Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Symbolism in short supply

Symbolism in short supply

Symbolism in short supply

121122_16
Strictly business: US President Barack Obama at the East Asia Summit plenary session in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

The great matters of high politics, statecraft and grand strategy are built on mountains of the mundane.

Tedious processions of technocratic exchanges, diplomatic correspondence, and meetings working out each and every detail of a significant matter must precede any grand breakthrough between countries.

But once all the details are worked out, and each issue and point of contention or agreement is essentialised, there is the equally important matter of translating the mountains of the mundane into the profound.

Every great matter in high politics demands some thought-provoking images, sound bytes or a grand symbol to convey the matter in a way that touches the heart of an issue and speaks to the soul.

Well-scripted meetings, followed by lofty speeches in ornately decorated conference centres, hold incredible value in the grand march towards greater peace, security, co-operation and human rights.

But lofty speeches need a beautiful backdrop, grand breakthroughs beg for a dramatic theme, and inspiring visits by foreign leaders cry out for a symbolic gesture that translates the great matters of politics and statecraft into something that can be remembered for all history.

US President Barack Obama’s trip to Cambodia was certainly historic. He was the first sitting leader of the United States to come to this country, and Cambodians had eagerly awaited his arrival.

But there was something that was profoundly missing in this historic moment.

In Thailand, Obama met King Bhumibol and was greeted by religious leaders at Wat Pho.

He also met Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who hosted an official dinner. She and Obama gave press conferences and reviewed honour guards.

In Myanmar, Obama was met by thousands of citizens who lined the streets and met the world’s most charming human-rights leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, at her lakeside villa. Obama and Suu Kyi gave inspiring, albeit tempered, speeches.

In a symbolic nod to Myanmar’s dramatic turn towards democracy, Obama delivered an address at Yangon University.

In Cambodia, however, with little fanfare, the President’s motorcade drove through empty streets. There was no honour guard or charming women to welcome his arrival.

Obama’s visit was buried in the mundane with little pomp or flair, and I regret that he never saw Angkor Wat.

It is perhaps a fitting reminder that his visit, although highly anticipated, was never meant to be a grand breakthrough or an inspiring gesture of friendship renewed.

The visit was a meeting for ASEAN and not Cambodia – and, in the context of Cambodia, Obama’s trip was never intended to be ground-breaking, inspiring or profound.

The meeting was a courteous discussion on important matters, but the lack of a historic backdrop, theme or symbolic gesture shows that Cambodia still has far to go.

Political themes aside, I lament the fact the President’s visit did not afford a better window to the age-less beauty of Cambodian culture.

Leaders of governments must follow tight agendas, and their attention must be focused on the task at hand.

But Cambodia is a beautiful place, and I hope Obama was able to sense this beauty. I also hope that one day he will return with his family to see Angkor Wat.

Like Thailand and Myanmar, Cambodia is a sentimental country at heart, and I hope the President saw this in the idyllic painting he stood in front of with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Resorting to such a backdrop, in place of Angkor Wat, is a telling reminder that Cambodia’s glory continues to be ageless, even if the vision for the future is immature.

Youk Chhang is director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

MOST VIEWED

  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Cambodia's Bokator now officially in World Heritage List

    UNESCO has officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage List, according to Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona in her brief report to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the night of November 29. Her report, which was

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Sub-Decree approves $30M for mine clearance

    The Cambodian government established the ‘Mine-Free Cambodia 2025 Foundation’, and released an initial budget of $30 million. Based on the progress of the foundation in 2023, 2024 and 2025, more funds will be added from the national budget and other sources. In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Two senior GDP officials defect to CPP

    Two senior officials of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) have asked to join the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after apparently failing to forge a political alliance in the run-up to the 2023 general election. Yang Saing Koma, chairman of the GDP board, and Lek Sothear,

  • 11th Chaktomuk Short Film Festival draws to close

    Cambodia's 11th Chaktomuk Short Film Festival wrapped up successfully on November 28 after a four-day run, with the film “Voice of the Night” awarded top prize for 2022. Sum Sithen, the organiser of the short film festival, told The Post that the number of attendees to the