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Roadmaps to Democracy

by Chim Sotuon

When I left my commune of Tang Krassang and headed for Lycee Suryavarman II in Siemreap, I felt reluctant to leave the comfortable surrounding of rural life and many of my friends from the villages. Needless to say, my parents urged me to go on and pursue my secondary education in Cambodia. For me, the natural sentiment of human bondage and related associations were more important than formal training and the cultural enrichment for better life.

But I went on, against my better sense of the moments and the constant longing to escape from boredom and hard works. City kids are slick, clever, and articulate. I didn't have much to say. Besides, people would not have appreciated what I had to brag about: water buffalos, fishing along small rivers, and wide stretches of open farmlands. But I hung on through high school and managed to learn the ropes of city life.

Just like that farm boy from Tang Krassang who was idealistic and sentimental, I'm currently seeing my old country of Cambodia taking the same hesitant footstep toward democracy, a vestige of western ideology and a legacy of Greek philosophers. In spite of exposure to western thinking, many good Cambodian leaders are taking a bureaucratic wait and see in order to implement democracy in the State of Cambodia.

I'm seeing fear, doubt, and cultural pride. With the exception of Sam Rainsy and Sirivudh who have been unfairly forced out from the Khmer Parliament, others are talking in circles and relapsing back into the cozy cultural climate of internal corruption, unaccountability, and self-serving excuses. In spite of advanced degrees, strong feelings for patriotic sentiments, and overzealous revolutionary ardors, I don't seem to see any display of real convictions, outstanding moves toward democracy, or even personal disciplines of greater moral and intellectual stamina.

In Asia, the conventional wisdom of tradition, respect of elders, and the worship of ancestors dominate the whole cultural landscape. It's business, as usual, the mandarin way.

Democracy is an ideology, a conviction, an attitude, and a set of procedures and mechanisms. The heartbeat of democracy depends on freedom of thoughts, the allowance for individual expression, and the respect of civil liberty. Without a deliberate attempt to foster the the different elements of democratic institutions and to strengthen the principles of human rights, progress of any kind will remain unbalanced, lopsided, and concentrated into a few powerful hands whose views may be old-fashioned or outright obsolete. And without a justifiably fair distribution of wealth, power, prestige, and influence among the masses of the general population, the ethical sum of the moral and spiritual cohesion of the whole nation will remain largely untapped and hopelessly unreachable.

Finding the universe of democracy is a matter of discipline, patient application, and persistent efforts to remain steadfast and sensitive to the needs for freedom from responsible citizens. Much more than communism, totalitarianism, and absolute monarchy, the regime of democracy requires both moral and intellectual disciplines in order for it to become fruitful, meaningful, and productive. Vice versa, the flowering of human talents depends more on democratic balance rather than on absolutism and dictatorship.

We have to keep the momentum for democratic movement in Cambodia rolling forward. There have been challenges, roadblocks, and barriers from both inside and outside the country. We've missed many good marks. But, the failure of past achievement in democratic thinking shall not deter us from our determination and willingness to persist in taking the next important steps.

The argument that Cambodia is not ready for the internet is mainly a political persuasion of the rich and powerful who do not want to see the extent of their resources eroded by the shifting sands of the silicon revolution. If we wait until we will be ready, our bones will be further broken, our arms twisted, and our mind further weakened by the relentless intent for cultural domination by the categories of these kinds of people. By then, we would have believed that Angkor was built by the angels and the earth is still flat. The truth is that these monuments were built by Cambodian architects, Khmer construction workers, and the gentle people of Kampuchea.

As more developing nations are moving forward to implement the internet, we have to do the same. Even if we have the political wills, there are economic, technological, and ethical issues that we have to resolve in order to really appreciate the marvels of this new leap of the human faith. It's more fun to make attempts to try to find solutions to these intellectual adventures rather than getting involved in genocidal warfare and selfish aggrandizement of personal greed at the expense of public welfare and social justice.

The arguments against the rapid spreading of the internet in Cambodia is very similar to the currently overriding practice that the poor shall have no access to social justice, civil liberty, and personal freedom. These sentiments of power and wealth exclusion are rampant in all over the world. But, they seem to be more prevalent in Asia and other third world countries.

In the United States, the government uses its power and influence to make attempts to insure that justice is being fairly distributed throughout the nation. In Cambodia, those who try to make rallies for the good cause of justice are being denied their citizenship and human rights. And those who have the power to make necessary changes and adjustments for better psychological satisfaction and public welfare for a larger mass of the population are afraid to speak up for fear of resentment and reprisals.

But, the government is not individual citizens or even any corporate entities that exist within the border of a country. It has the power to legislate, remake the molding of national character, and undertake projects that are beneficial and advantageous to the nation or even to the region as a whole. And since it is being elected by the people, it can use that moral authority to legitimize many good causes for its citizens and those who carry their livelihood within its national boundary. It is, indeed, responsible to make decisions to negotiate for changes in bureaucratic procedures, people's transactions, cultural conventions, and institutional behaviors so that peace, prosperity, and social justice can be shared by all, and according to the higher principles of a democratic system of government.

