Monday, February 28, 2011
My Own Understanding of the Senseless Border Conflicts between Thailand and Cambodia
By Ronnie Yimsut
First, it is quite disturbing to see, yet again, Thailand’s repeat aggressions against neighboring Cambodia. Driven primarily by “internal” political pressures (and ignoring its own history), the Royal Thai Government and its powerful Royal Thai Armed Forces have once again indiscriminately using the more superior forces and modern weaponries against its tiny, peace starving neighbor. For what purpose or motive you may ask? Only the Royal Thai Government and its “quasi independent” and powerful military have a true answer.
This is not the first “invasion” by the antagonistic Kingdom of Thailand, which presently shared a 700 km long common (not yet demarcated) border with the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Thailand (Siam) was established as a vassal kingdom in the early 12th century by refugees (Tai people from southern China) who basically ran for their lives from the invading Mongols. The native (darker skin) Khmer openly and warmly welcome the (light skin) Tai and gave them refuge as the Khmer Empire grew and prospered. The new migrants were very much a part of ancient Cambodia—very much like the world’s migration to America (American Empire).
Centuries passed, Tai (later became Siamese and then Thai) people became powerful as the Khmer Empire was in a steep decline due to “infighting” and perhaps due to the collapse of the environment (climate change?) as some historian and scholars had suggested-not much different than what we have seen in Bangkok and Phnom Penh today. With power, comes the need for autonomy, independence, and subsequently “statehood, “a kingdom in this case.
Successive and powerful Siamese kings, after firmly established control of the former Khmer Empire territories, expanded their land holding through wars, invasion, annexation, and occupation of its neighbors- including the ever shrinking Khmer Empire which had its capital at Angkor in Siem Reap Province (Notice the “Siam” sounding name?).
When Siamese troops finally sacked the last remnants of the Khmer Empire at Angkor in1431 (less than 100 years after the founding of Kingdom of Ayutthaya), only after repeated attacks, the Siamese took away just about everything that can be taken back to Ayutthaya, Siam’s powerful capital city north of Krung Tep (Bangkok). Ayutthaya was credited as practically the one who broke the back bone of the (once) powerful Khmer Empire for good.
Thailand (and also Vietnam) occupation of the now “partially” collapsed Khmer Empire lasted until the arrival of the French colonial military and administration in about 1863. The more powerful French is credited with saving Cambodia from complete annihilation (through annexation) by both Vietnam and Thailand. Viva La France? Oui ou Non? In actuality, the French colonialists simply prolonged the Khmer suffrage until independence was granted to Cambodia in 1953 and a young Khmer king, Norodom Sihanouk, took charge.
French colonialism in Indochina did, indeed, led to the rebirth of a modern Cambodia state. Thanks to the French “protectorate,” Cambodia also saw the return some of its lost territory, mainly through warfare, negotiation, memorandum of understanding, treaties (such as the Franco/Siamese Treaties of 1904 and 1907), not to mention the World Court’s decision of 1962.
Through the various processes, including international mediations, Thailand got to keep the majority of land it annexed from Cambodia, such as Surin, Sisaket, Buriram, Aranya Prathet, and others--along with some seven millions ethnic Khmer who reside in the area (many of these people are “Red Shirt” activists, mostly rural poor from NE Thailand. They are also the soldiers with order to guard, fight, and die at the frontier with Cambodia-both then and now). In return, as part of the negotiated deals and treaties with the French, Thailand reluctantly ceded Battambang, Siem Reap, and Preah Vihear back to Cambodia. And yet, as a final insult, the International Court of Justice in the Hague decided in 1962 that the sacred Hindu Preah Vihear temple also belongs to Cambodia and must be returned, along with all sculptures and artifacts-those that were removed off site by Thailand. Bangkok did abide by the court’s decision, for the most part. Prince Sihanouk, however, never demands the return of the stolen artifacts from Preah Vihear temple. To this day, Thailand still holding most, if not all, and it wanted more.
All these things added up and did not sit too well with Thailand’s strong nationalistic pride, especially Bangkok elites. Thai (Siamese) hatred and disrespect for the Khmer people has never ceded.
In 1966, Thailand again invaded peaceful Cambodia. Following weeks of heavy fighting, involving Royal Thai Air Force fighter/bomber planes, heavy weapons, and thousands of Thai troops, Preah Vihear temple was once again under control of Thailand—albeit only briefly. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, under then Prince Norodom Sihanouk, repelled Thai invaders soon after, with serious losses on both sides, and rightfully reclaimed the Khmer sacred mountain temple once again.
Similar to more recent development, the UN Security Council was notified promptly of the border conflicts. Under heavy international pressure, Thailand caved in and grumpily gave up its claim to Preah Vihear temple. The Thai’s elite hatred and disrespect for their Khmer rival, however, continued and still has not ceded to this day. Peace generally prevailed--until 2008.
Since after WW II, the Kingdom of Thailand was very much held together by a revered and respected King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Its government is often being run by one shaky civilian coalition or another and subject to bloody coup d’état just about every two years or so by the strong Thai’s military –historical record has shown. More often than not, no one in Bangkok—besides the military-- is in control of the Royal Thai Government and its mysterious domestic and foreign policy. The military, with a healthy budget, pretty much did anything it wanted. If not, then a simple threat of another bloody coup d’état would suffice.
