Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Without Economic Freedom, There is No Freedom

Without Economic Freedom, There is No Freedom
By Kenneth T. So
April 12, 2006

Human rights are very important for the dignity of a human being. However, a person cannot subsist and prosper on human rights alone. It must be accompanied by an economic freedom. Without the government reform to ameliorate the living standard of Khmer people, the respect for human rights alone is unacceptable because it still puts Cambodia into the category of a Third World country that depends on foreign handouts for its existence. Without economic freedom, there is no freedom.

The dispute between Kem Sokha, the leader of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), and Sam Rainsy, the leader of the political party SRP, may be an exercise in futility because they do not address the issue of economic freedom. Both groups are positioning themselves as the champion for human rights and democracy.

Kem Sokha can play a vital role in Khmer society by educating people about their rights. As the leader and activist of the organization, it is his duty to speak out against human rights abuses. However, he may have stepped over a boundary when he started to verbally attack the SRP of “selling out” to the CPP and abandoning its democratic principles in a public forum.

It is disingenuous on the part of Kem Sokha to claim the moral virtue while refusing to denounce the CPP with the same intensity as he had done to SRP. By engaging in a verbal attack on SRP, is CCHR essentially doing an indirect bidding for the CPP? CCHR prefers to attack SRP because it is easy and safe to do so since it carries no consequence for a punishment. It cannot be said the same if CCHR were to attack the CPP. After P.M. Hun Sen let Kem Sokha out of prison, it was therefore normal for this latter to take his anger on a high profile person or political party like the SRP.

Equally important it was a very clumsy move on the part of the SRP to withdraw its participation from the CCHR forums. If it was a misunderstanding between these two organizations, they must work things out quietly to everybody’s satisfaction instead of doing it in public.

Initially I thought that Kem Sokha may have the upper hand for the public opinion's support, but upon much reflection I believe he may have won the battle against Sam Rainsy but not the war. If Kem Sokha's attack and accusation of SRP as "selling out" to the CPP and abandoning its principles do not pan out as he has claimed, then in the long run he may lose his credibility. Additionally, Kem Sokha has to be very careful himself because his own words may one day come back to bite him if he is not careful of what he says. I take Kem Sokha at his own word and believe that he will not start a political party. I also give him the benefit of the doubt that he will not compromise with the CPP concerning his stance on human rights. For SRP, the best advice I can give is to remain above the fray and be honorable by not quarrelling in public in such a clumsy fashion. For SRP to capture the minds and hearts of freedom loving people, they must talk the talk and walk the walk.

Like many Cambodians, I am very disheartened by the dispute between SRP and CCHR. It is important that these two organizations talk to each other again, then kiss and make up. Both, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are equally important for the continuing process of Cambodia's march toward democracy. These two men need each other because "L'Union fait la force." It is fallacious to think that one organization will become stronger at the expense of the other. SRP and CCHR are like the two faces of a coin that complement each other.

The dispute between SRP and CCHR may be due to some misunderstandings. Both, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are very courageous and principled men. I truly believe both of them want to help Cambodia to achieve the goal of a democratic country. Kem Sokha can contribute to human rights reform while Sam Rainsy can push the agenda for the government to reform its economy as well as its judicial system. Democracy without economic freedom is only a half-baked bread.

I applaud Sam Rainsy for taking the initiative to talk to P.M. Hun Sen, which in my opinion is a sign of incoming Khmer political maturity. One must remember that Hun Sen is still the Prime Minister of Cambodia and it is necessary for Sam Rainsy, as a protocol and as a good politician, to make the first move to extend an olive branch to P.M. Hun Sen. The fact that two former bitter enemies were able to sit down across each other and carry a discussion is to me a sign of trying to apply democracy to resolve any lingering issues with civility.

One can still be an opposition party without being very confrontational. There are many ways to oppose the policy of the government, but being confrontational to the point of becoming enemies is not the best solution to solve any problems. We are all Khmers and we must learn to respect each other. We must not use vocabularies that are detrimental to our Khmer heritage. We were a civilized society and I still believe that we are honorable people that still have traditional values. The key to the rebirth of our Khmer civilized society will come in steps, and the most important one right now is to respect each other and learn to accept the difference.

The fact that P.M. Hun Sen agreed to sit down with Sam Rainsy for a 3-hours conversation after this latter came back to Cambodia showed to me that the Prime Minister respected Sam Rainsy as a person, which was in complete contrast to the Prime Minister’s action toward Norodom Ranariddh.

The Prime Minister may have an ulterior motive toward Sam Rainsy because unlike Norodom Ranariddh who makes himself enemy of the US, Sam Rainsy on the other hand is a good friend of the US and especially to US Senator John McCain who may possibly be the next president of the United States of America.

For Kem Sokha to criticize or condemn Sam Rainsy’s gesture of reconciliation with P.M. Hun Sen is a sign of immaturity and intolerance on his part. Sam Rainsy’s meeting with P.M. Hun Sen is comparable to US Senator John McCain’s delivering a commencement address next month to the Liberty University that is headed by the Christian conservative founder Reverend Jerry Falwell. The Republican senator who is not a darling of the religious conservatives had once denounced Reverend Falwell an “agent of intolerance.” Senator Mc Cain now stated, and correctly so, that he could speak at the university without embracing all of its values. In the same manner, Sam Rainsy can speak to P.M. Hun Sen without abandoning all his principles.

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."

The principles that we must espouse are the defense of human rights and the elimination (or alleviation) of corruption in Khmer society.

