longer human beings in their eyes; they are merely production units to exploit to attain more wealth.

Sadly, the culture of corruption and selfishness is very deeply rooted in society among every Khmer person, even the poor. This phenomenon explains why people have lost their sense of solidarity, compassion, loving kindness, cooperation and the spirit of family and friendship. It should be understood though that the devalued moral fiber of society and the broken relationships that result from it are not the mistakes of the people themselves, but rather, they are a reflection of the poor leadership of those directing the government and their system and style of governance that promotes corruption and selfishness. Because they are poor, people feel insecure and live in fear and have mistrust of others. It is hard to survive in a country that is controlled and influenced by corruption and which has a dictatorial government. In such an environment, ordinary people too become selfish and immoral, relating to others with a small heart and losing their sense of love, compassion and solidarity. Living in poverty and suffering for many years can induce people to think that they too also want to become rich. Consequently, they lose their sense of integrity and become dishonest, ambitious and misplace their morality, all of which encourages them to do evil deeds. Through this process, they forget to think of the security and happiness of their neighbors or others in society; they neglect solidarity and how to develop the country with more prosperity for everyone.

In theory, reversing these trends is easy: corruption should end; a desire for domination should be curtailed; a more democratic government should assume power; the sense of solidarity among people should be revived and should replace the impulses for greed and selfishness. In practice, however, transforming these trends is, of course, difficult. Building a spirit of loving kindness and compassion and restoring a sense of community is crucial though for people in Cambodia to begin to create lives that enjoy happiness, freedom, dignity, prosperity and development. People’s solidarity is the key for the powerful to fall down and the corrupt and dictatorial system to change. Everyone has rights and the power to speak up and work for justice and peace. All power belongs to the people, not to certain individuals, families or political parties. If people embrace solidarity, I believe that one day people will be strong enough to reclaim their rights and power. In an environment where people can freely exercise their rights, the Cambodian people, I believe, will choose the right leaders to represent them, guide them and serve them as good leaders as well as build a good government with wise leadership to help this wretched country develop so that people can enjoy freedom, prosperity and their dignity as human beings again.

* 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.


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