When Thailand’s color coded politic of “Red Shirt” and “Yellow Shirt” duke it out on the street of Bangkok, the Royal Thai Government rise and fell, one after another—like waves at Pattaya. When “people power” met the powerful “quasi independent” Thai’s military, the street of Bangkok is often drenched with Thai’s blood. With a strong military backing, the “Yellow Shirt” elites repeatedly neutralized the rural poor “Red Shirt” through bloodletting at will.
Bangkok was paralyzed, completely so, for months as the struggle for power and control ensued between the various political and military factions. And the infighting at last spilled over into the now peaceful Cambodia in 2008 and once again Preah Vihear was the scapegoat and a rallying cry for the “yellow Shirt” elites. The heated battles (aka skirmishes) that followed resulted in death and destruction on both sides, which lead to tense diplomatic relation.
An uneasy truce held over the course of 2008 through 2010, while war of words continued. In the mean time, Thai border guards indiscriminately shot and killed countless Khmer villagers who dare to venture across the porous border, while Khmer border guards captured Thai villagers and release soon after.
The recent arrest of seven “Yellow Shirt” political activists, ones who dare to “intentionally” tested Phnom Penh’s resolve and illegally entered Cambodia’s territory, while also violated its military zone in the process, had contributed to even more ‘Yellow Shirt” protests (and thus severe pressure) in Bangkok. The Royal Thai Government immediately demanded-not for the release of the last two of seven jailed Thais convicted of illegally entering Cambodia and for spying on its military base-but instead demanded that Phnom Penh removed a stone tablet deemed offensive to Bangkok, as well as the removal of Cambodia’s national flag and the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda itself from the disputed area. If tiny and weak Cambodia does not comply, then it shall bare the full force of powerful Thai’s military. Phnom Penh ordered the removal of the stone tablet as a “good will gesture,” but it simply ignored other demands it deemed not appropriate and in direct violation of Cambodia’s national sovereignty.
The Thai’s military then acted, perhaps on its own accord or perhaps with a direct order from Bangkok whose command and control of the military has always been shaky at best. Under the disguise of “routine military exercise” Thai’s troops moved into offensive positions. The Cambodian’s military immediately countered by moving its own troops and equipments into defensive positions.
Some of the heaviest fighting seen in recent memory exploded for four straight days in early 2011, which Phnom Penh labeled it as “war of aggression by Thailand against Cambodia.” The Royal Thai Armed Forces simply ignores it; while reinforcing its troops and flying its advanced F-16 and F-18 fighter jets over its air space as a form of “show of force.” The RTAF did its best to intimidate weaker Cambodia, but Phnom Penh held its ground and stood firm.
With the use of modern heavy weapons, by both sides, heavy casualties surely are mounting. Cambodia reportedly claimed that Thai’s troops had used cluster munitions and that serious damages were done to Preah Vihear temple as well as the less important Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda, which drew immediate and repeat denials from Thai’s military as a response. There was also a report in the Bangkok Post that Cambodia had taken serious damages and loses from the Thai’s barrages. It also reported that as many as 64 Cambodian troops were killed and many pieces of heavy military hardware were destroyed. Additionally, a rumor that Hun Manet, a Major general and son of Cambodia’s Prime minister, was also injured in the fighting. The same was reported about his brother, Hun Manit, a Colonel. War of words and propaganda had led to serious consequences for both neighbors.
Needless to say, both Thailand and Cambodia, naturally, blamed each other for the outbreak of the latest fighting. Do remember that the RTAF took the offensive postures with more superior and larger forces, while the RCAF took defensive stances. And history had shown us that Thailand has always been the aggressor against Cambodia, ALWAYS. Therefore, the issue of who “shot first” here is an irrelevance and childish argument. The real question should be who wanted this war and why? Regardless, as the result, tens of thousands of villagers, from both sides, are forced to run for their lives and sought shelter away from the fighting. Millions of dollars in cross border trades effectively came to a halt. Get the picture? It isn’t pretty.
Yet again, Phnom Penh had formally asked for UN Security Council and ASEAN mediation to stop the fighting. Bangkok, however, wanted nothing to do with third party mediation. Bangkok also flatly rejected the idea that a team of experts from UNESCO come to inspect the extensive damages done to this world heritage site--reportedly by the RTAF’s heavy barrages, which interestingly enough it had outright denied. Ever wondering why? It’s the case of “Gold never rust, only iron does,” perhaps? Thailand is feeling the rust yet again and losing face.
At any rate, it is fair to say that no good Buddhist would never, ever intentionally and knowingly destroy a sacred religious temple—let alone two temples. And yet Thailand, supposedly a devoted Buddhist nation, did just that and has the nerve to deny its role and responsibility for said destruction. Pitifully, the RTAF actually blamed Cambodia for the destruction to the two “Khmer” temples that it supposedly “did not do damage.” Go figure!
Neither party is so sure about how to stop a raging war, reduce tension, and establish long, lasting peace. Nor do they know how to best sit down and deal with issues calmly and diplomatically—like good neighbors ought to do to settle their differences without sending more of their young to their death. And since a third party involvement surely will expose Bangkok’s trickeries and dishonesty, the end to this ongoing conflict between the two neighbors is not certain. The extremist Thais must look at themselves in the mirror and think.
This conflict is no longer about economic, internal politics, or the military importance of the crappy 4.6 sqkm of scrubby, rocky land surrounded by steep rock outcrops and deep ravines. This is no longer about a sacred Hindu temple that the Khmer people willingly gave to the world as a “gift to humanity” under UNESCO’s World Heritage Site designation. It is now about big ego, really, and about face saving, and simply about the “my pride (superiority) is bigger than yours” etc. In the meantime, people continue to injure and die, on both sides, while Phnom Penh and Bangkok contemplate their next move and counter move. The suffering continues.
