On Tuesday November 20 Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an order to close down nightclubs,
discos and karaoke parlours because of violence and drug trafficking associated with
such establishments. That order was effective as from 18:00 Friday, November 23.
Orders of our "strong man" are our laws, and our obedient "law"
enforcement agencies could not afford to waste any time and rushed to enforce the
latest order of our prime minister. Like Greek philosopher Socrates who preferred
abiding by the law of his land to acceding to a plea by his friend Crito to escape
the death sentence imposed on him by that law, the owners of those establishments
together with their workers, being law-abiding citizens as always, uttered no word
of protest and accept the death of their businesses and employment. Phnom Penh that
Friday night fell dark and quiet when those establishments were closed down.
For puritans our prime minister's decision is justified. But it was too sudden, taken
on the spur of the moment without proper consideration of its consequences or alternative
measures. It suppressed the problems it had been meant to address. It made the innocent
pay for the incompetence of our authorities.
To take the issue of incompetence first: Before giving any license to open and operate
such establishments, owners must have satisfied the authorities that they met a certain
number of requirements such as good character, no criminal record, adequate measures
and ability to ensure law and order in their premises, and financial surety, so that
their customers could fully enjoy themselves free of any trouble, and their neighbors
were not disturbed. Furthermore, the authorities should have conducted spot checks
to ensure that law and order prevailed, and there were no drugs or even prostitution.
Non compliance with the standard above would be subject to a variety of penalties
such as warning, fine, and closure.
Puritans would argue that corruption had rendered such supervision for compliance
with any standard ineffective. Such an argument simply admitted corruption among
our authorities. But why make owners and workers pay for the incompetence and corruption
of our authorities whose job it is to provide security to citizens anyway? Why does
our prime minister or his government not punish those authorities for their incompetence
The closure of all such establishments has penalized the ones which had made efforts
and taken measures to ensure law and order and have no drug problem within their
premises. What kind of value system is it when it cannot differentiate good and evil,
and when good is subject to the same penalty as evil?
Look at investment in such establishments. License or approval was obtained before
making such investment. It was lawfully made or at least with the knowledge of those
authorities in the vicinities. Such investment was badly affected, or even ruined,
by such an unpredictable measure. Such an unpredictable measure has faltered all
planning and has sent a bad signal to actual and potential investors in other sectors.
How about those workers? Are they well-off people? They had already been punished
by the society whose socio-economic organisation had failed to create more decent
employment for them and also by its ill-consideration of their employment at those
establishments. Such a sudden measure has punished them further. Are we not so cruel
to fellow countrymen who had the misfortune of not having been born in better-off
or more well-to-do families or in better-off areas, or of not receiving better education?
Where will their next meals come from if all of a sudden they lose their job? And
the next meals of those who depend on their earnings?
Our prime minister's drastic decision was not unique though in our society and in
our history. Many of our actions have an extreme aspect.
In the family, the way we scold our children has such an extreme aspect and has no
sense of proportion: "I kick you dead"; "I beat you dead", and
the like. When we insult one another we also use "brutal" language: "May
the lightening strike you!" "May a bullet hit you!", "May a grenade
blast you!", and the like.
At times members of the same family, when having some conflicts, have disowned one
another until their death. In our social relations too, sometimes we curse one another
and pledge not to talk with one another again or not step on one another's doorstep
again, and that for good. We have resorted to such drastic measures over differences
or conflicts which a bit more of patience or moderation can solve without necessarily
breaking relationships for good or without damage or harm to one another.
In love affairs, among those who have failed, there are those who have made up their
mind that it is the end of the world for them in this life or even in the next. Some
pledge to avoid their hated partners for this life and for all the next lives if
they are born again. Some have committed suicide, others have taken refuge in Buddhist
monasteries. Many a time those victims of love affairs are young and have a full
life ahead of them.
Some wives who are jealous of their husbands' mistresses have simply got these mistresses
killed or thrown acid at. Some men have raped very young girls including girls under
ten years old.
