Cambodian People, Society, Culture, and Civilization
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.”
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.