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American influence in Cambodia reflects an international connection to The Enlightenment

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Stuart Alan Becker

As the United States of America celebrates its 235th birthday today, marking the moment in time when the Founding Fathers decided they’d had enough greedy treatment from distant, arrogant British overlords  (no offence to our present-day British friends), it’s interesting to note that American companies in Cambodia today are truly international.

In this special report, you’ll read about Palestinian Rami Sharaf, who represents the American heritage brand names Ford, Chevrolet, John Deere and Swenson’s Ice Cream.  

You’ll read about Dutchman Paul Popelier, who is the country manager for the Coca-Cola brand name in Cambodia.  This year, Coca-Cola  celebrates its 125th anniversary as a brand name and believe me, that brand name is not going away any time soon.

You’ll read about Microsoft country manager Pily Wong, who was born in France to a Khmer-Chinese family and how he became the Cambodian representative of one of the world’s largest computer software companies.

You’ll read about Crown Group founder Jim Thompson,  an American who owns the world’s largest privately held moving and document storage company – and how that company is headed in Cambodia by Frank Kursteiner,  a citizen of Switzerland.

You’ll read about Dararith Lim, country manager for General Electric, a young Cambodian who returned after studies in Australia to help develop his homeland. You’ll also read about two Peace Corps volunteers:  Keiko Valente and Saeed Rahman.  Valente’s mother is Japanese and Rahman’s mother is Pakistani – yet they are both Americans. So why are all the big American brands represented by non-Americans?  Why do Americans come from such a mixed ethnic heritage?  What does it all mean?

The answers are interesting and have connective roots in the fascinating past. If we trace America's roots back to July 4, 1776, we find that the first president of the United States, George Washington, was a farmer  who – just like Cambodian farmers of today – was trying to get the best price for his product, which in his  case was mostly tobacco. (He also grew cannabis.)

Washington was also a colonel in the British Army because naturally, as a British colony, there were wars to fight against European rival France over the lands to the north in what became known as the French and Indian War. During the late 18th century, Europe was the manufacturing and export centre of the world, with the powers of England, France, Spain, Portugal and others all serving their distant colonies by shipping.

Washington grew irritated that he had to sell his tobacco to the same London firm that he bought his household goods from. Any manufactured items around the house that one needed for the kitchen, toys for kids, musical instruments, came from that same London trading house, which could “cook the books” to its own advantage and not Washington’s – leaving him with the deeply unhappy feeling of being ripped off and contributing to the conditions for the American Revolution. Washington also suffered humiliating moments from British army officers who didn’t regard him as a genuine British officer, but rather some lesser colonial type.  This really got under Washington’s skin.  This feeling of humiliation was shared by Benjamin Franklin, who served as a representative of England in the American colonies.

When Franklin voyaged to London to appeal to the British government’s Privy Council about unfair taxes levied on the colonies, he was deeply humiliated by his British hosts. These feelings were galvanised by events like the Boston Massacre and word spread like wildfire that the British were killing people in the American colonies.

Thus, on July 4, 1776, the American “Continental Congress” issued a   “Declaration of Independence”,  kicking off a long, difficult and bloody struggle that ended in a victory for military leader General George Washington. A new nation was born.

Today, 235 years later in Cambodia, at The Phnom Penh Post, we honour George Washington, the Founding Fathers and all the American people by celebrating the rich legacy of an important and deeply consequential moment in history. The revolutionary fever kicked off by the victory of the American colonies over England, the mother country, spread with excitement around the world and helped create the conditions for the French Revolution. Both the American and French revolutions can be seen as products of a period marked by an awakening of consciousness                   in Europe that came to be known as  The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment, also known as “The Age of Reason”,  put reason as the highest principle of human governance and offered the deist and religious-freedom idea of “God” giving all people their rights directly, without the intervention of kings or churches, which at the time, combined forces to make life difficult for ordinary people.

It was a heady moment in history and the revolutionary character of the ideas of The Enlightenment are as relevant today as they were in 1776 – especially in Cambodia, where a young population struggles to gain a sense of identity out of the bewilderment following the cruelty and senseless killing of the Khmer Rouge period.

Take note, Cambodians, of the Americans and what they have created. Take comfort in the principles of The Enlightenment that are still treasured and held sacred by millions of people across the world.

The United States of America is only an ever-changing, ever-evolving expression of these principles, but you can somehow have a glimpse of how successful they must have been when you look at the astonishing triumph of the US and her allies in World War 2, a massive, bloody series of horrific events that changed the world probably more than anything prior to it in history and probably since.

These American brand names operating in Cambodia, and their global coverage, are direct evidence both of the legacy of The Enlightenment and of the past century’s bitter struggle in World War 2, the effects of which resonate to this day. So why are all these American brands represented by non-Americans?  The answer is simple.  Principles don’t know nationalism.  Nationalism is only window-dressing on principles, which stand the test of time. Principles cut across all lines of nationalism, religiosity  and ethnicity.  

When you stand for something larger than yourself – when you serve others as you would hope that you would be served – you are behaving in a universal way; you are behaving as if every human being were your brother or sister. Somehow, the success and consequent presence of Ford, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola and Microsoft in Cambodia are directly and inexorably connected by an unbreakable bond to the revolutionary principles of The Enlightenment so solemnly yet wholeheartedly embraced by the Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776.  You are a citizen of planet Earth and you stand for something.  Your nationality is only incidental and interesting, as you share the richness of your culture. your food, your traditions and your speech with others.

Let this day of American Independence and the reading we offer about the American participation in Cambodia’s development be an inspiration for all people through those principles of The Enlightenment that stand the test of time.

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