Another aspect which accentuates the tragedy of Cambodian history is political oppression and the unwillingness of both the rulers and the ruled to confront this negative reality to break away from the cycles of violence which were to become the parts and portions of Cambodian society. Regarding this painful aspect of Cambodian society, Professor Keng Vannsak, a one time Cambodian politician, reportedly told an acquaintance the following words: “The Khmers have been slaves for centuries. In the face of authority, they bow down. Those who use violence know that—they know how the people react.”
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It is worth noticing that Keng Vannsak might have made this comment at the end of his political career as Secretary of the “Cambodian” Democratic Party which was founded in the 1940s and, for the first time in Cambodian history, able to empower the Cambodian people to believe in themselves in deciding their political destiny rather than leaving it to ruler to decide for them. Unfortunately, the success of democratic reform in Cambodia was short-lived. Thanks, in part, to the devious manipulation of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was more interested in preserving the absolute authority of the monarch than individual liberty of the people, the spirit of people power has been effectively crushed with the uses of political intimidation, persecution, and, in some cases, violence.
Though it is obvious that Professor Keng Vannsak uttered those words out of frustration, the implication of his statement reaches far beyond one man’s anguish. It reveals a critical self-examination—a sentiment which needs to be seriously looked at if one were to find out why Cambodian society takes the shape and form as it is today.
As a Cambodian, Keng Vannsak’s words represent both the voice of a disillusioned man as well as the voices of the many disenfranchised members of a society, who are unable or not articulated enough to utter such critical words the way he does. Analytically, Keng Vannsak’s words strike at the very core of Cambodian society. If we looked back to the earlier part of Cambodian history, one of the known factors about Cambodians as a race or an ethnic group is that they were warriors. In the strictest sense, warriors possess two characteristic traits: violence and submission.
By nature, all warriors must possess the ability to commit violence in order to overcome their enemies’ strength and make a conquest. On the other hand, warriors must also be submissive to those who have the authority over them—be it the Governor, the Prime Minister, or the King. As a people, the Cambodians have been molded, conditioned, and coerced to accept these roles for hundreds of years by their rulers. Consequently, when ordered by their leader(s) to commit violence, the warrior Cambodians tend to mindlessly comply without hesitation. Reversely, when facing with the threat of violence or punishment from their leader(s), these same warriors tend to readily lose the courage to challenge it. It is certainly difficult, if not impossible, for people who have been subjected to such conditioning for a very long, long time to undo or modify their behaviors. For those of us who are familiar with the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy, the psychological effect on a person or persons who have been conditioned to believe in or accept a certain social role could be profound. In practicing democracy, it is imperative that people know at least a few basic things such as renunciation of violent oppression, respect for human dignity, tolerance of critically differing opinions, and, perhaps most important of all, that people have the rights to question or challenge the conducts of their leader(s). As far as Cambodia is concerned, this is perhaps one of the greatest hurdles to overcome, if it were to find and establish a more just society. In this case, one could only hope that it won’t take another 2000 years for the Cambodians to undo those adverse aspects of their social lives which are clearly incompatible with the principles of democracy.
The main purpose of writing this essay is to search for some possible answers to a question: Why does it seem so difficult for the Cambodians to recover from the trauma of their empire’s collapse? In the end, I seem to have generated more questions than answers. One of the difficulties in finding satisfactory answers to the question is the lack of systemic long-term observational research into human behaviors after experiencing a disruption or devastation to their society. Throughout the course of literary reviews for writing this essay, I sometimes wish that there are continuous, imperatively, observational data over the last 100 years or so detailing on how the Cambodians cope with and rebuild their societal fabrics after experiencing social upheavals. Given the fact that understanding human behaviors and their responses to the disruptions of their society is perhaps one of the crucial factors for people to rebuild their shattered lives, it is certainly worthwhile for future academics to take serious looks at long-term (100-year) observational research on how humans respond to and rebuild their shattered society. A comparative observational study could also be helpful in providing deeper understanding in this field. At presence, three countries could be considered as candidates for such study: Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Rwanda. Despite their different cultures, all three countries suffered similar destructions. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, Afghanistan under the Taliban rule in late 1990s, and Rwanda under the conflict of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s have seen one of the worst tragedies in human history.
As a Cambodian who had lived through the destruction of Cambodian society under the Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s, I am both the witness and the study subject of this destruction. Since the event took place, it has been a quarter of a century now. From personal observation, the recovery has been painfully slow. If we were to measure a society based on the integrity and care people accorded to one another as members of that society, the Cambodian society I have seen now appears to be far inferior to the one I knew prior to the destruction. Of course, there are myriads of other factors to be considered if one were to accurately assess the progress and recovery of a shattered society. Politically, any candid assessment regarding the progress and recovery of a shattered society could touch off passionate debates. However, as human beings regardless of race or ethnicity, we must, or, at least, should have the courage to look into our responses to the tribulation of life-changing events if we were to find a meaningful realization of where our capability and incapability stand.
There is certainly no magic medicine to cure human weaknesses. However, if we could understand some of our weaknesses, we might be better able to realize where our strength lies. For a shattered society like Cambodia, the key to recovery might lie with this premise. It is not our weaknesses that keep us from effectively changing our way of life to positively adapt to the ever-changing world. It is rather our lack of understanding of our weaknesses that holds us back from realizing our potentials.
While writing this essay, especially in the last few chapters, I am reminded of my mother—a 78 year-old woman who, like Cambodia, had suffered three times of strokes and a myriad of other illnesses. After having brought her to live in the United States of America for 17 years, my brothers and I decided to grant her her wish of going back to live the rest of her life in Cambodia. With all our combined knowledge on how to best care for an elderly person, we put together a plan, one that we ourselves would certainly enjoy as an elderly, for her to spend the last leg of her life in comfort. For foodstuffs, she was to receive a daily stipend of about ten times the Cambodian national average. In addition, she has also had a 24/7 personal caregiver, a cook, a nurse to monitor her health, and a bimonthly visit to a doctor. To ensure her utmost comfort, we equip her house with all necessary amenities one would commonly find in a home in the U.S. (I accompanied her to Cambodia and personally put everything in place including training the people who involve in caring for her). After a few months of returning home, we begin to receive reports from her caregivers that mom did not live her life the way we wanted her to live. For instance, she did not spend all the money we wanted her to spend. Some of her actions such as not complying with medical procedures, which is typical with elderly the world over, could spell trouble for her well-being. After learning of mom’s “at home” behavior, we all take turn to call her to convince her to live according to the “advanced” lifestyle which we believe is best for her. With all due respect, I don’t think that our efforts to convince mom to give up her old way of life have any impact on her. For a long time, I was so upset with myself, and to some extent with mom, for not being able to convince her to change her behavior, and for her inability to see the obvious reasons to change her behavior. However, after spending so many agonizing days blaming myself for not being able to convince my mother to accept the path to what most people would consider a good life, I subconsciously come to the realization that, after all, my Mother is a CAMBODIANI
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