The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) issued a statement on Apr. 30 that gets many things right. In its statement, the CNRP reconfirms its commitment to a “culture of dialogue,” as initially expressed by CNRP leader Sam Rainsy when he returned to Cambodia from exile. Premier Hun Sen pays lip service to the principle, but it has not been a hallmark of relations between the CNRP and the ruling CPP.

A skeptic, I began 2015 with an article in which I discussed the term “dialogue.” I wrote: “In dialogue, different sides work toward finding common ground and understanding, with each side having a genuine concern for the other, listening, learning, and working with the other to attain wholeness and interconnectedness and a workable solution. A dialogue is non-confrontational; one party does not seek to be right at the expense of others; it is open-ended.”

I am so interested in the concept of dialogue that I translated the article from English to the Khmer language and circulated it to a limited distribution list. The response was wholly positive and I’ve focused my writing in Khmer in the months since.

“Culture of Dialogue”

The concept of a “culture of dialogue” has not won widespread support among Khmer expatriates it deserves. On the contrary, outspoken activists have branded Sam Rainsy a traitor, and accused those endorsing dialogue as selling out to “Vietnamese puppets.”

Not without reason, the CNRP has been seen as giving up too much for too little – never mind that it has little choice. Anti-dialogue diehards’ invectives float on the Internet. Democrats are split and some fight each other to show who loves the country more. I admit to being embarrassed by the situation. I am not a Buddhist, but Lord Buddha’s words ring loud in my ears: “In a controversy, the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.” Ah, A’thma Anh!

I continue to be surprised by the vitriolic language that some CNRP figures employ. It is thoughtless, this anti-Hun Sen rhetoric, lacking nuance or specificity, and succeeds in providing the quick-tongued premier excuses to hurl back threats. I have not been able to find analysis or discussion of the hurdles the 55 CNRP lawmakers face in Parliament and how they might maneuver around them.

There is surely an audience that would appreciate this information. All Khmers want to see a true battle for democratic principles. Instead, dialogue is diminished by speeches such as the one Hun Sen delivered at the recent opening of a factory, in which he referred to CNRP vice president Kem Sokha as a snake that must be killed because Mr. Sokha called the ruling party “communist.” The premier threatened to kill off the “culture of dialogue,” and warned the people of a civil war should they vote to change the regime in power.

As French critic Alphonse Karr (1808-1890) remarked, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (The more things change, the more it’s the same).


The PM’s Election Anxiety

That Prime Minister Hun Sen is nervous about the 2018 election is beyond doubt. In a free and fair election he is unlikely to be returned to power. Though he would like to project certainty about his political future, Hun Sen knows he is on shifting ground. Last week, I was reminded by a Khmer friend that Khmers may be passive – until a time when they cannot be stopped. The late King Father Sihanouk’s grandfather has been quoted as saying a Khmer’s anger is like a water buffalo in rage.

I welcome the CNRP’s reaffirmation of mutual respect, an end to insults, an end to threats, and the confidence to know that not everyone who disagrees with you is your enemy. I am reassured by the April 30 statement that the CNRP does have a commitment to instituting a culture of dialogue in all its communications. But as the Khmer saying reminds us, it takes two hands to clap to make a sound. Premier Hun Sen and those who don’t adhere to the CNRP also must want to engage in dialogue, not invective.

While I do not bank on Cambodia’s “culture” of dialogue, I would be happy just to see a dialogue take root, allowing ideas and concepts to seep through the minds and the behaviors of Khmers until a “culture” is formed – which would be a topic for another day. Centuries of culture must be supplanted for a new culture to develop. But it can begin today.

Gaffar Peang-Meth taught political science for 13 years at the University of Guam. He is now retired and lives on the United States mainland.

This article was originally released for publication by the Khmer Times
Thursday, 07 May 2015