General Hun Manet’s recent North American trip was met with scepticism and abundance of noise from the so-called overseas social and political activists of the local Khmer diaspora to the extent that he had to call off his original plan to participate in the Khmer New Year cultural parade in Long Beach, California.
Given the wary political situation in Cambodia, such a reaction by these overseas activists was predictable, understandable and difficult to avoid.
Nonetheless, some analysts privately questioned whether such a chilly reception was the best thing to do. With its activists flatly shutting the door on Manet, has the diaspora itself just missed a rare opportunity to have a real say in and possibly influence some aspects of the government’s policy and direction at home?
I had heard a great deal about Manet, his background and his work, but I never met him in person. Soon after I learned about his visit to Canada, I decided to attend the evening reception held in Montreal during the last day of his trip.
During the reception, he delivered a candid speech with remarkable humility. His speech touched on a wide range of subjects from his personal life, patriotic sentiment and his aspirations as a cadet at the West Point military academy to the domestic labour shortage, migration and the politically charged border issue.
At no time throughout his entire speech did he disparage or ridicule the opposition party or those who protested against his presence. He chose instead to acknowledge the gap between the rich and the poor at home, and focussed on key measures the government put in place to assist the poor.
A segment of his speech that really connected with the audience was his respect and praise for the successes and accomplishments of fellow Cambodians, many whom came to the West empty handed, illiterate and destitute during the 1980s. On that note, he tactfully drew analogy with key progress and milestones Cambodia had achieved since that period.
This narrative may sound like classic pro-government propaganda to some. It is absolutely not the intent of this message.
For many years, the overseas activists have always wanted to have their voice heard and their views taken seriously; yet when the opportunity finally showed up, they either wrecked it or let it slip away.
The fact that Manet undertook the trip to visit Cambodian communities abroad, knowing full well in advance that he would run into tough crowds, should have been viewed by the diaspora as an encouraging sign. If anything, it was a clear indication that he wanted to have dialogues and establish good terms with the overseas communities.
Without a doubt, one of the reasons for his trip is that the government badly needs to improve its international image. On the other hand, the diaspora also desperately wants to see a better political climate and environmental management, and poverty and corruption reduction. In that context, both sides definitely have something to look for and to gain from.
Manet’s overseas trip offers a unique opportunity for both sides to test the neutral ground, break the ice and bring down barriers.
Had the local activists and community organisers adopted a less confrontational posture and seized the occasion to organise harmonious meetings through which both sides can engage in value discussion and put forward realistic propositions, a new era of mutual understanding and collaboration could have emerged.
Regrettably, the usual unhelpful rhetoric and deep-rooted tit-for-tat mentality ruined everything.
I strongly hope there will be other occasions in the not-too-distant future for both sides to meet amicably and collaborate. As I mentioned to Manet during the public photo session that evening: “I hope your excellency will come again next year.” To which he politely replied: “Or Kun Bang.”