SRP is a political and opposition party that plays an important role in Khmer politics. CCHR is a human rights organization that complements SRP by educating people about their rights. However, CCHR does not have the monopoly on human rights advocacy because political parties like SRP can also play that role too. The radio station Sambok Khmaum of Mam Sonando also plays a vital role in educating people about human rights. There are also many NGO organizations that contribute in the field of human rights.

It is therefore dangerous for Kem Sokha to think that he is the only human rights voice for Cambodia. A tree does not make a forest. Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, and Mam Sonando just to name a few, need each other to be a strong voice and eye for our Khmer society. As a sign of maturity, it is important that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha extend an olive branch to each other. Why is it always easier for Khmer to talk to foreigners than to talk to our own kind?

Human rights without reform to Cambodia's economic system are only a false promise. It is therefore necessary for CCHR and SRP to cooperate as a uniting force to demand reforms from the government.

The new spirits of cooperation give the current government of P.M. Hun Sen and the opposition leader Sam Rainsy a window of opportunity to solve and resolve Cambodia's problems in a more practical manner that hopefully will benefit Cambodian people.

What are the problems in Cambodia and how should we prioritize them? Currently Cambodia's survival depends on the generosity of foreign aids. This is not the way to run a country. Cambodia’s main goal is to be self-sufficient in the very near future. The other problem facing Cambodia is the culture of rampant corruption that permeates through all levels of the society. There is also the problem of crimes committed with impunities. Cambodia's education system is still in its infancy and lacking far behind that of our neighbors. Some people may say that the immigration policy needs to be revised and Cambodia's frontiers with the neighbors still remain an issue. Others consider democracy to be the most important issue.

All the above are legitimate issues. Because of the lack of resources, it is therefore necessary that the current government of P.M. Hun Sen and the opposition party of Sam Rainsy as well as the Funcinpec party work together to come to a consensus on how to prioritize the problems and then take a practical approach on how to solve or mitigate them.

I am not an expert in policy making but as a trained engineer in systems management I like to break the problems into a manageable solution without losing sight of the holistic approach to the problems.

Cambodia has come a long way since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime. As an observer from far away I am very often frustrated with the pace on how Cambodia has made its stride toward democracy. However, democracy cannot come or succeed before people have achieved a certain level of education or a basic understanding of democratic principles. It is therefore very important that the government allows people like Kem Sokha to continue to do his work on human rights and educate people on democracy unhindered. Freedom of the press and the media must be preserved and people like Mam Sonando, the general manager of the Beehive radio station, must not be persecuted without proper cause.

The most important problem facing Cambodia right now is the lack of economic growth. In order for the economy to prosper we must be able to attract foreign investments to our country. For investments to take place, the investors must have confidence in our country that can provide a stable government and an abundant skilled and efficient labor force. Therefore, we must have a stable government coupled with spirits of cooperation between different parties and continued improvements in getting rid of corruptions, in reforming our educational system, in ameliorating human rights, in improving our judicial system, and in reforming some laws. All of these will take time but as long as we keep on improving the systems and moving forward it will then be acceptable to everybody. We are all impatient because that is the nature of human beings, but if we provide good planning we can achieve our goal.

Right now Cambodia can only provide low skilled labors. If Cambodia were to succeed in economic growth we must produce more medium and high skilled labors, both in the manufacturing and service sectors.

Cambodia must reform its educational system by having competent teachers in order to produce first rate students. We must set up an exchange program to send good students to the other countries for higher education.

Systematic corruption in the public as well as in the private sectors hampered or scared away potential investors in Cambodia. Doing business in Cambodia with the current culture of corruption is too expensive and risky.

The keys to our success will be based mainly on the following criteria:

1.Clean up corruption
2.Raise the level of education
3.Hire qualified workers
4.Stop practicing nepotism and cronyism
5.Streamline bureaucracy for efficiency and accountability
6.Eliminate duplicate functions and waste in government
7.Teach and implement code of ethics, both in school and in workplace
8.Provide a stable government based on the rule of laws

Nowadays Cambodia is so entrenched in corruptions that it becomes a new culture permeating in all levels of our society. Taking bribes are new habits that are very hard to break. No one person can solve this disease. It requires a strong will and resolves to take care of this problem. We are now at a cross road on how we want Cambodia to move forward.

We cannot fix everything all at once. We have to be realistic in our goals and approaches to the problems. Some may suggest that the problem of our frontiers is the most important thing facing the crisis in Cambodia right now.

I don't know how serious is P.M. Hun Sen in wanting to clean up corruptions, but I hope he meant what he said. He is the only person that may be able to do it if he is really sincere in his conviction to clean up corruption. Our system for corruption is so entrenched right now that it is hard for anybody to do it alone. It requires everybody’s cooperation to get the job done.

Let's hope that P.M. Hun Sen is sincere about his latest overture with Sam Rainsy. There are some signs showing that P.M. Hun Sen may be changing if one analyzes his speech carefully. At least he seems to try to denounce corruption and incompetence in the government. These topics were off limits for discussions before but now P.M. Hun Sen has allowed it to be brought up to the forefront. Hopefully people in Cambodia are more encouraged to do something about it.

True intention for reform accompanied by a genuine action is the best gift that the government of P.M. Hun Sen can give to Cambodia for the New Year.

Human rights and democracy are important but without economic freedom, there is no freedom.

John Kennedy once said, "A rising tide lifts all boats." If Cambodia becomes prosperous, then all Cambodians will also profit from it.

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