Last April, a conference organised at the French Institute in Phnom Penh focused on the dynamics of the Khmer Diaspora and challenges professionals of the second generation face when coming back to Cambodia to live and work.
High-level officials took part in the panel discussion. As the debate drew to a close, a young French-Cambodian woman complained about corruption and mismanagement of public affairs.
As she took the floor for the second time, an adviser to the Royal Government of Cambodia – an “Excellency”, as other panelists would refer to him – basically told her to shut up as it was “not part of Cambodian culture” to criticise rulers too openly.
This event epitomises a behaviour and way of reasoning that plague today’s Cambodia – I refer to the manipulation of culture. The central question it raises is: Who speaks on behalf of culture?
That is, who has authority to define culture – what it includes and what values, behaviours or social relationships are part of it?
As Sudanese scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im put it, usually “powerful groups and individuals tend to monopolise the interpretation of cultural norms and manipulate them to their own advantage”. This holds true for Cambodia.
Government officials tend to think they are the only ones authorised to define what Cambodian culture is and who behaves in a “Khmer” or “non-Khmer” way.
By doing so, they essentialise culture, ie, they regard it as a thing – monolithic, homogeneous and unchanging.
The essentialisation of culture is a powerful weapon. In the Cambodian context, it allows rulers and dominant groups to brand those who speak up against abuses of power and impunity, such as the Boeung Kak women, grassroots associations and countless indigenous communities whose land and natural resources rights are violated as “non-Khmer” or “unworthy-of-being-Khmer”, and trivialise their movements.
The reality is, consensus is a myth. There are, and have always been, critical voices within Khmer society and culture.
And there are struggles, including on the very definition of “Khmerness”.
A prominent example is the increasing number of Cambodian women who reject the influence of the Chbab Srey (Female Code) and the stereotyped roles it assigns to women (“Obey your husband”; “Never complain”).
To be sure, Cambodia has its own culture and traditions, which are distinct from, say, Sweden’s or Morocco’s. However, just like any culture, Cambodian culture is not static.
It also has a history, ie, its content, meaning and boundaries have changed, and will continue to change, over time.
The Chbab Srey, for instance, originates in the 19th century. One can argue it is an example of what historians refer to as “the invention of tradition”.
Cambodian culture is in constant movement and redefinition, as a result of social interactions, power struggles and societal needs. In short, it is a socio-historical construction.
Lack of public participation in matters affecting the everyday lives of Cambodian citizens, such as development policies, is thus the result of a specific history, as is the ability of the current rulers to stifle critical voices and suppress dissent.
We should not take for granted that these power relationships are essentially part, or a result of, Cambodian culture.
Discourses that brand public criticism of rulers as foreign impositions or “un-Khmer” behaviour are but cynical attempts to preserve oppressive hierarchies and delegitimise dissenting voices.
These discourses (once labeled “Asian values”) are weapons that the current rulers use to reject legitimate grievances of marginalised groups; for instance, a more equitable economic growth.
By voicing their concerns and openly criticising the authorities, the Boeung Kak women not only challenge the Chbab Srey; they undermine the interpretation of Khmer culture that rulers propagate.
Marginalised Cambodian groups have a right to speak out and put forward alternative interpretations of Khmer culture – that could include public criticism of government officials and the policies they pursue.
Civil society and other groups should keep this in mind and systematically endeavour to deconstruct the narrative of Cambodian culture that the current rulers try to impose.
Adviser to human rights group ADHOC and a former lecturer at the Royal University of Law and Economics, Phnom Penh.