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