It will be difficult for a resolution now that blood had been spilled and animosity grew. Yet, it is not impossible. We have seen this all before and yet we have not yet learned from past mistakes. Needless to say, both the Thai and the Khmer people will have to live with one another for there is no other way around it. They don’t have another choice. They can either live together or die together. So far both sides have chosen to fight each other and die together rather than live in peace and prosperity. Past lessons never learn are simply repeated mistakes by fumbling fools.
Secondly, there is a Khmer prophecy (rooted in Buddhism) that stated: “Bangkok rolom, Phnom Penh roleay, Saigon kjat Kjai, Sabay Angkor Wat (in Cambodia not Thailand).” It is just an old saying that has been repeated for generations. So what does it mean? Who knows?
Today, Saigon is already Kjat Kjai, or broken apart (and became “Ho Chi Minh City”), Phnom Penh already roleay, or melted (under the Khmer Rouge regime and now is being rebuilt – with Korean and Thai money, mostly), and Angkor Wat is already sabay or happy with some 2.4 million tourists and growing as of 2011. In other words, pretty much all the prediction as stated above had already came to past. The only thing missing is: “Bangkok Rolom,” or fallen. Perhaps this latest temple row might just do the trick and fulfill the old saying – who knows?
To begin with, it is an unnecessary conflict for the two Buddhist nations and people who shared so much in common. There is no good excuse for armed confrontation or conflict, which neither side will ever win. Perhaps economic cooperation between the two neighbors is a better way to go, as both shall greatly benefit from tourism development in this dirt poor and remote area. Yes, suggesting Thailand’s money (and ingenuity) and Khmer temples (a UNESCO’s WHS). It would be a win-win situation, the smarter way to go than the “Mutually Destruction.”
Besides, both Thailand and Cambodia will eventually share a common union, like the United States and the European Union. Indeed, a deeper and more meaningful ASEAN where common money and people flow freely throughout the region, where everyone prospers under one roof. That day is coming and so the military conflicts between neighbors will look rather silly indeed.
Lastly, Thailand is already facing a stiff rebellion in its southern part with serious social and political fallouts. The ongoing conflicts with neighboring Burma and Laos are heating up as well. The internal politics is getting very vicious and explosive. The economy is faltering. The tsunami that whipped its beaches clean is only a warning sign. It might not be long, Lord Buddha forbid, before Bangkok is completely self-destructed and fulfill its destiny as prophesized.
About the author:
Ronnie Yimsut is a native of Siem Reap, Cambodia whose late parents (and grandparents) had to live under the French, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai administrations in the former Indochina states prior to Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. He is an author and activist. He can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are many variations to this simple story, which has been told by many people, in numerous places, across countless cultures and boundaries. This is a version that had been told by generations of elders in the Yimsut’s clan. I am proudly sharing this version with you in hopes that that you, too, can share in a “Stone Soup” in 2009.
There was a time when darkness falls upon a once prosperous and powerful society of the great Ankgorian (Khmer) Empire. Chaos ensued and people were facing the most severe famine known to man kind—not unlike the one during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge era. Countless people of all age died of extreme starvation. Every man and woman was for himself or herself and horded what little morsel of food available. None was ever shared.
This chaotic society fed on its own selfishness. It was doomed.
One day, an emaciated orphan boy named “Laive” carried with him his skeletal frame and a large soup pot, his worldly possession. He staggered across the main street and came to a rest under the shade of a large Chankiri tree in the town main square. He sets to boil the water and place a neat-round river washed stone inside the pot.
The town police sergeant was the first to come by to harass the orphan.
“What are you up to, boy?” said the stern looking policeman.
Laive smiled politely and then softly replied, “I am cooking Stone Soup for lunch, would you care to join me?” “However, it would be nicer if we have some meat in it. This is all I have got and you are most welcome!” Laive continued.
Disgusted, the policeman simply walked off the scene. He came back a moment later with some beef bone and some beef fat from a local butcher. He placed the beef directly into the boiling pot of water himself and waited patiently.
Soon other curious creatures were passing by and asked, “What are we up to today?”
“Oh, we are making some Stone Soup, please join us! We got plenty here. Of course, it would be nice if we have some potato and carrot. A couple onions would make this soup even more fabulous,” said the policeman.
“You are in luck! I have some onions here and that’s all I’ve got.” One young lady said. “And I have carrot, a ton of it, Stone Soup sounds good!” said the young lady’s friend.
“Well, well…I have all these fresh herbs and seasonings that would have gone to waste, if not use,” an elderly lady beamed excitedly for the prospect of a tasty soup.
Soon, a piping hot and most heavenly aromatic soup was served by Laive’s coconut ladle to all those around him. More and more people huddle around, both young and old, and they all “PITCH” in with what they could to make even more Stone Soup for everyone.
And so, many centuries later, this same old Stone Soup story is still repeated in and throughout Cambodia, even in the most remote villages.
Laive alone can only move an ant’s hill (the policeman). Laive and an entire community of people can move a mountain (and control a chaotic and selfish society).
Join my Stone Soup at: www.bakongtechcollege.org
Please contact Ronnie Yimsut, Program-Coordinator, at (414) 235-5998 or email@example.com
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
A HISTORY OF CAMBODIA, AN INTRODUCTION TO CAMBODIAN HISTORY
Dr. David Chandler, Phd
Professor Emeritus of history at Monash University
Most people, especially foreigners, think of Cambodian history only in terms of Angkor and modern times, or more specifically Angkor and the Khmer Rouge period. But Cambodia has much more history than that.