Without the proving strength of moral and intellectual competence, any other attempts to resolve the more urgent needs of economic, political, or even military problems will not come out to be in our favors. Our freedom and the freedom of all the people in the world will depend mainly on the proper exercise of the intellectual and moral capacities of the human mind. Without taking the spiritual mission of the universal mind into a primary consideration, any short term human accomplishment will only be at the detriment of a larger prospect for better human welfare over the long run.

In order to intercept the theoretical and practical concepts of market economy and democratic way of governing, we have to learn to take some risks to modify our old age perception of cultural permanence and Khmer identity. As such, we have to shift our posture and directions from passionate defense into some kinds of trade-offs and exchange. The end-result is that we will become better in the arts to adapt to the dynamics of market economy and cultural transformation that can be pervasive throughout the world. Such an improvement does not come about to be through accident or random events of the human circumstances. It must be the end results of innovation, creativity, synthesis, and wills.

The future of the ASEAN nations depends on peace, security, and stability in this part of the world. We have to learn how to compete on higher grounds of moral and intellectual capacities. And we have to make the decision to do so because, without focus and prioritized sequences of national development, the enterprise will remain risky. As we all know, we don't have a large GDP, high per capita income, or sophisticated national infrastructure.

So, the easy way for us to undertake for the moment is not heavy industry, service driven commercial sectors, or highly specialized international trade. The best prospect for us is tourism and labor intensive development of the human resources. The best marketing approach for us is nothing but a qualified assurance of a job well done. It can be used as a springboard for future promotional lineup when we move deeper into more intensified commercial transactions with the rest of ASEAN nations and other countries in the world.

Education, research and development should be our main priority. The current military outlay is relatively higher in proportion to the spreading of formal education among the population in general. Our best bet in this kind of international competition is learning to search to find justifiable and legitimate avenues to redeflect criticisms, decontaminate informal circles of cultural intrigues, and relate with the intrinsic political powers within the area. As we increase our levels of skill development in economic and cultural persuasion, the issues of Khmer Rouge, poverty, and ill-defined geographical borders will be automatically resolved on their own terms without having to shoot any single shot or calling a generalized mobilization of the entire nation.

It's much more fun to get involved in a focused industrial or commercial project development than being bogged down in the quagmires of cultural intrigues, international gossips, and war stories. Persuasion will not necessarily be achieved through incessant bragging, pounding our chest, and flexing our muscles. It can be better accomplished through the subtle play of our culture, the full embrace of democracy, and a prioritized focus on education.

The internet should be a real blessing for Cambodia if ever we're coming to the perception that it's a tool for wealth creation. By adopting this new mechanism of the information technology, we're practically skipping the early engine of industrial revolution and making ways to intercept the new form of human societies in the 21th century.

I've seen many participants who have responded to my postings are into mathematics, financial accounting, engineering, psychology, website designs, tele-communication, career professionals, and simple folks who have come to appreciate this new tool of the communicating paradigm. I also see that there exists a commercial link between Sihanoukville and Seattle. I see that China and Microsoft have been working on a mandarin version of Windows 95. It would not be a bad idea to invite Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft Corporation, to visit Cambodia and give him a tour of Angkor Wat and see if he can give us some good ideas about seriously initiating a computing network in Cambodia.

Any kids from Tang Krassang would love to have their hands on the internet rather tending to their water buffalos and plowing the rice fields under the hot tropical sun. The only thing they need to do is clicking their mouse and developing a better intuitive search for human knowledge and creative contents from all over the world.

Are we going to learn from the 5,000 years of Chinese history and get shaken by the 2,000 years of Vietnamese struggle to liberate the fatherland, or are we going to be strongly impressed by the 200 years of American ingenuity that is more inspiring to the human mind and less tedious to absorb? Unless we want to continue the same old rhymes and reasons of being obedient to the lost causes and eating Prahok for breakfast, then the answer is very obvious. The internet is the way of the future. We have to do every possible way to catch on to the excitement of this new information scenario.

The other seemingly legitimate argument is the question of food, hunger, and lack of skills. I still think that these concerns are mainly perceptional and they are a matter of ethics. When there are justice and fair distribution, those questions will be evaporated from most of the sincere minds. When people are happy, they tend to become more lenient, patient, and conciliatory. When they are dissatisfied, they always want to have more even though they cannot bring it along with them when they die.

Perception, conscience, and responsibility are very important philosophical and moral question of the human mind. Without the democratic form of government and freedom of thoughts, the molding and shaping of better moral values will be bound to be lacking and the status quo will continue to remain entrenched throughout the Khmer kingdom as it has always been during the last 700 years.

How many of us are involved in actual food production, designing clothes, or building bamboo houses? Yet, we never have to worry about these things because we have used the mind to generate better and more substantial thinking in order to exchange for what we really need at the physical and biological levels.

The better medium is the information. Besides, there's nothing new. It used to be observing the position of the stars, reading the book of I Ching, consulting the oracles, or praying God for new revelations. To a somewhat lesser extent, we're still doing that. But, the new scenario of high technology seems to offer us a much more vibrant and quicker way to get at the needed information. All it takes is just some formal education and a sincere desire to learn the way of the information.

-- June 1996

Editor's Note: The article above was originally posted to soc.culture.cambodia, a Usenet newsgroup for the discussion of Khmer culture and history. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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