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Honesty the best policy?

Honesty the best policy?

The Editor,

Not a day seems to go by without someone criticizing the Government of Cambodia for

being corrupt. One official is said to be inflating his salary here, a military officer

is accused of illegal dealings there. Cambodians and foreigners alike seem to think

that among government officials dishonesty is the best policy.

Of course nothing could be further from the truth. Just one week after several dozen

people ransacked the office of the New Liberty News, beating an employee in the process,

the Second Prime Minister visited the Kandal commune from where the assailants allegedly

originated. Those expecting the typical false piety of your average politician were

in for a surprise. Instead, Hun Sen spoke his honest mind - on video tape no less.

According to media accounts, he told applauding villagers that "they were not

wrong in their actions" and that the next time, "if you are short of vehicles

to go to Phnom Penh, I'll help." He also forthrightly stated that he had told

the authorities not to pursue a criminal case against those involved.

What openness! What candor! But Hun Sen isn't the only Cambodian politician to speak

his mind. Following the grenade attack on the Son Sann faction of the Buddhist Liberal

Democratic Party, Westerners accustomed to insincere obfuscation from their own political

leaders may have expected tearful, hair-pulling anguish from the Cambodian leadership.

But First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh gave a heartfelt explication of his views:

"It is very evident that the Interior Ministry had information that somebody

was planning to create problems like this . . . but they [the Son Sann faction] did

not listen to the government, so the government is not responsible. The people who

didn't listen have to take responsibility." Touché!

Those of us from haughty democracies certainly have something to learn from this

kind of honesty in government. More than twenty years ago President Richard Nixon

declared in a nationally televised speech: "I am not a crook." What if

he had instead gone on the tube and 'fessed up? Remember, it was Nixon's cover-up

of the Watergate scandal, not his knowledge of the initial break-in, that eventually

led to his resignation in disgrace.

And more recently there's French President Jacques Chirac's assertion that French

Polynesia is as much a part of France as the rest the country. So that's why nuclear

tests are being held there and not, say, off the coast of Brittany. Right. Needless

to say, a bit more candor on the part of Paris politicians explaining the choice

of sites would defuse the international uproar over the French decision.

One must give Cambodia's leaders credit where credit is due. Despite what must be

enormous pressures to adopt the long-held habits of deceit and dishonesty shown by

other national leaders, Messieurs Ranariddh and Hun Sen refuse to conform. Honest

and heartfelt opinions - whether it is expressing support for violence against the

nation's independent press or blaming the victims of a politically motivated attack

- take precedence over all other considerations.

One would have hoped that the foreign embassies in Phnom Penh would have learned

from the government's example. But instead of speaking out honestly on important

issues affecting the development of the country, the major embassies continue to

hide behind that unique form of lying known as diplomacy. Sure, diplomacy very often

means swallowing the truth to advance some greater goal. The trouble is, in strategically

unimportant Cambodia, it is hard to find a greater goal than supporting the democratic

aspirations of the Cambodian people. One can only hope that the embassies here, and

the governments they represent, will begin to show the same respect for plain speaking

as has the Cambodian leadership.
- Alan Rugella, Phnom Penh

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