I will be suggesting to you that all of Cambodian history, from the earliest times right up to today, is rich, interesting and continuous. The Khmers are all the heirs of an extraordinarily long, vibrant and fascinating past, and they can all be very proud of it.
Basically, I would divide this enormous stretch of time -- from the beginning of Cambodian history until 1953, when the country gained its independence from France -- into four periods. Each of these can be seen in terms of a major theme or two.
1. Prehistories, Funan and Chenla. Theme: Indianization. Dates: 5000 BCE-800 CE
2. Angkor. Themes: Imperial Power, Urbanism and Ordinary People, Dates: c. 800 c.1450
3. Middle Period. Themes: Transformation, Isolation and Outside Pressures c, 1450 -1863
4. Colonial Era. Theme: Theme: Cambodia Enters the Wider World 1863 - 1953.
Prehistory, Funan and Chenla.
We have evidence of cave dwellers in northwestern Cambodia living as long ago as 5000 BCE (Before Common Era). They were Stone Age people, and several other very early sites have now been excavated. By 1000 BCE people living near present-day Kompong Chhnang were casting bronze (lovely specimens of their work can be found in the National Museum). Their tools, ornaments and weapons resembled those found in Bronze Age sites in northeastern Thailand. This doesn't mean that the early Cambodians were "Thais." Southeast Asia had no national borders until the colonial era; the people of what is now north-eastern Thailand in those far-off days probably spoke Khmer or a related language. These people were growing rice and eating fish, so the mainstays of the Cambodian rural diet today were the mainstays in 1000 BC as well. This consistency in diet is one of the many continuities of Cambodian history.
The phenomenon we call Indianization, which I have chosen as the major theme for this period, really only begins to be recorded in the early years of the Christian era, when Indian jewelries and tools were found at a coastal site associated with the land that the Chinese called the kingdom of Funan.
Funan was an important trading kingdom, and its extensive network of canals suggests that its leaders could mobilize large labor forces when needed. Unfortunately, no local written records survive from Funan. Information about Funan comes from archaeological digs and Chinese sources, assembled over several hundred years. The latter are useful because, without intending to, the Chinese traced the growing complexity of Funan as its rulers selected linguistic, cultural and administrative elements from India in the complex and rewarding process that we call Indianization.
Indianization was not colonization, but rather consisted of a series of choices made by local elites when they encountered Indian culture, in India as pilgrims, via trade, or in Cambodia (Funan) via Indian traders, bureaucrats and priests. The process took place in unrecorded form between 500 BCE and 500 CE, more or less. The Funan-Indian encounters occurred through trade relations, with the Khmer selling exotic forest products and the Indians trading for these with manufactured goods, especially textiles. Of Indian culture that was accepted by the Khmer, the most enduring aspects were its gods (some being more popular than others) and its ideas of governance. The Khmer never adopted the caste system that prevailed in India. When Khmer became a written language in about 300 AD, Indian characters were adapted for its alphabet. Indianization was not the first time, or the last, when the blending and adaptation of cultural elements from outside Cambodia helped to form the ongoing cultural history of the country. A key point is that Indianization was not an imposition of control, or colonization, as was the case with China and northern Vietnam.
In the 4th and 5th centuries CE, Cambodia's political center of gravity shifted inland from the coastal area of "Funan" (Mekong delta areas) into south central Cambodia, with a city located at what is now the village of Angkor Borei. "Chenla" was the name that the Chinese gave to this successor kingdom. The capital of Chenla was probably Isanapura, or Sambor Prey Kuk in Kompong Thom. During these years the first inscriptions in Khmer and Sanskrit were carved on stone, beginning a documentary record for Cambodian history and society. Michael Vickery's invaluable work on these inscriptions, which appeared in 2005, has revolutionized our knowledge of the closing years of this early period.
Angkor. Themes: Imperial Power and Ordinary People
In Cambodia, reminders of Angkor are everywhere, whenever you see the Cambodian flag, hear the national anthem, or read the sign for many shops using this namesake. Even the famous Independence Monument in the country’s capitol mirrors Angkor – it is, in fact, a reproduction of Angkor Wat’s central tower. Angkor itself is a marvelous tourist site for over a million foreign visitors a year, but for Cambodians, it's also something else: a beautiful reminder of their ancestors' extraordinary achievements in the fields of art and architecture, city planning, road building and hydraulic engineering, to name only a few.
For many years, archaeology in Cambodia, dominated by the French, concentrated on the kings, temples and the inscriptions that they found at Angkor, which helped them build a picture and a chronology of the empire. Archeologists named twenty-six kings, located the remains of more than a thousand temples and deciphered more than a thousand Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions. In restoring the major temples at Angkor, the French also learned a great deal about Cambodian religion and, from the bas-reliefs of the Bayon, a certain amount about the daily lives of ordinary people.
The inscriptions told scholars about royal concerns (often expressed in elegant Sanskrit poetry) and a certain amount about the administration of the empire, particularly as the administration was linked to temples erected by kings or by powerful members of the elite.
These researchers ultimately gave the temples and everything else that they learned to the world as a gift, and they gave a gift to the Cambodian people.
What was missing from French efforts was a concentration on the daily lives of ordinary people of Angkor: hundreds of thousands of unrecorded men and women who grew the rice, raised their families, fought the kingdom's wars and built the temples. French scholars saw Angkor as a challenge, as a collection of beautiful ruins and as a site for six hundred years of royal history.
