WASHINGTON __ Editor’s note: David P. Chandler, widely known as the preeminent historian of Cambodia, recently received a prestigious career achievement award from the Association of Asian Studies, a U.S.-based academic organization. The emeritus professor at Monash University has written six books on the history of Cambodia, including “A History of Cambodia” and ‘’Brother No. 1: A Political Biography of Pol Pot.’’ Chandler was in Washington DC two months ago to receive the award and attend the group’s annual conference. The 85-year-old scholar sat down March 24 with VOA Khmer’s Hong Chenda and discussed challenges Cambodia currently is facing. Her interview was the second VOA Khmer interview conducted with Chandler that day. The first can be read here. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
You are one of the most respected historians studying Cambodia. If you were to write another history book about Cambodia, how would you describe the current Cambodian situation?
"I think the political scene has contracted and it’s become less open to a positive change, or you can say democratization, or whatever word you want to use."
Well, I am possibly going to have a contract to write a 5th edition of my “A History of Cambodia.” The new edition, if I go ahead with it, and I think I probably will, is going to be different from the 4th edition. I am going to expand and deepen the Angkor chapter because the archaeological work has been wonderful, the work in the last 10 years. There has been a big leap with the Lidar. There have been big leaps of knowledge about Angkor. The other thing that has got to be changed, as you suggest, is the last chapter, because that will be Cambodia from ’79 till now, that’s the [past] 30 years. I try to avoid making too many political judgments. I certainly try to avoid making predictions, because I’m not equipped to predict—as anybody isn’t, except maybe some magician—nobody can predict what is going to happen. I haven’t written it yet, I haven’t thought it through, but I have a feeling that the closing pages of that last chapter, which would take you to 2018, 2019, whenever I finish writing the book, would be more pessimistic than the last paragraphs were in the 4th edition, where I just saw more possibilities for positive political change in Cambodia. Which doesn’t mean regime change, but just opening up and liberalizing and so on. I saw more of them in 2005, when I wrote the last edition, than I do now. I think the political scene has contracted and it’s become less open to a positive change, or you can say democratization, or whatever word you want to use.
Is what is happening now in Cambodia a repeat of its own history?
"It’s never had an open opposition, it’s never been a multi-party country; that’s not a system that Cambodians are accustomed to."
Cambodia has had an authoritarian government since Angkorian times, or pre-Angkorian. It’s never had an open opposition, it’s never been a multi-party country; that’s not a system that Cambodians are accustomed to. Not that some Cambodians wouldn’t want to have one, but they have not had one. They have no history of a democratically elected government. It’s just going to be more difficult over the next few years, that’s what I’m going to suggest, to predict: That it will be more difficult. I can’t see who’s around to pull it back from some of the tendencies that it’s displaying at the moment. Who’s the leadership who is going to alter that behavior? No one is influential enough or has enough leverage to do that. I don’t think the Cambodian government should be punished for its behavior, as some people are saying, because if you punish the Cambodian government for authoritarianism, you’ve really got to punish every government in Southeast Asia, and the United States is not willing to do that because they have more powerful interests in, say, the Philippines or Thailand or Indonesia than they do in Cambodia, which is a small country.
In your view, do you think there will be a change in Cambodia in the near future or in the long term?
I hope in the long term, but I can’t predict, and I don’t see what it’s going to be. As somebody once wrote, in the long term we’re all dead. We don’t know. I can’t say what changes might [occur], because it depends on what changes take place in Asia or elsewhere. I don’t see the world getting to be an easier place to live in. There are going to be too many people, not enough water, terrible climate conditions, not enough food. I can’t see it becoming a nicer place to be, for my grandchildren, for example. I don’t see those changes coming in Cambodia any faster than anywhere else.
You said before that you don’t believe in electoral politics in Cambodia. So are you saying that Cambodian people are not the owners of their own fate?
Oh no, I wouldn’t go that far. Cambodia has become a very prosperous country. Many Cambodians are profiting from this and have a much more comfortable life than they had before. This is not connected in their minds with electoral politics at all. I think much of the world is that way. I think people don’t think about politics as much as people like VOA or me would like to think they do. They think about how comfortable they are, how comfortable their children are, what kind of education they are getting, how much money they have, and if that’s all improved, as it has in the last 15 years for the middle class in Cambodia, not just the very rich, but the middle class, it’s unlikely that they’re going to say, “Wow we’ve got to change the form of the government,” because it all goes along—Hun Sen says it all goes along—with his form of government. Nobody’s there to contradict it and say, “No, it’s not.” Who knows? You can’t put a cost to it.
