The French eventually abandoned their civilizing mission in Cambodia and turned their attention to exploiting the country instead. As a punishment for Cambodian stubbornness, the French made little effort to build schools or institutions for the education of Cambodian children. Basically, education for the general Cambodian population was left to Buddhist monks to take care of.
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From the mid 20th century onward, modern ages have added some more dramatic shocks and awes to Cambodian society. In a span of about half a century, Cambodia had seen a coup d’etat, two civil wars, a communist experiment, a foreign army occupation, and 5 different forms of governments. Driven mostly by domestic zealots, whose ambitions were to transform Cambodian society, a series of disastrous attempts were made to bring about social changes to Cambodia. Starting roughly in the early 1950’s, Cambodian society has endured perhaps more radical changes than it could cope with. First was the introduction of a constitutional monarchy—a form of absolute monarchical government where people were allowed to vote. Then, after the experiment got bogged down with political squabbling, a republic was created to replace the decadent monarchy. Before long, the republic was, in turn, replaced by a communist regime which had ushered in perhaps the most devastating disaster in Cambodian history. It took a Vietnamese intervention to stop the upheaval from spinning out of control and paved a path for recovery. In the end, about one fourth of Cambodian population lost their lives, and, after 46 years of harrowing experimentation with political and social reforms, the whole endeavor appears to end up at where it began—a constitutional monarchy.
Since 1993, with a helping hand from the United Nations, Cambodia, as a nation/society, now, once again, embarks on yet another socio-political reform. With democracy (and its underline elements—namely human liberty and all the freedoms it espouses) standing in as a rescue package, the UN (and, in a sense, the world) had persuaded and aided Cambodia to embrace democracy as a way to lift itself out of a socio-politico-economic quagemire. Though it is perhaps too early to call the UN’s effort a success or a failure, it is, nevertheless, very tempting for students of Cambodian history to ask question regarding endeavors to transform
Cambodian society: If the Vietnamese could not do it, the French could not do it, the Cambodians themselves could not do it, would the UN be able to do it?
As democracy takes roots in Cambodia, so does political patronages and cult of personalities—a time-honored practice dated back to the inception of the Cambodian kingdom. At the turn of the 13th century, Chou Ta-Kuan, a Chinese envoy, wrote a vivid description on how people, who had beautiful daughters, would present their daughters to the king in order to seek favors from him; or, the wealthy elites would go to great length to underwrite or undertake expensive projects to please the king. If there were another Chou Ta-Kuan coming to observe Cambodian society nowadays, he would undoubtedly write the same aspects of life with a modern twist to it: People would buy gifts or offer bribes to influential public officials to seek favors from them. Wealthy people called Oknha would build schools or other public buildings and named them after powerful politicians to secure their protection. Against the backdrops of these retrogressive behaviors, one must raise a question that if the social elites could not shake off the old out-of-date habits, what chances would ordinary Cambodians have to overcome the challenges of making democracy practical and useful for their lives? In other words, is it worth the sacrifices of ordinary Cambodian’s tranquil, easy-going subsistent lifestyles, or, in some cases, their lives, in order to help them lift themselves out of poverty, vis-à-vis, out of a seemingly out-of-date lifestyle?
It is more than a decade now since Cambodia endorses democracy as a mechanism to help uplift itself from social and political ailments. With all due respects to everyone involved in the effort, the prognosis of progress appears to be very grim. Cambodian democracy is, to put it mildly, a joke. People elect their representatives alright. But their elected representatives represent and answerable not to them (the people), but to their (representatives) patrons or political parties to which they belong. Only commune’s (a cluster of villages) chiefs and members of parliament are directly elected by the people; all other public servants are indirectly elected or appointed by the central government—a hybridized practice which allows despotism, cronyism, and patronages to have a pervasive impact on social well-beings. If we were to scrutinize the Cambodian government today, we would see that government administration in Cambodia is a family business. There is no such thing as a conflict of interest. Every government institution, from the Prime Minister’s office down to the district levels, is staffed with mostly relatives of the ruling elites. The priority for giving out government portfolios is as follows: first, family members; second, close friends; third, relatives of close friends; fourth, friends of close friends, and so on, regardless of their qualifications to perform the jobs. In practice, Cambodian democracy functions not much different from the old absolute monarchy regime that Cambodian people have known throughout these years.
If one were to draw comparison between Cambodian democracy in the 21st century to that of the American’s at the turn of the 18th century, one would find a stark difference in terms of local governance. Whereas Cambodians have their provincial governors and district chiefs appointed by the central government, Americans have their state and county officials popularly and locally elected—a crucial difference which could determine the success or failure of a democracy experiment. Imagine if the U.S. federal government were to proclaim in its constitution that it would appoint states governors and counties mayors or managers. The American people would certainly be up in arms and demand that the tree of liberty be replenished with the tyrant’s blood.
It is, to say the least, impossible to make any definitive conclusion regarding the question why or what keeps Cambodian society seemingly stuck in a state of stunted growth. But, based on historical context, we could perhaps, at least, make some observational hypotheses as underlying factors in the scheme of human behaviors. Professor David P. Chandler, a renowned historian on Cambodia’s history insightfully entitled one of his books: The Tragedy of Cambodian History. Chandler was right in equating Cambodian history with tragedy. Looking back into Cambodia’s past, tragedy was an integral part in the evolution of her society. Since the collapse of the Khmer Empire, noticeably after the abandonment of Angkor as a Capital City, each Cambodian generation suffered at least one calamity in life. Be it a domestic upheaval or foreign invasion, the destruction of Cambodian social fabrics has always been severe. A case in point is the destruction committed by the Khmer Rouge, a fanatical Communist group, at the turn of the 20th century. Though it is a bit too extreme to use the Khmer Rouge’s violation of Cambodian society as a frame for reference to study Cambodian history, the destruction has, at least, given us a glimpse of what could have happened in the past. If the distant past is the end product of the recent past, and the recent past is the end product of the present, it is true, or, at least, could be deduced that what has happened in the recent past had, or could have also happened in the distant past.
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