In the last fifteen years or so, several dramatic revelations have shifted our thinking about Angkor and the early history of Cambodia. For one thing, digging at pre-Angkorian settlement and burial sites has revealed many complexities in ordinary life. The mapping of the Angkor region has also developed into a fine art, using satellite photography to discover Angkorian rice fields, canals and roads. We now know what a large and crowded city Angkor once was--probably housing as many as 700,000 people in the 12th century CE when Angkor Wat was being built.
The name of the city was Yasodharapura. We know a lot more than we once did about the city in terms of settlement patterns, streets, household goods, ceramics, roads and canals. Although ordinary men and women only appear in Angkorian inscriptions as names of slaves, they are now emerging as the lively and inventive inhabitants of a large, complex and interesting city as well as the marvelous artists and architects we always knew them to be.
At the same time, traditional archaeological concerns--with the kings, their temples and their inscriptions--have yielded a lot of new information about the reign of Jayavarman VII, the astronomical meaning of Angkor Wat, and the nature and scope of international trade. Today we know more about history at the top, as well as more about the daily lives of ordinary men and women and about the 1000-square- kilometer urban complex where they lived. Angkor has evolved from a grand mystery to a blend of imperial grandeur and the work of people whose language, lives and attitudes that Cambodians today would find sympathetic and easy to understand.
The Middle Period. Themes: Transformation and Outside Pressures
No documents survive that tell us exactly when, how or why Angkor declined as a great city after the mid-fifteenth century, and the process was obviously complex, stretching over several hundred years, but some important transformations had already taken place in Cambodian society over a century before the Angkorian city of Yasodharapura was abandoned (Angkor Wat, however, was never vacant.)
The most important of these was the mass conversion of the Cambodians to Theravada Buddhism, the same Buddhism that is followed by most Cambodians today. The conversion probably occurred in the thirteenth century, because when a Chinese diplomat visited Yasodharapura in 1296, the population was already following this religion. The conversion put Cambodia on a similar course to the one being followed at the same time in neighboring Siam (Thailand) and indeed the next few hundred years can be seen in part as a fruitful exchange of culture between these two countries. Unfortunately for Cambodia, Siam in the sixteenth century began to demand subservience and tribute from the Khmer, and continued to do so until the arrival of the French in 1863. The Cambodians did not lose all the wars that they fought with Siam, but the ones they lost led to sizeable transfers of people from Cambodia to Siam as prisoners of war. An important trend of the middle period was the simultaneous shrinkage of territory under the control of the Cambodian king and the decline in Cambodia's population.
Another new factor for Cambodia in the middle period was the rise of a powerful neighbor to the east. By the mid seventeenth century, the Nguyen rulers of southern Vietnam gave royal factions in Cambodia an alternative set of patrons to those in Siam. The Vietnamese also blocked Cambodia's access to the sea, and from about 1650 to 1850 the kingdom was isolated from the outside world, and carried out very little international trade.
However it would be incorrect to view the middle period primarily in terms of suffering and decline. This was the period when the masterpieces of Khmer literature were written--the Chbap and the Reamker, to name only two--and it was the period that connected Angkorian civilization to the society that the French encountered when they arrived in the kingdom in 1860. Angkor and the later colonial period were connected by this era of Cambodian popular culture, its rich language, and much of its social organization. With its abundance of arts, culture and social development, the middle period may more truly represent the heritage of present-day Cambodians than even the Angkorian and colonial periods.
The Colonial Era: Cambodia Joins the Wider World
When French explorers arrived in Cambodia in the early 1860s, they were seeking to expand French commercial interests in Southeast Asia, and believed that Cambodia, or more precisely the Mekong, represented a gateway to China. The French had already occupied southern Vietnam as a colony, and were eager to increase the control over the region.
Civil wars, rebellions, invasions from Siam, and a prolonged Vietnamese protectorate had engulfed Cambodia for the preceding fifty years. Thai and Vietnamese forces clashed in Cambodia, and the ensuring warfare depleted the country. Its population had been decimated, many of its wats destroyed. The newly installed king, Norodom, who was fearful of Siam, sought French protection—or more precisely, accepted it when it was offered. The French were happy to provide this protection, but to Norodom's surprise and displeasure, protection over the next thirty years turned into extensive political and economic control. The king was marginalized. Although Cambodia was officially a Protectorate, with its own King, it was to all intents and purposes a colony by the end of the 19th century, and the French, who built Cambodia’s palaces and kept the Khmer from performing any significant political activities, placed the next three kings on their thrones.
In drawing up a balance sheet of French colonialism in Cambodia, it's important to stress the lasting contributions the French made to Cambodia's infrastructure, urbanism and archaeology (using Cambodian labor, to be sure). Provincial capitals were planned and laid out by the rich; so were most of Cambodia's paved roads, and most of the city of Phnom Penh. This development benefited the French perhaps as much or even more than the Khmer. French work in archaeology, on the other hand, while bringing prestige to France, was of long term benefit to the Khmer, and represents perhaps France’s finest legacy. When the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap, annexed by Siam in the 1790s, were returned to Cambodia after France exerted pressure on the Thai, the site of Angkor returned to Khmer jurisdiction, and French archaeologists could begin their serious and helpful labors of restoration. While the colonial period had its negative aspects, the French never did as much damage to Cambodia as was inflicted on the country by foreign powers during the Vietnam War, by Khmer and foreigners in the civil war that followed, or under the Khmer Rouge regime. However, some negative aspects of the colonial period remain today.