The lack of patience, moderation and sense of proportion and the concomitant drastic
and extreme decisions have been shown now and again by criminals as well as by those
who have arrested and punished them. Sometimes criminals kill their victims to steal
earrings worth less than $10, or to steal motorcycles worth some $1,000 or much less.
Sometimes those who have arrested robbers have brutally beaten them to death. At
times one hears warnings that a killer or a group of killers can be hired for less
that $100 or $200 only. Such a case has recently happened in Battambang province.
The change of behavior of some people has also an extreme aspect, and in the old
Cambodian value system, in order to characterize the drastic change of behavior following
a change of situation, people used a well-known metaphor of butterflies finding caterpillars
disgusting and looking down on them. Butterflies forgot altogether that they had
been born from caterpillars. Some time back poor Cambodians joined the fight against
"the bourgeois" and "the feudal lords" who, they claimed, had
exploited the poor. Those revolutionaries were very humble during their struggle
days. Once they got power and riches they became bourgeois or feudal lords themselves,
at times more arrogant than the bourgeois and feudal lords they had overthrown, forgetting
all their humble days and their humble fellow countrymen. There are friends who have
become strangers to one another and have avoided one another after they joined different
Such drastic and extreme measures have also been taken in public affairs, and Cambodians
cannot afford to forget some of the disastrous ones.
Our King, when He was Head of State in the 1960s, alleged that American aid and the
"dollar god" were corrupting Cambodian army officers and other officials
at that time. As a measure to end that corruption he refused to receive that aid.
In 1970 Lon Nol resorted to force to rid the sanctuaries and bases of communist Vietnamese
forces in the border regions at the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail thereby engulfing
the country in the Vietnam War. He also took a drastic decision to overthrow the
monarchy and turn Cambodia into a republic.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge went to even more extremes. They were not happy with townsfolk
and were not able to feed them when they took power. They simply forced them to the
countryside to till the land and grow their own food until their death. They alleged
that money was corrupting. They simply abolished it. If they were not happy with
somebody, they simply killed them. Examples of their drastic and extreme measures
Even more recently such drastic and extreme measures have been taken from time to
time. Somebody or a group of people were not happy with Sam Rainsy, currently the
opposition leader, and his followers, and they threw four grenades into the demonstrators
he was leading on 30 March 1997, killing 19 demonstrators and injuring over one hundred.
In those days also the two ruling parties, CPP and Funcinpec, were not happy with
one another. They armed themselves and eventually on 5 and 6 July, 1997 they fought
each other to the destruction of Funcinpec. Somebody or a group of people were not
happy with Ho Sok, a senior Funcinpec official, at that time. They simply killed
him in his detention cell at the Ministry of Interior.
Later on our then second prime minister was not happy with the rise in crime, and
alleged that some criminals were using cars with dark Rayban windows and windscreens
and were committing crimes from there. He then banned such windows and windscreens
as a measure to fight crime.
When becoming sole prime minister he was still not happy with the level of crime.
He alleged that judges were corrupt and released criminals thereby rendering ineffective
the government 's measures to combat crimes. He then ordered the re-arrest and retrial
of those the courts had acquitted or released.
More recently, previous to his order to close down night clubs, he was not happy
with members of the government and government officials for speaking their minds
at variance with government policies, he simply banned them from participating and
speaking at seminars organised by the civil society unless they had his prior approval.
Almost all drastic, and at times extreme, measures, if not all, taken either by individuals,
or by groups, or by "strong men" have met with immediate effectiveness.
They have suppressed the problems they have been meant to address, but in general
they have not addressed or solved them. They have created new problems some of the
consequences of which we have continued to suffer.
It is about time we avoided such measures and proceeded to solve problems in a methodic
way, not on the spur of the moment, looking at alternative solutions and weighing
the advantages and disadvantages of each of these alternatives.
If we could not get what was suggested above, we wish our prime minister would use
the stroke of his pen to raise the salaries of our civil servants and ban corruption
throughout the country. Such a drastic measure would be as effective as his order
to close down nightclubs, discos and karaoke parlours.
- Lao Mong Hay is Director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy.