Of Buddha, Marx and national ‘Saviours’
|Sihanouk with Chea Sim [left] and Hun Sen [right] celebrates a new era of 'peace' and 'national reconciliation'. [Reproduced].|
by School of Vice
It is often said that some mass crimes committed on humanity in history – from the Jewish Holocaust to the Cambodian ‘genocide’ – are just too profound and too disturbing in nature and dimension to be rendered or explained in words. Indeed, it would be somewhat churlish to try to do so, if not disrespectful to the memory of those who perished, for while such events may have their roots and triggers in history and had belonged empirically within its grim chapters, their truest and most immediate, pertinent relevance and essence can be seen to lie in that spiritual realm and facet of humanity instead. This is where the worldly mind and intellect come short and the visceral takes charge; where the tons of books and reflections of historians, academics and politicians cease to contribute in meaning and understanding, and where the flame of the candles or the scent from the burning incense offers more tangible solace and comfort to the anguished soul.
Some writers and observers have bemoaned what they perceive as propensity in many of the survivors to dwell – if not indulge - in this trauma, but whilst this chastening attitude maybe regarded as practical in outlook and spurred by goodwill or intention, it nevertheless speaks from that aloof ‘rational’ perspective that lacks that spiritual something or empathy which that parched soul thirsts for that reason and intellect can never hope to prescribe. This is where Marxian ‘historical materialism’ is said to reveal its greatest flaw and loses its humanistic appeal. What was tragically envisioned and zealously pursued by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot [and by those who educated them] was this radical prognosis that humankind [or that small portion of it] is afflicted at the core by viruses and infections that nonetheless can be surgically removed or remedied with the right tools and applications, and that these solutions are to be found in the base of history as such i.e. the sufferers and tortured masses themselves. It is worth noting that Marx was not the first to have followed this clinical path when looking as the ills of mankind. Buddha is said to treat and view the world in this fashion too in so far as he traces human sufferings and vices to human beings’ ignorance and ‘impermanence’. For Buddha [I dare speculate!] the ultimate goal may well be the cessation of this suffering through the ending of birth and rebirth, but as a doctor of human ailments, and as testified by his followers down the ages, the central, vexing question posed is: ‘What is Man?’ To which the answer is simply this: ‘Man is Ignorance’!
It is likely that Marx owes much of his historical materialism to his Judaic roots [his father and or grand-father was a rabbi] and Buddhism has always been a strong ideological, intellectual influence in German thought and philosophy. Similarly, Marx poses the question over the ‘masses’ social enslavement and bondage [their curses and ‘sufferings’] and identifies the symptoms as inextricably linked [or ‘chained’] to their historical oppressors and masters, from feudalism and class system to modern exploitative capitalism. However, this is where the similarities end [and I hope Buddhists everywhere will forgive me for drawing on this analogy, and worse still, for not making any specific point!] as both schools of thought differ vastly over moral-spiritual emphasis. To illustrate the point [as if this needs illustrating!] the youthful Pol Pot [or Saloth Sar] is once known to have criticised Sihanouk for failing to follow - or live up to - the path of the Buddha as a man who renounced all family and princely privileges to seek spiritual enlightenment and to serve his people/mankind. Pol Pot might not literally had had in mind the degree to which the historical Gautama relinquished those worldly comforts and privileges, or subjected his human body to all those acetic disciplines and rigours, but as someone who observed Sihanouk and the Royal Palace at close range and witnessed a world gripped by the corruption of its lust and diseased by the moral decay and decadence of its carnal pleasures, by petty quarrels and rivalries, he was entitled [as so many a disenchanted youth of his generation was inclined to do] to voice his personal feelings towards the man anointing himself as the “Father of the Nation”. By the time Pol Pot came to power and Sihanouk placed under house arrest [at the same royal palace], principally to purvey the façade of harmony and reverence that the new regime still has towards the former monarch so ‘beloved’ of the Khmer people, and above all, so instrumental in its violent rise to power, and thus, ensuring that the myth of Sihanouk fits in with the script being presented to the world, the ornaments and tributes erected in the Buddha’s homage and veneration by successive generations had been laid to waste and destruction through systematic vilification and desecration or deliberate neglect. All this by the man who once idolise Him.
It is hard – if not impossible and if we are being objective in our search – to find any true, authentic players or ‘leaders’ deserving of the accolade of Cambodia’s ‘saviours’; certainly not in the post-colonial era. The ‘exception’, perhaps, can be found in the brief period of the Khmer Republic. This may sound quite unreasonable in context of the turbulence and bloodshed that marked its rule, and the regime itself [unbeknown to its supporters and architects] was doomed from the start – something I had looked into and explained in my previous writings on related events. But, it cannot be denied that the Republic stood up [or at least aspired] to represent the nation’s quintessence, will and purpose. There is no need to imply that the regime was beyond blame or was faultless, and I won’t try to do so. Other than that, the real heroes and saviours – if there had been any heroic deeds committed - are the Khmer people themselves.
We can, however, attribute some of the responsibility and guilt to that regime’s protagonists; and even to its ally in the US that promised so much and let it down so dishonourably, and in the most defenceless of moment, the direst of circumstances as far as the life of this nation was concerned.
Behind all this cauldron of tragedy and destruction, the figure of Sihanouk and his ‘Khmer Romdos’ [“Khmer Liberators” or ‘Red Khmers’] loomed large. By the time Sihanouk resigned from his nominal post as Prime Minister or figurehead of the regime he had actively helped to seize power shortly after its comprehensive victory on 17th April 1975 [a decision greeted with derision and amusement by Pol Pot. According to one written account, upon hearing of Sihanouk’s request to resign, Pol Pot remarked that “Sihanouk resigned a long time ago!”], millions had already been frogmarched off to the countryside to face the cruellest of fate there. The Father of the Nation and its self-anointed saviour would then have lived in fear of his own life being snatched away like the lives of millions in the jaws of death and danger at the time.
When the Vietnamese came to oust the Pol Pot forces [for their own reasons and motives] from power, they too presented themselves as “saviours” and liberators, not from the Red Khmers or the Khmer Romdos, or even Sihanouk [what has he got to do with the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique”?!] but from “Pol Pot” – and by implication, Pol Pot and his small clique alone. Remember that there was a number of factions and regional divisions within the KR regime, especially towards the closing stages of its rule, and any Vietnamese soldier could at least pronounce ‘Pol Pot’ intelligibly in Khmer and without implicating the wider base of the KR movement that the Vietnamese themselves had a hand in giving birth to, or upsetting the KR defectors now fronting the Kampuchean Salvation movement under their wings. Even one Heng Samrin is reported to have told his combatants somewhere in the eastern zone prior to the Vietnamese led invasion that the 17th April 1975 victory belongs to the Kampuchean people and that this historic and momentous victory had been somehow high jacked from them by the Pol Pot faction. In other words, the Vietnamese invasion of 7 January 1979 and their installed “Heng Samrin regime” that has evolved into the present Cambodian People’s Party [CPP] is the only real and authentic embodiment of the Cambodian people and their aspirations. All other political movements are therefore to be regarded as un-Cambodian at best, and disruptive or hostile elements, at worst. Hun Sen himself has made no secret of his desire to extinguish political oppositions or alternatives to CPP rule since – in words and actions.
It is premature, and would be unjust, to lump the main opposition party of the CNRP with all other personalities and factions and their professed mission to “liberate” the Khmer people from their supposed enemies – domestic and external. As long as we have ‘reason’ – one that is rooted in sound logic and humanity [wasn’t Marxism-Pol Potism ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ enough? Yes, but rationality alone does not always lead to humanity!] there’s every chance that we can spot a sign of danger and issue due warning before it becomes manifest. It is in this spirit that I have often written about past events, and by so doing, hopefully shedding some light on their less understood nature; their causes and effects or causality that gave them forms and expressions. What is not constructive or helpful to society is refusal to come to terms with certain evidence and truth that these events offer us in glaring and [too often] painful abundance. It is said that the more ‘obstinate’ of souls are often to be found among the most ignorant! Such people and individuals strain even the patience of Buddha! Most tyrants and dictators share this trait in them, and in Cambodia’s recent past and present, the movements described above have unquestionably displayed this depressing streak. Not for these authoritarian regimes, the cultivated and educated kind; those who appreciate the importance and balance between the individual and the collective; that society and human happiness or unhappiness hinges on such intricacies and interactions in thought and conduct. Instead, the preferred option has been to trim the head to size in order to fit the hat chosen! Around the time of the election campaign of 2013 when some critics voiced their unease over the Opposition leadership’s touting of Sihanouk’s ‘royal legacy’, a number of its supporters came out on social media to point out that the Khmer people are not informed or adequately educated to grasp the complexities of their nation’s history as would their better, but far fewer educated compatriots or many a well-read observer. Yet, if this mass, public ignorance is the main barrier to them embracing the truth about their country’s political life and history, is this not a result of what their rulers and leaders have inculcated in them from one generation to the next? And does it make them less ignorant by perpetuating the myth that – however comforting – has no basis in reality or truth?
Listen to Sam Rainsy’s recent RFI interview and reflect on his homage to the late monarch; Sihanouk’s lengthy exile abroad and his [almost single-handed] effort to save the nation from becoming “the second Kampuchea Krom” via the Paris Peace Accords. This sounds eerily reminiscent of Sihanouk’s own claim when the subject shifted to his military alliance with the KR in the 1980s, and by extension to his pivotal association with them in 1970s as well. Without the KR, he was quoted, Cambodia would have been swallowed by Vietnam just like Kampuchea Krom [much of southern Vietnam today]. On the other hand, the CPP camp would chastise its critics and opponents with the same line of reasoning: Without Samdaach and Vietnam Cambodian people would have been wiped out by Pol Pot. According to this camp the likelihood of war and violence akin to the turmoil of the 1970s are still present and real without the CPP to thwart it! Children generally believe what their elders have told them they should believe. This is partly to do with the Cambodian culture of veneration for those to whom one owes something, be it one’s life or some form of material support and patronage. And herein lies the source of much of the country’s falsified, misrepresented versions of its own place in history, present and future.