How about people in the lower class who don’t get benefits like people in the middle class?
Well they’ve never had benefits. They’re worse off now than they were before. We have inequality of the very rich and the very poor all over the world. It’s like pulling a piece of rubber. At the top, a few have got a lot more than they used to have, the poor have not enough more. Cambodia—when I was there years and years ago, in the 1960s, Cambodians didn’t see more than maybe $500 a year. But they had clean water, they owned their land, they had crops that could feed [them], they were well-fed. They would have lives that were more stable than they are today. Now they are impoverished and they have TVs, but they don’t have security.
"Where economies change, the poor people always lose out."
They were secure, these people. They were not being thrown off their land in those days. So now you just have tremendous inequality. I think some people see that. In the past, in other countries, this has led to rebellions, but that’s not going to happen in Cambodia. It’s too late. Nobody’s got any arms anyway. This discontent is also happening in the United States; people who are at the lower edges are saying, “This isn’t fair. We’re being mistreated.” It’s happening all over the world. It’s happening in Cambodia. They’re the ones who never benefit from these things. The industrial poor of Britain, today or [in the] Industrial Revolution, is another one. Where economies change, the poor people always lose out.
Could you discuss the challenges that Cambodia is facing right now? What are the biggest challenges?
I just think every year the opportunities for opening and for joining a diminishing group of democratically elected countries is getting less likely. You can’t ask them to imitate Vietnam or Thailand or Burma or even Malaysia or the Philippines—these are all dictatorships. They all are countries where the dictators are happy. I don’t think currently the Cambodian regime is the worst. Brunei is completely one-man ruled for about 20 or 30 years. So, there’s nowhere to imitate and why should they imitate a Western country? The Western countries don’t imitate them. Cambodia can’t become, say, America or Denmark. They don’t have a tradition of that. There’s more discontent in Cambodia now than there used to be, but I don’t see [how] it can produce results that these people want. That’s why I am pessimistic.
What drives a leader to fear being replaced?
Well, the main thing in Cambodia, I think he’s fearful of something happening to him if he were replaced. He would not go into an opposition party—this is your prime minister. He’s scared something would happen to him if he got taken off the throne. Anytime there was any kind of change of government in Cambodia—you know, the Lon Nol government was condemned to death. When the Khmer Rouge came in, they condemned the Lol Nol regime to death. When people were on the Thai frontier, they condemned Khmer Rouge to death. The Vietnamese did that. You don’t say, “Oh, you used to be in charge, come join me in a two-party system.” They say, “You used to be in charge and now we’re in charge and we’ll condemn you to death.” It’s the history. Now, this is scary for someone who is in power and who people don’t like.
Are you saying that because those leaders have committed something wrong?
No, I didn’t say that they committed something wrong, but “loyal opposition” is not a phrase that exists in Cambodia. I am not going to get too much into Cambodian politics, but Sam Rainsy never suggested, “When I come to power, I’d welcome Hun Sen in an opposition party. He has had long experience in the country. I welcome his advice.” He never came up with a sentence like that. [Instead he said], “When I am in power, I am in power.” I know there were some negotiations—this is years ago—there were negotiations behind the scene between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy: “If you came in, what would you do?” They were working on an amnesty arrangement. Never worked it out to Hun Sen’s satisfaction. They didn’t work out any system where you could have a peaceful transition of government. It’s not a Cambodian tradition. It’s just not a tradition.
In your view, what will a future transition of power in Cambodia be like?
I have no idea. I really don’t have a view for that, the future of Cambodia. I cannot make predictions.I am not authorized. I am not a Cambodian. I don’t know what would happen. I am not sure. It’s a penetrating question but I can’t answer it. I just don’t know how to answer it, not that I don’t want to answer it.
This is my last question. For young Cambodians, what are one or two important historical lessons that you want them to learn to prepare for a better future?
"Foreigners and some Cambodians have already gotten into trouble for being too open about things they see happening. Just sit back for a while. Be quiet for a while. Observe, observe, but don’t…it’s too dangerous. Be cautious."
That’s a very difficult question. I don’t want to give advice to Cambodian young people, whom I admire a great deal for their vigor and their interest in the political scene. I can’t think of advice I could give them except, for the near future, I would advise them to be cautious. Be cautious and patient. Wait to see how things are going to spin out. Do not go into the streets. The situation is unstable at the moment, so try to be cautious, very cautious of how you approach things, and not be too energetic, because you’re going to get into trouble. Foreigners and some Cambodians have already gotten into trouble for being too open about things they see happening. Just sit back for a while. Be quiet for a while. Observe, observe, but don’t…it’s too dangerous. Be cautious.