A Change of Guard

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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Authoritarian Rule and Underdevelopment

By School of Vice

The reported sand dredging activities taking place in Svay Rieng (Toek Vel River) and Koh Kong (Ta Tai River) as well as other areas of the Mekong and its tributaries which have been the causes of widespread ecological upheavals in those regions, threatening and destroying local livelihoods and the environment alike, provide us with the clearest indication and evidence as to the Cambodian authorities’ lack of interest in both the state of the natural environment and the condition of the rural poor despite the latter’s persistent protests.

One would have to be intellectually dishonest or self-deceiving to deny the violence that is being done to the physical environment; a process which began long before the last war, albeit on a relatively sustainable scale with the emergence of national ‘highways’, and to a lesser extent, railway lines, throughout the Kingdom played their part in this exploitative commercialisation of the nation’s then vast reserve of natural resources. The agents and immediate beneficiaries of this undertaking had mostly been Sino-Khmer merchants and members of the country’s political elite whose mutual interests and immunity for their excesses before the law had been secured and consolidated through that age-old device of convenience known as marriage.

Then as now this much patronised hybrid of the Khmer elite had chosen to live in an exclusive world of their own; a realm carved up in their own self-image to reflect their sense of personal triumph over their rivals or adversaries and, undoubtedly, also as a homage to their egos and vanities. Their former masters - the French – may have imparted to them their own taste for luxury and material affluence through acquaintance or proximity, but the French as both former rulers and propagators of this influence inevitably reserved their disdain for a people who had causes to resist or question their rule yet enthusiastically assimilated themselves to the worst and most decadent excesses of French culture. So there long before the recent outbreak of civil-war over how badly the otherwise beautiful and intricate Khmer language is being treated or mistreated by the present generation of Khmers or Cambodians post-genocide, both the French and other enlightened, cultured segments of Khmer society had their respective legitimate reasons to bemoan or lament the provincialism and philistinism of the Nouveau Riche whose new found material wealth (just as this term New Rich implies) had not been matched by a perceived corresponding level of cultural sophistication or maturity, their desperate affectation notwithstanding.

I am trying to focus on ecological and governing issues here rather than joining in the language debate, but it is apparent (I feel) that the state of the Khmer language, be it accepted as in the process of evolution or in a state of crisis, is in essence an emblematic symptom of Cambodian society as such in terms of its strengths and limitations in much the same manner that the rape and degradation of the nation’s natural resources are a reflection of poor governance and irresponsible, incompetent leadership.

It takes some measure of disingenuousness and a most reprehensibly perverse logic to suggest that a national leader’s inability to prevent illegal logging, for example, (among various activities that contribute to the continued plundering of the national assets) is a testament to his lack of dictatorial power with which to enforce his own words and edicts in that direction, as some of his apologists would have us believe. ‘In two hours' – declared the Prime Minister – 'I could have all of Phnom Penh wrapped up’. Yet in over 30 years he and his party have overseen the destruction of the nation’s environment going on unabated and this, in spite or because of his public sanctions and disapproval to this effect.

When the words of a country’s Prime Minister fail to be heeded by those at whom the words are directed, the suspicion is that either the words themselves are insincerely uttered, or that his ‘targeted audience’ has grown accustomed to the superficiality and non-binding rhetoric of these words so that they receive them with a pinch of salt, decoding the words’ embedded meanings to suit their intentions if need be. But the real and most relevant audience he may have in mind are the Khmer people themselves who are conditioned daily to believe in his outwardly heart-felt reassurances to them through the medium of his words.

The other conclusion that can be reached is that the Government itself has been at the heart of the cause of underdevelopment due to its lack of democratic approach and accountability in its day to day management of national priorities from the ecology, human-trafficking, border issues to the economy and official corruption. Although, these issues are not the preserve of this regime alone, they have nevertheless attained acute momentum and appeared to be flourishing under it, just as the coarseness of the commonly spoken and written Khmer language today appears to be on the ascendency since the violent overthrow of the ‘old regime’ in 1975, precisely because with the demise of that regime Khmer society has also endured the loss - through deliberate extirpation - of its more refined castes or avant-garde who had until that point in Cambodian history led the way in projecting and accentuating whatever they deemed appropriate or acceptable in matters of cultural expression. Official corruption also serves to take the pressure off a government that is inherently plagued with incompetence when it comes to meeting or delivering on its economic obligations towards its employed personnel who must find alternative means by which to sustain their existence or enrich themselves whilst that government’s unspoken underlying emphasis is upon securing political loyalty, needed first and foremost to ensure its own survival.


Anonymous said...

Well written, School of Vice. I fear that our river and farmers' land will be destroyed soon. Rivers and sands are Cambodian natural resources, therefore they should be protected or if mined, all the money should go to the state coffers, not the pockets of foreigners like the Vietnamese and Chinese.

Anonymous said...

I agreed with everything you said.It is well written and a profound thought.

It should be translated in Khmer language.

I really enjoy reading your comments.

True Khmer