Personally, my feelings are that whatever the person and individual that was Sihanouk had achieved for Cambodia and the Cambodian people have altogether been far outweighed by the catastrophes and sufferings he had wrought upon his nation by way of his miscalculations and misjudgements. The PPA is not a vindication of him as a politician or statesman, but more of an international act of redemption and a feeling of guilt towards the Cambodian people; a settlement made out of long ignored crisis and tragedy, because the kingdom then just as it is today had not been thought strategic or significant enough to warrant attention over Cold War priorities. Sihanouk himself had been [in truth] largely ignored and left to live off Chinese and North Korean generosity for the greater part of his lifetime where cooler climate was preferred to the humidity of the sub-tropical conditions. Even his frequent medical trips to Beijing [once he had ‘returned’ to Cambodia] had something to do with a history of decadence and overindulgence that so repulsed the young Pol Pot.
Cambodia today may not be quite having the same fate as Kampuchea Krom, yet the country is showing all the worrying symptoms and signs of going down the same route. What hope there is in re-routing its projected course onto a safer path is ultimately down to the collective will of the Khmer people and the understanding they have of their national situation, but the chance of them reaching that level of national self-knowledge remains rather distant at this point whilst politicians and the media continue to hold them back in myth and ignorance.
Is Cambodia a ‘freer’ country today than its communist neighbour Vietnam? In some way she is, and in others, she isn’t. The geography, demographic make-up, history and culture of Vietnam have made that country more susceptible to tolerating a more authoritarian rule and regimented lifestyle than those things in Cambodia would make of Cambodians. This is one important factor that has been noted by a few, [so few, I suspect I could be the only one!] but escapes the attention of many when trying to understand the Cambodian entanglement in the bloody conflict in the 1970s and beyond, and, in particular, the assimilation of the country into the Communist fold. Whilst Cambodia has all the pretensions to an adherence to liberal multi-party democracy and constitutional monarchy, Vietnam’s political leadership is far more ‘democratic’ and collective in essence than Cambodia’s even if that collective scope is discernible or confined to only within the Communist Party. The once powerful Nguyen Tan Dung’s recent dismissal as Premier is an indication of this collective decision-making. Collective leadership of this kind may offer insurance against government by a single personality who could well be a wise, benevolent person, or indeed, a mad man. Readers don’t need me to point out which leadership style Cambodia possesses in reality. From Vietnam's point of view as patron state to the Hun Sen regime, it is of considerable advantage and convenience to be in a position to communicate its will and desire onto Cambodia [a vassal state] via one loyal and obedient subordinate, rather than a collection of diverse personalities with differing views and equal share of power in decision-making.
The least that any of us [Khmers or foreigners] can do for the Cambodian people is to tell them the truth as their hearts and minds will agree to, even if to do so goes against everything they have been conditioned to believe and accept, and not just comforting, constructed versions of that truth. Sihanouk had made not once, but a succession of political decisions that have been so injurious and detrimental to the cause of his country and democracy. His decision to align himself with the Communist camp when pressured between great powers was one; his hope that the PPA and the written Constitution would provide guarantee or safety net against a return or reversion to single party rule, another [Hun Sen has declared that the PPA is dead and buried!]; the decision to have the various armed factions integrated into one unified structure under the dominant control and command of the CPP [or the then State of Cambodia] was premature and short-sighted, as this enabled the CPP to buy those it could, and subdue by coercion those it couldn't, and once the armed threat had been eliminated, the wordings and undertakings of the PPA and the Constitution rang hollow, or were in limbo, with no prospect of armed intervention and leverage to exert pressure on the ruling party to observe their spirit or principles. Once his royalist party of Funcinpec had been elected to office he had imagined that his people had arrived in the Promised Land after a long gruelling journey and exile. He proclaimed with the characteristic air of a Messiah and the naivety and zeal of a deluded prophet that: “Henceforward, our nation is at peace”. So convinced was he of this blissful outlook that he even publicly asked the UN to leave Cambodia alone, and in order for Cambodians to resolve uniquely Cambodian problems by themselves, whereas the more realistic and pragmatic among us would have requested the UN to stay on – just in case. Even at this early stage of seemingly bright new dawn for the nation Funcinpec was already as good as routed and cornered. And all this was way before Messrs Rannariddh and Bunchay even had the chance to press the self-destruct button!
Vietnam has been charged [rightly so, in my view] with having come to put out the fire it had once started with respect to its invasion or ‘liberation’ of Cambodia in 1979. If this smacks of foul play and deception, so does the idea that Sihanouk came to rescue his nation from the brink of oblivion and restore her to freedom and liberty, for these precious things are – in truth and principle – neither here nor there. If this were not the case, what’s the CNRP for? What is it here to “rescue” and from whom?
For all this and more, [Cambodians would say there are certain things that us the public don’t know about. If so, might we not discover these hidden things through their actual manifestations in life and society anyway?] shall we all stop living in a world of pretence and make belief for once? I would suggest that we start off by referring to Kg. Som as Kg. Som, or by any other appropriate name – as long as it’s not ‘Sihanouk Ville’, and definitely not ‘School of Ville’! That would be unkind…