Saturday, July 30, 2011

Essay on Cambodia


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?

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