Cambodia as a country, we are told, has gone completely haywire and needs to be rescued immediately at any cost because its very survival is at stake.
So common is the storyline that it continues to persistently make the headlines on various social medias, and fuels passionate discussions among Cambodians old and young and from all walks of life both at home and abroad.
One may genuinely ask whether the actual overall situation of the country is as severe and alarming as stated to warrant that much commotion. In other words, to what extent should one be concerned? Naturally, the answer to that depends entirely on one’s political perspective – just as the old saying goes: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
Just about anyone with a fairly sophisticated sense of our culture and history would, however, concede that such a narrative is nothing new. In fact, the hawkish naysayers have been beating this drum over at least the past 50 years, if not more.
It is tragic that despite the nation’s two contemporary failed near-death experiences – the March 1970 Lon Nol coup d’etat and the Khmer Rouge revolution – today ardent neo-naysayers continue to religiously drum up and resort to the same old-fashioned narrative as their political tool and weapon – the same kind of demagogy that mercilessly ruined and claimed countless number of innocent lives, all in vain, during both.
As much as we don’t want to admit it, the real and lingering issue for Cambodia is not about a certain messy state of affairs it is struggling with (by the way, the whole world is a messy place, in case anyone hasn’t noticed.)
Rather, it is about how we collectively end up allowing ourselves to be mentally trapped in the conventional (un)wisdom of contagious political blame games and wishful thinking, which claim that the nation’s chronic shortage of genuine entrepreneurial and technical know-how, systemic lack of knowledge-based economic foundation, often difficult and fragile relationships with neighbouring countries, dependency on foreign powers for defence, and vulnerability and limited options vis-a-vis the constantly shifting international politics would somehow be resolved magically with an overnight change of government or regime.
Last October, the EU threatened to hit Cambodia with trade sanctions. Manifestly, some supporters and leaders of the opposition camp, who had long favoured and openly advocated such punitive measures, celebrated it as a political victory. Soon enough they’ll live to regret it.
Our neighbour to the east is ruled unopposed by a single-party communist system; our neighbour to the west is run by a military junta yet to hold general elections it promised after it overthrew a democratically elected government in 2014.
Yet we see neither Vietnamese nor Thai opposition calling on foreign governments to impose economic or trade sanctions on their respective countries. On that point, Cambodian opposition has a lot to learn from its Thai and Vietnamese counterparts.
Given the overall situation in the region, how the EU arrived at such arbitrary conclusion was unclear. For sure, the sanctions will add some hardship and strain to Cambodia’s economy, but by no means are they a game-changer. Make no mistake about it, the present Cambodian government will survive any Western sanctions for several overriding reasons, including geopolitics and labour mobility.
First, Cambodia represents a strategic regional interest for China, especially under her ambitious and much publicised Belt and Road Initiative. In that context alone, it is unthinkable China won’t step in to back Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime and bankroll Cambodia’s economy.
Second, Cambodia can largely count on the cross-border (legal or illegal) trade with its neighbouring countries, in particular Vietnam and Thailand. The likelihood that they would halt trade with Cambodia is low.
Third, the agility and mobility of today’s low-skilled labour force will considerably mitigate the impacts of Western sanctions. Cambodia’s garment industry and other workers affected by the sanctions are not expected to have too much difficulty finding jobs abroad as the demand for low-skilled migrant labourers remains high in Southeast Asian and Persian Gulf countries for the foreseeable future.
For all intents and purposes, the sanctions are shortsighted, misdirected and counterproductive. Not only would they mostly hurt ordinary people with low incomes who are just trying to raise a family and have nothing to do with politics, but they also run against EU interests as they will only push Cambodia deeper into China’s sphere of influence, something the West certainly doesn’t want to see. It is not too late for the EU to reconsider its decision and suspend the process of withdrawing Cambodia from the Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade scheme.
Cambodia is at yet another crossroads. For what it’s worth, the argument that foreign sanctions and a hasty change of regime would pave the way for a free, fair, open and prosperous society has so far proved to be an ingenious fallacy that has got us time again into nowhere but deeper trouble. Hence, the burning question on everyone’s mind is – how do we put an end to it? Every Cambodian has a theory.
How we view or see the country and what we say, write or preach could ultimately have far-reaching repercussions on its future. As pointed out earlier, the whole world is a messy place; Cambodia is no exception. It is arguably in neither better nor worse shape than many other developing countries. We just have to roll up the sleeves and deal with each situation constructively, not emotionally.
There are always challenges and difficulties, no matter where we live and what we do. That is just the reality of life. For Cambodia though, the sad and ugly part of that reality is that young and less fortunate Cambodians are exceedingly vulnerable to all sorts of political exploitation and demagogueries which indefinitely trap their victims in a vicious circle of poverty and misery.
To lift themselves out of that vicious cycle and into a better future, they need to cultivate – in the face of and against the backdrop of all hardships – hope, motivation, empowerment, creativity, aspiration and direction, as opposed to the usual antagonistic rhetoric, insidious blame games and endless witch hunts they are accustomed to.
wasting valuable talent
Unfortunately, their lives and mindsets have been constantly bombarded and conditioned by precisely just that – antagonistic rhetoric and highly insidious political blame games, that do nothing but stoke rage and resentments, with no end in sight.
The harmful psychological impact, along with the terrible emotional baggage this places on the lives of the young, the innocent, and the nation at large, cannot be overstated. Today, lo and behold, we witness many young Cambodians wasting their valuable time, potential and talent engaging in bitter and vulgar politics, if not outright balderdash, on social media platforms.
One must wonder how that kind of endeavour prepares and qualifies any of them to pursue a professional and decent career in life; or help them to improve their own living conditions, let alone helping the greater cause of the nation.
Cambodian intellectuals, academia and professionals alike everywhere could definitely lend a helping hand to remedy, contain and eradicate this contagious situation. Instead of lecturing on and abjectly engaging in bitter politics, it would be far more beneficial to the country if they rather share their relevant experience, thoughts and views on more inspiring and stimulating matters that modern and advanced societies around the globe are working on or developing to enrich the life of their people.
Of particular interest and benefit are emerging topics related to the 4th industrial revolution (4IR), including the digital economy; supply chain ecosystems and its vertical integration; internet of things and cybersecurity; software application programming and development; augmented/virtual reality; cloud computing and blockchain technology; and artificial intelligence and machine learning, to name a few.
Recently, I attended the International Conference on the fifth generation (5G) mobile technology in Vancouver, Canada. There, an attendee mentioned to me that Cambodia reportedly had a substantial pool of talented software programmers. That‘s an encouraging notion, assuming it’s true. If it’s not, Cambodia should definitely make it a priority to develop such resources and expertise, which will unleash a wide range of possibilities and opportunities for its citizens at the heart of today’s digital economy and technological advancements.
Software programming and development has broadly been characterised as both an art and a science. In many respects, it is a field which Cambodia could develop and catch up with other countries in a relatively short timeframe, as young Cambodians are known to have rich artistic talent and creativity in addition to their scientific abilities.
Moreover, today’s cloud computing environment makes it possible for developing countries like Cambodia to set up and run successful software development programmes without requiring huge upfront investment, financially and logistically. Computing platforms and software development tools are abundantly available, and conveniently and securely accessible from virtually anywhere in the world at a very affordable cost.
They are being offered by numerous cloud service providers such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Salesforce, VMware and other firms in the form of infrastructure, platforms or software as a service – meaning that Cambodia does not need to acquire, build and maintain its own complex and costly software development infrastructures and facilities.
Last but not least, there are numerous online technical forums and communities where expert and novice programmers conduct tutorials, exchange knowledge and help each other solve various real-life technical puzzles. All of this is to point out that the 4th industrial revolution, which has benefited so many people and countries around the world, is also creating favourable conditions for Cambodia to successfully launch and run a low-cost-high-reward software development programme, which could potentially become a cornerstone of the nation’s future economic growth and success.
Demagogy in our modern age is in and of itself a root cause of many of the social ills which it pretentiously and deceitfully promises to cure. Collectively, we can curb it by changing our narrative and approach to problem solving. With that in mind, let’s have nonpartisan, open minded and stimulating conversations that spark optimism, possibilities and opportunities for Cambodia.
Davan Long is a Solutions Architect at the City of Montreal in Canada.