Probably the main defect of the French protectorate was that it failed to educate the Cambodian people, and allowed them no opportunities, before the 1940s, to participate in the political process. The French prepared the country very poorly for independence. Until World War II there was only one high school in the kingdom, and no university.
Another flaw in the colonial system was the judiciary. The French put no sophisticated legal system in place, and almost no local lawyers and judges received adequate legal training.
On balance, however, probably the major positive contribution made by the French Protectorate was the fact that Cambodia survived to become an independent state, and was not absorbed by its neighbors, as seemed almost inevitable before the French stepped in, even though their intent was not so much to protect the Khmer as to increase their own power and prestige.
In 1975, a Khmer Rouge spokesman proudly declared that "2000 years" of Cambodian history had ended. As you can see from this brief foray into ancient Cambodia, not only does Cambodian history extend back further than 2000 years but that history is also fascinating to study, and one that Cambodians can be proud of.
The Khmer Rouge’s regime, needless to say, created a new chapter of Cambodia’s modern history, a history wrought with savageries that are second to none.
Dr. David P. Chandler is a renowned historian of Cambodia, whose published works include The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution since 1945, Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, and Voices from S-21. He was a key advisor to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) on its development of the 2007 textbook A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) written by Mr. Kamboly Dy.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
CAMBODIA MUST MAKE SERIOUS AND PAINFUL REFORMS
By Ronnie Yimsut
A land rich in history, abundance natural beauty, a well known “land of warm-smiling people,” the Kingdom of Cambodia has always attracted pilgrimage from all over the world for millenniums. The latest had been the Travel Channel (many popular programs) and a CBS reality game show, such as the “Amazing Race.” Other travel magazines also had effectively put Cambodia on the map as the “Emerging Hot Destination in the World.”
This rapidly changing physical landscape reflects the developments and maturity, across this gentle Buddhist Kingdom, a far cry from the infamous “Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields” to one of the most rapid economic transformation nations in SE Asia. Cambodia’s economic growth rate— ranked sixth fastest in the world in the last few years— has been nothing short of a miracle--considering Cambodia’s terrible and recent self-implosion past. Cambodia is now considered as amongst “Economic Tigers,” in the SE Asia region.
More than 2.4 million tourists now visit this tiny Kingdom as of mid 2010, a number that is staggering and is expected to double (or even triple again) in the next 10 years or so. This has brought in a flood of hard currencies into the local and regional economy. The “Supply and Demand” economic (remember economic 101?) have led to an explosion of quality service industries within the “Development Triangle” of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville. The proof of this amazing growth is represented by the mushrooming of hotels and restaurants, ranging from the most basic “Backpacker’s Paradise” guesthouses to “Five Star” accommodations that rival the region, if not the world’s finest.
Foreign investments are still pouring in, despite the global economic crisis of 2008-2010, thanks in part to the Royal Government’s liberal policy to attract key investors to the country, especially within the garment, agriculture, and tourism sectors. China and South Korea led the way in foreign capital investments in the Kingdom.
Today, the Cambodian (Khmer) people are much, much better off than ever before, specifically for the nation’s urban areas where economic growth traditionally sprung its seed and started its root. The people now have a much better food security with better nutrition, and a more open access to a much higher quality education, as well as health care services that catching up fast with regional standards that rival western nations in cost and quality care provided.
Cambodia is still growing with a young population (a ratio of approximately 68 percents under the age of 25) that had known nothing but a good time that is considered to be much, much better than their parents or grandparents have ever had previously. And since the cessation of internal conflicts, life expectancy has risen sharply from a mere 52 years of age to 58, slightly longer for female. With the advance of better family planning and even better prenatal care system in place, the infant mortality rate has also fallen notably, especially in urban area. These are all good news for Cambodia as a whole.
The local economy is now much more stable with more and more traditional micro-enterprises (small businesses) leading the way. The inflation rate is skillfully held in check and under control by the Royal Government to at between 8 and 10 percents annually. The dollarization over local currency, the Riel, may soon end and thus could only help to stabilize the local economy even further.
Micro-lending and Micro-finance Institutions (MFI) are at an all time high, especially in the rural areas, which has led to an explosion of micro-economic growth. Personal debt is relatively low as people, a cultural norm, often paid back their loans sooner rather than later. The pay back rate, on borrowed money, often rated at 98-100 percents, which is truly exceptional-compare to the rest in the SE Asia region.
The nation’s economy today is highly liberal. The investment climate is perhaps the best in the region, with less than tight rules and regulations, generous tax incentives, and low tariffs. And these incentives seem to work quite well as more and more foreign investments are pouring into the Kingdom’s rapidly growing and expanding economy.
Additionally, a total of $1.1 billion US worth of foreign aids have been pledged for Cambodia, representing approximately 10 percents of the Nation’s GDP, for fiscal year 2011 alone. This aid injection is on top of an average of $600 million in annual foreign aid already given to prop and boost Cambodia’s treasury since 1994 (on top of what UNTAC had provided in 1992-94).
For a small and developing country, these are all great news. Still, there are many daunting problems to overcome and it would take a collective effort by all Cambodians (and supporters) to effectively solve these problems. This task will not happen overnight and strategic reforms are a must for a long lasting growth and stability—socially, politically, and economically speaking.
Despite the rapid growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), public (Government) debts are still growing, which is a serious concern, especially for future generations who will have to pay all the debts back. China has lead the way in the so called, “soft loans” often dished out to Cambodia--without any string attached. China had already forgiven all the Kingdom’s overdue debts (almost $5 billion US) incurred during the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea regime; a regime China had sponsored and supported (more on China and Cambodia later).
The country is currently ranked 166th out of 181 countries surveyed by the Transparency International for its corruption perception index. Corruption is rift and an accepted norm from the bottom all the way to the top levels. Corruption can be found in just about every sector, large and small. The recent passage of an anti-corruption law, after 10 years of casual debates, and the recent establishment of an oversight committee may not be adequate to counter and turn around the entrenched and endemic crafts.
The recent discovery of large oil and gas deposit off Cambodia’s coast, in the Gulf of Thailand, could very well complicate things even more. Overlapping claims with neighboring countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, could only lead to envy, resentment, and may even fuel additional conflicts. The “Nigerian Curse,” where oil rich Nigeria has seen its share of serious social, political, and economic challenges, has been predicted or suggested to afflict Cambodia as well—which also has similarly weak infra-structures.
Sometime, there is too much of a good thing, particularly when a small and developing nation is not yet ready or mature enough with sound capability of managing its new found wealth, which oil boom surely shall bring about in 2012. The competing Chinese and American oil firms, such as China’s National Oil and America’s Chevron, will surely added more fuels that could lead to more problems as Cambodia’s best interest is not necessary a top priority for neither China or the US. When two giants fought (an economic and political cold war), tiny Cambodia could very well be expected to be trampled, if not completely trashed, yet again as history had shown us.
Since the nationalization of land and real property (ownership rights was completely abolished) by the Democratic Kampuchea regime in 1975, the deforestation and land grabbing by private and public entities have been rampant, blatant, and a steep worrisome climb. The lack of land title made it much more complicated by a weak land law, which is rarely respected. This has lead to serious up heval among the populace as land (through speculation) price shot up sky high.
With foreign investors looking to drop serious cash on what they perceived as “great investment values or opportunities” in real estate, prices have escalated beyond reality. Practically overnight, land (real properties) were bought and sold at will. There seems to be nothing that can’t be negotiated, bought and/or sold, including countless state owned properties. Multi-millionaires, along with pricy luxuries items (Jewelry, vehicle, and villa etc.), sprout like mushroom all over the country, seemingly overnight. Even poor farmers, those who were once could hardly afford one meal a day, became “filthy rich” by selling off land they managed to hold on to from 1979 on. Many government officials with meager state salary also became openly wealthy (See a 2008 case study by Global Witness entitled “Country for Sale” for much more disturbing details and statistics).
Land concessions for various “development” schemes by the government often made some of the most vulnerable worse off than ever before--all across Cambodia. Many marginalized people have been summarily evicted off their land holding (do remember that land, including all resources found below ground, still belong to the Government, technically and legally speaking), often time in the middle of the night when bull-dozers moved in to push them out. Protest after protest went unheard or unresolved, which has led to dire desperation by the affected and marginalized people, including minority tribes. Internally speaking, this one shall be the greatest of all challenges for Cambodia now and in the foreseeable future.
Externally speaking, land/sea (border) encroachment by both Thailand and Vietnam (even tiny Laos) has led to serious clashes. Take Preah Vihear Temple (and other flash points) along the Thai/Cambodian’s border; for instance, have seen thousands of heavily armed troops amassed and both sides faced off just meters apart. Since 2008, serious firefights have broken out that have killed and wounded many. Cross border trades, the livelihood of nearby local villagers, effectively ended as tension rises and war of words escalated and heated to a boiling point.
Then Cambodia is also facing with the Chinese, the Japanese, and the American’s factors (competing interests) in the region. China, with one of the world’s fastest growing economies just to the north, had steadily increased its “Sphere of Economic and Security Influence” throughout SE Asia, paying particular special attention in Cambodia as one of its core strategic value areas. Billions of dollars worth of Chinese’s investments, in form of direct financial aids, including free cash and “soft loans,” as well as military aids, have poured into Cambodia. This is, yet again, an attempt by China to gain even more influences in the region, with a special focus on Cambodia. Ever wonder why? We should ask the Chinese.
To counter China’s growing influences, both the US and Japan (a strong US’ allies), two of the world’s largest economies, have also decided to pour billions of dollars more—in various forms—into Cambodia. This has led to the “Three Ring Circus” effect as Cambodia is all but a tiny ant beneath the three competing interests that may not necessary Cambodia’s. The last of such “Cold War” fought had led Cambodia into untold national tragedies and sufferings, first under the Lon Nol’s Republic Regime and later on under the Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea. A past lesson that has never learned by Cambodia is bound to repeat again, unfortunately.
Yet Cambodia alone must make serious and painful reforms, on its own accord and way, in order to achieve growth that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and politically stable. Cambodia’s infrastructure, all aspects, is required and an absolutely necessary transformation.
Where should such reform begin? Here are a few pressing ones as a starter:
1. Political reform:
Cambodia can start with the biggest reform of them all, its hardcore politic. The one party (one man or women) rule is not healthy for long-term Cambodia’s politic. A free and fair election for a true liberal democracy to take hold is absolutely essential. Competing political parties must have equitable access to state and private media without threat or intimidation, with a “level playing field” so to speak. Fair competition could very well driven better quality products.
2. Judicial (Courts) reform:
A competent and independence judiciary is not only essential, but critically important for Cambodia’s development. Cambodia’s courts are routinely seen as “for sale to the highest bidder,” by both local and international community. The courts are rarely shown their own “backbones.” Better trained and professional judges and lawyers are a good first step to a quality, equitable, and independence judiciary.
