We are a soulless nation. We have lost our moral bearings. We have reduced our
choices to scraps and tattered spoils.
Among the countless legacies left
by the Khmer Rouge - the two million deaths - there is one that is particularly
damaging and darkening to the soul, the prevailing mentality (and I believe, an
existing reality) that everything Khmer and in Cambodia is relegated to a choice
of "the lesser among evils": of all the bad choices before us, this is the least
bad; this election is free, fair and peaceful as it counted only five political
deaths in comparison to the 25 of the last one; 33 percent abject poverty rate
is nothing in comparison to the cannibalism under the Khmer Rouge; so what if
there are charges of corruption, the judiciary is not independent, and standards
are sub-international - the Khmer Rouge Tribunal will move ahead.
long time to come, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge is and will be the yardstick that
Khmers and foreigners alike use for anything happening in Cambodia; everything
Khmer will be judged in light of the blackness of the Khmer Rouge years, leading
to a pervasive mentality of using the darkest anything as the point of
Is it any wonder then, that we Khmers, are so easily pleased,
to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, to making mud pies in the slum because we cannot
imagine one day by the sea?
To contrast, in a healthy society, people
freely debate and ponder whether in a particular situation "the best is the
enemy of the good"; their choices are among the excellent and the good, whereas
we Khmers are satisfied to choose among the crumbs, the crumbling and the
This current Royal Government of Cambodia is very keen
to distance itself and to whitewash its history from the Khmer Rouge. This RGC
is very keen and quick to make cheap, superficial pronouncements for morality -
e.g., banning phones and miniskirts, shutting down karaoke parlors, adopting an
anti-adultery law, implementing detention rules in contravention to juvenile
rights in response to the Bong Thom gang problems etc. - acknowledgements that
we are unwell as a society.
These acts have the appearance of cures and
taking the high road of morality, but they are meaningless quick-fixes that do
nothing to heal the nation and mend the shredded moral fabric. They ring hollow
because we have lost our soul; we are crushed in spirit. We, as a nation, are in
need of finding our soul and renewing our spirit.
To do so, we must
instill in ourselves and in our children fundamental ideas and concepts
universally accepted throughout the ages and across cultures which form the
principles of first things. We, Khmers, are more than ever in need of fresh
reminders of what those principles are.
Stephen R. Covey writes persuasively of habits and
principles that lead to effective and successful individuals. But those concepts
are also the necessary cornerstones for the health of a society, particularly
our Khmer society. "Principles are like lighthouses", he writes. "They are
natural laws that cannot be broken." This idea is echoed by Cecil B. deMille in
his movie The Ten Commandments, "It is impossible for us to break the law. We
can only break ourselves against the law."
What are some of these
prerequisite principles for individual and interdependent
Fairness: out of which our whole concept of equity and justice
is developed. We, Khmers, have much work to do in this area and we must begin
with the independence of the judiciary, the primary organ to exact
Integrity and honesty: they create the foundation of trust
which is essential to cooperation and long-term growth. We, Khmers, are
immensely distrustful of each other; we have the potential to build upon the
integrity and honesty within ourselves and in our relationship to others.
Human dignity: we have inherent value and worth; therefore they must be
protected at all costs. We are a society that prizes "elitism" and demeans the
vulnerable and the poor; look at the way that we drive our vehicles: it has been
commented to me whether a Khmer driving a Lexus genuinely cares if s/he runs
over a child begging on the street.
Service: the idea of making a
contribution. We, Khmers, are more concerned about how to line our own pockets
at all costs than for the collective welfare of society. We need not look any
further than the greediness of the haves in oppressing the have-nots into
further poverty through feverish land-grabbing.
Aristotle best sums up this idea: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,
then, is not an act, but a habit." We, Khmers, are of the mentality of doing
just enough, of showing form without emphasis on substance. We teach our
children how to "get around the system". Rather than building an ethics of
character, we praise the "personality ethic", that there is "some quick and easy
way to achieve quality of life without going through the natural process of work
and growth that makes it possible ... It's symbol without substance. It's the
'get-rich quick' scheme promising 'wealth without work'. And it might even
appear to succeed - but the schemer remains" (Stephen R. Covey). Of those
driving a Lexus around town, how many can genuinely say they earn that Lexus
through honorable, honest work?
Potential: the idea that we are embryonic
and can grow and develop and release more and more potential, develop more and
more talents. I am daily appalled by the loss of human potential of the young in
this society because of the lack of opportunities before them; to me, this loss
of potential ranks as one of the crimes against humanity.
the idea that at the end of the day, we are held personally answerable for our
conduct; it is the idea of the "ability" to "respond" or to choose between right
and wrong. This lack of responsibility is reflected in the poor governance of
national resources and the prevalence of corruption pervading all systems of
Compassion and love: Webster defines "compassion" as
sympathetic consciousness of other's distress with a desire to alleviate it;
this is part and parcel of "love" which is the strong affection and devotion for
another. In Khmer society, rather, in the words of Erich Fromm, "Today we come
across an individual who behaves like an automaton ... whose meaningless chatter
has replaced communicative speech, whose synthetic smile has replaced genuine
laughter, and whose sense of dull despair has taken the place of genuine pain."
Again, the leaders, the elites and the rest of us can act more out of compassion
and love toward one another, especially toward the most vulnerable, impoverished
and oppressed - the majority - of our nation.
I agree with author Covey
that these principles are not esoteric, mysterious or only "religious" ideas.
These principles of first things are not specific to any one faith or religion.
They are instead a part of all major enduring religions, social philosophies and
We, Khmers, are very quick to claim a cultural
distinction, that these ideas are Western and do not apply to us, our history,
our culture. We cannot claim the Khmer exception from them without doing damage
to ourselves and our culture. To claim an exception of these principles as
non-Khmer would be to claim their opposites to be Khmer; this would be absurd.
The nature of these principles is self-evident. Put it another way, consider
attempting to build a healthy Khmer society based on their opposites:
unfairness, deceit, baseness, uselessness, mediocrity or degeneration,
irresponsibility, hate as a solid foundation for personal and social
Let's Begin with
Individuals compose a family. Families compose a
society. Societies compose a nation. These principles must first begin with each
one of us individually, which naturally affects the interaction within a family,
within society and ultimately within the nation. We are crushed; we are
soulless. To reclaim our national soul and revive our national spirit, we must
take to heart these principles of first things. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, "In a
sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make
men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor
and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings
be fruitful." Should we decide to ignore these principles, do not then be
surprised at the happenings of our current society and the unveiling of a
hopeless, despondent, restless future.
Theary C. SENG