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Q&A: Interview with Professor Sorpong Peou: Cambodia’s Culture of Retribution and Politics of Survival, the Setback for Democratic Liberalization


Sorpong Peou is a Cambodian-born Canadian scholar and professor at Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.

Dr. Sorpong Peou says that overcoming this shortcoming would take tremendous political will from the ruling party and the opposition party, as well as the elite

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Sorpong Peou is a Cambodian-born Canadian scholar and professor at Ryerson University, Toronto. Before he settled in Toronto Canada, Dr. Peou lived through the Khmer Rouge regime. He has researched and published several books about peace and security, particularly the United Nation’s peace building process in Cambodia in 1990s and the country’s democratization. In his view, Cambodia today is a normal developing country facing social, economic and political development challenges. Yet he notes that the continuing culture of retribution after the Khmer Rouge fell, and the politics of survival that have been played out by political leaders and the elite are the “biggest” setback for the country in achieving social-economic liberalization and a liberal democracy. In a phone interview with VOA Khmer reporter Soksreinith Ten, Dr. Peou says that overcoming this shortcoming would take tremendous political will from the ruling party and the opposition party, as well as the elite.]

How did you leave Cambodia?

SP: I lived under the Khmer Rouge regime until the end, until the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in late 1978. I left Cambodia in 1979, around the same time. I left the country alone, actually. I went to the Thai-Cambodia border for security reasons. I had to go alone. I left my mother and six siblings behind. I am the oldest child in the family, so I left alone, for security reasons. I went to the border by myself. That happened in 1979. I lived in different refugee camps in Thailand. I lived in Khao-I-Dang for several months before I moved to another camp called Kamput camp. Then I moved, after that, to a transit camp as preparation for my departure for Canada in 1982.

So I arrived in Canada in 1982, having lived in three different refugee camps in Thailand. It was fantastic, having lived in Cambodia for a very long time and then refugee camps in Thailand. It was wonderful experience. I remember when the plane took off, I had a big sigh of relief, thinking that I am out of my old, long nightmare. We [my family] lived in one village [under the Khmer Rouge]. But my younger brothers and sisters were away as part of this youth mobile [group]. I lived in the village with my mother, but not in the same house. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, my brothers and sisters came back. We were reunited just a few weeks after. So it didn’t take long.

What happened when you got to Canada?

SP: The plane landed in Montreal. Then after a few days we were moved to Ottawa where we settled. So my mother and few other siblings still lived in Ottawa. But after more than a year, I decided to go back to school, to the university of Waterloo, where I pursued my undergraduate study in political science and peace and conflict studies. I was there at the University of Waterloo for four years before I moved to Toronto, where I pursued my graduate study at York University.

What developments have you seen in Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and what challenges remain?

SP: From my perspective, there have been a lot of positive changes. As I said, I arrived in Canada in 1982, but then I went back to Cambodia in 1992, 10 years after that, when the United Nations sent its peace keeping mission to Cambodia. I was there to observe it as part of my research to see what was happening there. The United Nations was able to bring about peace to Cambodia.

That was still a difficult year after 10 years. I noticed that life had not returned to normal, and the political security situation was still very bad, still looked very grimed. Conflict continued and political violence remained. After those 10 years, for me, things got better, but it was still a tough phase to be in. But I returned to Cambodia often after that for some research and field work. I would say that the end of the Khmer Rouge rebellion in 1998 was the biggest reason for celebration. For me, that was the biggest positive development in contemporary Cambodia’s history. I’ve been back once a year at least and the country has been at peace - no more armed conflicts, and I think that is the biggest positive development.

In my view, Cambodia has now become a normal developing country, although there are still a lot of political and social and economic challenges. Overall, the country has a lot of potential. I think one of the challenges is that peace is here; peace is there. But it is not really solid. What I mean by “solid peace” is that a country without any prospect of armed conflict or political violence. It happens when the country becomes a stable democracy, where electoral competition is peaceful, where the opposition party has a chance to win in the election and where the transfer of political power is the norm, and peaceful. But Cambodia is not there yet. Overall, as I said, Cambodia has become a normal developing country, facing still a lot of social and economic problems as well – poverty is one of them. The level of education is another problem. Infrastructure development is very good. I am impressed by what is happening in Cambodia. But we still have a long way to go.

What do you think can be done to achieve “solid peace” in Cambodia?

SP: That’s the tough question because I don’t think anybody really knows. What I can say is that the process of democratization is indispensable and it is a long term process and it has a lot of setbacks along the way. So it’s not easy. No one should expect a country like Cambodia to become a stable democracy, a stable liberal democracy, overnight or even a matter of two or three decades. It will take longer than that.

But at the same time, the country can do a lot better than what had been done. The process of democratization began when the United Nations organized the election in 1992. But the process got into trouble in the mid-1990s right away. There was violent confrontation between the ruling party at that time, around 1997. And since then the process of democratization, in my view, has stalled - has not been making a real progress. In fact, the country has become, or the political process has become, more totalitarian. In my work, I’ve described the electoral process and the electoral system as one dominated by a hegemonic party, one dominant party controlling the political process. So I’ve made the case in my research that what we have witnessed in Cambodia is that the process of democratization has now been subdued. So prospects for further democratization or democratic consolidation are quite slim.

I don’t see how Cambodian democracy will consolidate any time soon. For one big reason is that –when you have political party that dominated political process and this is to be fair to all political party, Cambodia as a country is trapped in this structural condition –something I describe as survival, because in Cambodia, when you win, it is a good thing. When you lose, it is not a good thing. It’s about survival. Every political party, especially major political parties struggling for power in order to survive. Because when you lose, you are in trouble. But this nasty politics of survival is not likely to disappear anytime soon, unless there is a lot of political will from the ruling party and of other major parties to sort things out in a more diplomatic political way.

How do you think people power, as opposed to political will, can drive positive change towards Cambodia’s democratization?

SP: People power is important in the process of democratization. But in the early process of democratization, people power does not matter significantly in my view. At the end of the day, it’s the elite that plays most dominant role in political life. Until democracy becomes more established, or until the democracy consolidates, the role of civil society is still quite weak and will not be able to move the process of democratization forward. So Cambodia is still at the early stage of democratization and it’s up to the elite, including the opposition party as well, to come out with a plan and a vision that would move the country forward.

But that does not mean they [ordinary people] cannot do anything. You know that young Cambodian people are hungry for education. They want a better life. They work hard. They want to move on, and that is the good thing. Any social movement or any effort on the part of the society can be undermined or can be suppressed easily, until or unless the members of the political elite are able to agree on how the country should be run. I just don’t see how at this point.

The rule of law is central to everything; the political development as well as economic development. Yet the rule of law in Cambodia does not really exist. Yes, we have the country, the government drafted law and legislation and all of that, but until people comply with what they passed and until they abide by the rule of law that requires political will.

You can have a lot of laws, you can have a lot of ideas, but when they are not put into practice it does not make any difference. You can have a beautiful constitution but if there is no political will to really make it work, it is not going to work.

What role do you see social media playing on democratization in Cambodia?

SP: Social media is a wonderful development, phenomenal. But at the same time, I am not convinced by the argument that social media can transform politics that much. In fact, social media can also be an instrument of the political elite if it chooses to use and manipulate [it]. If there is no political will and accommodation on the part of the political elite, social media might be alive and well, but will not have a significant impact on the process of democratization. China is a good example. Social media can be vibrant, but at the same time, it can also be cracked down on or suppressed. So I don’t see how at this stage of its political development Cambodia can use social media as a tool to promote democracy and human rights.

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