3. Executive branch (Prime Minister) reform:
Bottom line, the Executive power must rest with the people, by the people, and for the people. The Executors (Prime Minister and his cabinet), thus, obligated to work for the people—not a political party or clanship. The Executive branch must be “checked and balanced” by the Judicial (Courts) and Legislative (Parliament) branch. In short, answer only to the people!
4. Legislative (Parliament) reform:
Law makers are elected to the Parliament by the people and must openly debate an introduced law before its passing. The Parliament cannot and must not be seen as simply the “rubber stamp” for the Executive branch or a political party (the ruling party). They must work for the betterment of the Khmer people—NOT a political party!
5. Military or security reform:
In a perfect world, a small, developing nation such as Cambodia doesn’t really need a military or powerful security apparatus, which often are the biggest human rights abusers and violators. The military and security matters are also cost prohibitive, representing quite a "high percentage" of the national budget—compare to other meager and yet key expenditures, such as rural development, health care, and education. Costa Rica, for instance, seemed to survive quiet well without a military force as it had abolished the military since 1946 and save tons of national treasure in the process. Since Cambodia is not in a perfect world, granted, then an all volunteered “professional” Arm Forces (with professional soldiers) is needed. In addition, by killing all the “Ghost Soldiers” within the rank and file, the extra savings (often goes to officer’s pocket) can be used for professional training, procured new and much needed equipments.
6. Civil service and administrative reform.
Average salaries for civil servants are quite meager and ridiculously low. A teacher, for instance, is paid only about $40 US per month, which also represented an average salary for many other civil servants. Often time, their meager salaries are either docked for a myriad of expenses or they got paid only every so often. This has led to serious decline in moral, ethical conduct, and had increased or encouraged low level corruption. On the other hand, lawmakers, who can vote to give themselves (and others) a pay raise, make on average about $2,000 US per month, quite reasonable and generous sum for Cambodia. However, key ministers generally receive only about $500 per month, and yet some seem to live quite lavishly and well beyond their official salary. An equitable and living wage for all civil servants is the only way to help cut back corruption and help make any anti-corruption legislation more effective—not to mention improve the overall moral and better ethical conduct.
7. Treasury reform:
This is also a very critical and important reform area. The country’s tax collection effort is… mediocre (to put it mildly) at best where only at about 11 percent of the 2010 GDP actually found its way into the national treasury’s coffer. The rest simply and magically disappeared, despite of various Value-Added Taxes (VAT), designed to increase the nation’s revenue. Cambodia’s infrastructure and its ability to collect more revenue remain inadequate. The political will is not there to make sure that more revenue actually flow into the nation’s coffer and thus can be equitably used to raise all civil servants’ base salary, to help increase moral, ethical, and professional conduct amongst the civil servants. The increase salaries of civil servants from average $40 and month to $250 per a month, a good living wage, is very much possible-should the much needed reform can be achieved.
8. Financial sectors reform:
The newly proposed stock market and banking system must be better regulated to build stronger business bases and gain public trust within these emerging and growing sectors. The number of banks has increased rapidly due to less than strict rules and regulations now in place. The lax approach in these two sectors could lead to the possibility of a future financial meltdown that could very well cripple an emerging market economy in Cambodia.
9. Corruption reform:
This is a “social norm” (a cancer really that must be cured) that need serious adjustment and curtail. Unofficial “facilitation” fees, usually done quietly under the table, must be eliminated from any and all transactions with the government. Those found dirty must be “publically shamed” and payment made to fit the crime under the new anti-corruption law. If not, the great big gap between the rich and the poor shall continue with serious and dire consequences.
10. Land reform:
Any liberal and open economy in the world—not just in Cambodia-- cannot function properly and effectively without the utmost respect for property rights. The widespread land grabs across Cambodia by the rich and powerful, as a key indicator, could lead to another “Land Revolution” as Prime Minister Hun Sen had correctly recognized. Still, it would take much more than PM Hun Sen and a weak land title law alone to resolve this pressing social, economic, and political problem. It would take a strong political will and a collective effort by all, through better education and enforcement of the established law, in order to effectively reform this sector.
11. Foreign aid and natural resource revenues reform:
Cambodia should and must wean itself from the current “Beggar State” syndrome. Foreign aid must be viewed only as a short-term fix, a band-aid, and not as a long-term solution to Cambodia’s budgetary problem. More importantly, all foreign aid as well as internal revenues must be invested wisely and shared equitably in all areas-not just in urban area where only 20% of the population is located. A diversified investment and broad-based development strategy is also critically needed to counter global economic crisis.
12. Donors reform:
Foreign donors must better coordinate their effort and help Cambodia with even MORE capacity building. They must establish a much stronger mechanism in order to monitor and make sure that their aid actually and effectively went into designated and planned areas as stipulated. Foreign aid, including that from China, must follow the same basic rule of governance.
Lastly, unless these 12 points reform and associated conditions are met, the danger is that what Cambodia have miraculously achieved over the past decade could be easily destroyed by world’s economic crises, civil unrest brought on by repeated oppression, frustration, and outrage at the political and bureaucratic nightmares facing the Kingdom of Cambodia today.
Ronnie Yimsut is an author and an activist. He is a native son of Siem Reap, Cambodia and a lone survivor of a Khmer Rouge’s massacre in December 1977. He has been an active observer of Cambodia since 1992 and he had lived, worked, and traveled extensively throughout Cambodia in the past 3 decades.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The lotus flower, though came from a humble begining, emerged from a muddy bottom to become one of the most revere of flowers.
Follow the link below to gain more understanding of Khmer history.