Monday, June 16, 2014

We Didn't Start The Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia


We Didn't Start The Fire: My Struggle for Democracy
in Cambodia by Sam Rainsy with David Whitehouse
Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworn Books,
2013, x, pp. 210.
Popularly speaking among Cambodians about the uncertain fate of politicians and those involved in political affairs, they are often said to face three dilemmas – imprisonment, exile and assassination. These terms become the warning points for those who want to involve and participate in political actions in Cambodia. Though these ideas are true in destabilized, conflicted, and unrest countries like Cambodia in the recent past, for example, yet they impact negatively the political participation, the motive force for effectively implanting democratization in any county. Probably, these teams might have been echoed by Bunchan Mol's famous book "Kuk Nayobay (គុកនយោបាយ) or The Political Prisons" published in 1972.

A case in place, Sam Rainsy, the long-time opposition leader, went into self-imposed exile on February 3, 2005, citing fear of arrest after a vote in the National Assembly removed parliamentary immunity from himself and fellow SRP MPs Chea Poch and Cheam Channy. Rainsy faced multiple criminal defamation charges after accusing the Cambodian People's Party and Funcinpec of corruption in the formation of the current coalition government.

Once again, in September 2010, Rainsy was tried in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison for damaging public property when he removed the illegal border demarcation between Cambodia-Vietnam border (thereafter that demarcation has never been placed on the same place again). He was also charged with fraud public documents in supporting his claim of illegal border demarcation for other 2 years (made it 12 years in sum). These charges were widely believed to be politically motivated. The charge and his exile prevented him to participate in the 28 July national elections. However, on July 12, 2013, King Norodom Sihamoni granted a royal pardon to Rainsy at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen. He was allowed to return to Cambodia without threat of imprisonment, but he remained ineligible for candidacy in the 28th July 2013 general election.

On June 5, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) planned to host an event at which Rainsy would discuss poverty, corruption and injustice in Cambodia, and the launch of Rainsy’s new autobiography, We Didn’t Start the Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia. However, apparently by the request of Hun Sen, Yingluck's government did not allow Sam Rainsay to enter Thailand, for fear that Sam Rainsy would badmouth Hun Sen's government before 28th July 2013 national elections.

“We do support democratic rule, but on the other hand we do not support other people  using our country to attack others for political gain,” said Thai foreign ministry  spokesman Manasvi Srisodapol. The ban was lasted until after the end of July elections.

At the end of the day, Sam Rainsy jointed FCCT conference via Skype from Singapore and he also met his CNRP member there. 

To explain his commitment to confronting Cambodia’s entrenched elite in the face of legal persecution and assassination attempts, Sam Rainsy has written an autobiography that reaches back to his early life, his family's expulsion, his father’s exile and assassination, his relations with King Norodom Sihanouk, his work in Paris as a financial manager, and his interest in the Moral Re-Armament movement and Buddhism. He also recounts the Khmer Rouge regime, the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s control of the country since 1985.

Besides, Sam Rainsy explains how he would combat corruption, land grabbing, nepotism, patronage, and other ills that have ravaged this poor country under PM Hun Sen's rule over the past decades, if he came to power.

My most interesting reading is on "Going It Alone", the 7th chapter which deals with something about India and his interest in Buddhism. He starts this chapter with the quotation from Mahatma Gandhi, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong".

In 1978, it was for  the first when he returned from France to Asia. The return was not to Cambodia but to India by the invitation of Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Rajmohan whom he had met in the late 1960s through Moral Re-Armament (It is interesting to know what MRA is. It was developed by American minister Frank Buchman in 1938 as an international moral and spiritual movement. On 29 May 1938, he launched a campaign for Moral Re-Armament. "The crisis is fundamentally a moral one," he said. "The nations must re-arm morally. Moral recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery. Moral recovery creates not crisis but confidence and unity in every phase of life.").

He tells that his both grandfathers were Buddhists. In Srey, his mother's father, spoke Pali and Sangskrit. His father's father, Sam Nhean, who served as a minister of culture, was known as the "grandfather of the pagoda".

In the same chapter, he traces back the origin of Khmer culture by the influence of Indianization in various forms. Buddhism obtained special description – the story of Buddha, the arrival of Buddhism in Asia and in Cambodia in particular.

Cambodian Buddhism was the motivated force of nationalist movement for independence against the French rule which started evidently in the early 1940s. Acharya Hem Chieu was the pioneer of the movement. He gave Dhamma Talks from village to village, from ceremony to ceremony, and he wrote various articles published on newspaper "Angkor Wat", in order to educate, evoke and inspire nationalist feeling of the people. He wrote a books called "Danakatha" in which he wanted to educate the people to do dana or charity smartly and effectively by focusing on the poor and the vulnerable.

In Sihanouk's Sangkum Reasstra Niyum, Buddhism was pivotal for national integration, unity and solidarity. Sihanouk was popular to be known as the spiritual student of Samdach Patriarch Chuon Nath, the well-known Cambodian Buddhist as well as national scholar. The author clearly mentions that, "The Buddhist idea of the righteous ruler was an element of Sihanouk's view of himself as the moral, as well as political, center of the kingdom. He regarded Theravada Buddhism as a primary tool of national integration, and in the 1960s attempted to develop a brand of "Buddhist Socialism."

Lon Nol was very close to Buddhist monks. He was often described as a friend of monks. But a shock move was Pol Pot who "considered Buddhist monks as leeches who lived off the toil of others". During the dark age of Pol Pot regime, Buddhism and other religious beliefs alike were eliminated. Here, the author quotes Yun Yat, the Khmer Rouge minister of culture, who declared in 1978 that, "Buddhism is dead".

There is something new to me about Buddhism in the post Khmer Rouge period, I am individually unaware of. The reemergence of Buddhism under Vietnamese occupation Cambodia in the 1980s was limited. Vietnam wanted to keep the number of monks down. Monks under fifty were prohibited from becoming monks. Here, Sam Rainsy offers two reasons 1) an overriding need for productive labor and 2) a political motive for trying to prevent or slow the emergence of an independent institution.

I'd like to stop here. The rest of this interesting chapter will recount the event of March 30, 1997, the grenade explosion aiming at assassinating Sam Rainsy in front of National Assembly. If you want to read more about this tragic event, you can find it here A Tragedy of No Importance by Rich Garella and Eric Pape.

In his autobiography, Sam Rainsy shows who is his role model of leadership. He mentions "Mahatma Gandhi has always been my first and only political hero, and that of many other Cambodians as well." Mahatma Gandhi is known as National Father of India whose famous philosophy is non violence or ahinsa. His peaceful method in struggling for independence from the British was well adopted by Sihanouk in his demand for independence from the French in the early 1950s. And Sihanouk too became King Father of Cambodia credited to his successful crusade for independence in 1953 and full independence in 1954 by the Geneva Conference.

I hope you find it useful to know something inside book before you would like to purchase a copy of it. The book is well written and compromising plentiful information about the author's life developing as a significant democratic promoter in Cambodia. The way he describes things is more gentle than the way he speaks on the visual political platforms. To be more convincing and persuasive, below is the brief but sufficient review by Eric Pape, international correspondent for The Phnom Penh Post, Newsweek, and Foreign Policy.

"This book recounts the riveting personal story of Sam Rainsy, who overcame a childhood of unfathomable loss, suffering, and exile to become a notable success in economics, and then sacrificed nearly everything to help spark a rebirth of civil society and democracy in his homeland. it is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand modern Cambodia, learn about one of the world's most significant democratic opposition figures, and discover how Cambodia can finally move beyond the 'killing fields.''

By Khath Bunthorn - June 16, 2014

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