IN Cambodia there is a proverb "Su Likteuk Kandal Tonle, Kom Oy Pleung Cheas
Pteas", which translated means "It is preferable to suffer on a sinking
boat in the middle of the river than to have your house destroyed by fire".
This proverb still holds true for contemporary Cambodians who mostly depend on luck
for their fortune or who still prefer to keep their money hidden under the pillow
while the world around them is changing dramatically with new technologies, from
mobile phones to the internet. But unless they are prepared to start changing, by
not depending on luck, but taking out insurance instead, when their house is burned
down there will be nothing salvageable, contrary to when a boat is sunk; what is
lost is only what was in the boat to begin with.
In this modern world of this new millennium, Cambodians can not be the exception
for too long. Sooner or later, access to new technologies will be available to most
people if not all. One thing is certain - these technologies will effect everyone,
especially today's government.
The government will encounter new mechanisms of accountability and will have to learn
to effectively tackle old problems such as corruption, social injustice and poverty.
Like the experiences of many of the former communist countries, Cambodia in 1993
was emerging from under the oppressive communist system but, unlike these countries,
Cambodia had experienced some of the worst human rights abuses to have ever taken
place in the region, if not in the world. This country, which had been ruled in anarchy
for at least three decades, ravaged by war and destruction, is beginning to pick
up the pieces through the slow and painful process of reform in all areas - from
the political system of governing, to administration, to judicial and economic reform
- often with the lack of any political will from its current leaders. This lack of
responsible leadership has caused great concern, not just among the donor countries
but also among many Cambodians themselves, including intellects and activists, who
have tried all available means to combat the social problems of poverty, corruption
and the abuse of power.
In the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia was put under the control of a handful of people
called 'Angkar' or 'Supreme Organization.' This was followed by more than a decade
of social unrest and a system of impunity which treated ordinary people badly let
alone allowing them to participate in the day-to-day affairs of the nation. Cambodians,
as a result, lost confidence in their own ability to take hold of their own affairs
and this lack of confidence is the major obstacle in the process to encourage the
Cambodia in 1993 produced a constitution, which together with the International Human
Rights Instruments she has signed, have helped to determine the system of government
in the country today. This system supposedly is a pluralistic liberal democracy which
includes parliamentary democracy, constitutional democracy, participatory democracy,
and also legal democracy.
Now if this democracy were translated into concrete actions, good governance would
ensure as a matter of course, and here Governance means "the process by which
we collectively solve our problems and meet our social needs". But in order
to have good governance, those at its core, its leaders and politicians must clearly
understand and uphold the principles of democracy. How can these people coming from
such an oppressive communist background achieve this on their own? They need support
and resources which will enable them to be trained and educated in democratic principles.
In Cambodia, where about 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line,
the so-called strategy of poverty reduction has negligible effects. This is because
most of the schemes concentrate only on handing out food and clothes, usually targeting
a specific group of people. But for the majority of ordinary people forced out of
their land in the name of development by corrupt government officials, with little
or no compensation, this does not help their situation or address the real issues
of how to stop their exploitation by the rich and the powerful
There is another proverb which provides the best strategy of how to help the poor:
"Do not give the poor fish, instead give them the fishing rod". In reality
we are continuing to give the poor fish because Cambodia's leaders continue to treat
the people as beggars by making them sit and listen to their political speeches for
hours before giving them some rice or clothes.
In addition, aid organizations such as WFP, continue to provide support for its "Food
For Works" program. Under this program the poor become more dependent on handouts
and lose their motivation to do things themselves with dignity, whereas before they
would have taken care of their own family and their community needs by digging the
irrigation ditches for their own rice-farming, and planting different varieties of
vegetables and basically providing for themselves in a sustainable way. Instead,
through the Food for Work program, they wait for the government or international
agencies to give them "payment" for their own work.
Thus we are left with policies and practices which encourage dependency and abuses
of power and, in fact, create more poverty instead of promoting a more "wealth
creation" orientated approach which would have a better chance of generating
hope and help the people improve their
Wealth creation would encourage ordinary people, such as the farmer in a rural village,
to invest their property in development projects themselves instead of allowing the
people in power to use the excuse of development to force them out of their lands.
Thus, where their land is used as part of such an investment project, part of the
land value can be paid by the investing company, and the rest can be used to reinvest
in the project, with the farmer now a share-holder in the business.
This would enable the ordinary rural person to generate new income to live on as
well as having a continuous income stream with which to maintain their living standard
and which could also be used to provide improved access to education and health.
The International Institutions, such the World Bank and the UNDP, are not keen to
introduce such straight forward approaches to tackle the global problem of poverty
and poor administration. Why is this? Part of the problem is that it is seen as a
very sensitive area to work in because it alludes to the whole problem of land tenureship
and the fact that many poor nations are often governed by dictatorship or corrupt
So the terminologies which are currently used to describe and to implement the objectives
of projects are often misleading. In fact it may be better to replace 'Good Governance'
and 'Poverty Reduction' with words that more accurately reflect the true meaning
of our intention, such as 'Applied Democracy' and 'Wealth Creation' respectively!
Looking back into Cambodia's recent history of the killing fields; the record of
the human rights abuses in the recent past; the large proportion of the adult population
who are illiterate (more than 60%); and also the belief in Karma by the large majority
of the people to which they attribute their suffering, make things close to impossible
when one is attempting to devise ways of involving Cambodian people to take charge
of their own destiny and actively shape their government's decisions and behaviour.
The sudden increase in population over the last decade together with fewer resources
available for the people to make a living, have caused the people to start becoming
more vocal about their discontent and as soon as they are able to find a reliable
channel to raise their concerns they will do so from whatever walks of life they
After being elected to the parliament in the last eight years I have been working
seriously to provide this channel for the people. And although in Cambodia there
are few resources available, including a lack of any real legal framework and where
the political will of the country's leaders is still open to corruption, I have learned
there are many ways you can still provide access for the people regardless of the
political environment you are living under, but confidence-building must be the prime
objective, so that the people can feel secure that everything they own and are will
not be destroyed "in the fire", but can be renewed by their own efforts.
- Son Chhay, Member of Parliament