A few days ago, former parliamentarians of the late CNRP launched a call for national reconciliation, mentioning in particular the very short episode of the culture of dialogue. We can only rejoice at this state of mind that seems to mimic the CPP’s opponents.
Above all, Cambodia needs a form of democracy that is based on a desire for dialogue and a spirit of conciliation. The democracy of confrontation, with its winners and losers, so dear to Westerners – even if it offers for the moment rather puzzling examples as in Europe – is absolutely not what Cambodia needs.
Although today a very large majority of its population did not experience the extreme horrors of the 70s, Cambodia still keeps track of the traumas suffered and a collective memory forever marked by this dramatic past. All specialists of mass crimes agree that the victims’ children are also not immune to the shocks suffered by their parents.
The Cambodian human and social fabric is still fragile. The extraordinary erasure of knowledge inflicted by the men of Pol Pot, but also the propaganda of his movement that lasted until 1998 are not without consequences. The Cambodian population is a fertile ground for those who conceive politics as a call to passions, lies and radical behaviors. The conditions are in place to allow the demagogues to prosper and sow the seeds of division.
This is what we have known since the day Sam Rainsy began to poison the political life of this country. The only candidate, in 1993, to be blamed by UNTAC for his calls for racial hatred, he built his entire political career on the most hateful form of demagoguery – the one that made the success of a Hitler or a Le Pen in Europe both of whom designated a popular scapegoat for all the problems of the country.
Using ignorance of historical realities, neglecting no opportunity to falsify the past as the present, resorting to opposition to power that create a climate of civil war, insulting, slandering, Sam Rainsy is rapidly hysterical when it comes to political debate.
With the support of Westerners, at all times careless of Cambodian realities, he has had considerable financial means to prosper in his political adventure. After unsuccessfully igniting the streets of Phnom Penh in 2013, he deigned to accept the prime minister’s proposal to practice a culture of dialogue. He sabotaged it, once obtained a reform of the electoral law he wished.
Everyone knows what followed. Today, some of those who have supported Sam Rainsy’s hateful practices speak of national reconciliation and a culture of dialogue. Very well! If there is in the opposition, including the former CNRP, women and men of goodwill, all the better. We can only rejoice. But we must glean from a quarter of a century of lessons why the attempt to establish a peaceful democracy failed.
What has been lacking in the Cambodian people and their political class since 1993 is a national consensus on a number of fundamental issues. The lack of unity of views on these issues has allowed demagogy to flourish. Cambodia offers the spectacle of a country that is not reconciled with itself on essential issues. This is the lesson of the past 25 years: a democracy cannot work if there is no agreement among all political sensitivities on a common denominator.
The Kingdom needs a national consensus on its past, on the territorial configuration of the country before and after colonization, on the reality of the March 18, 1970 coup, on all the crimes committed by Pol Pot’s gang, on the role of Vietnam in the liberation of the country, and on the true pacification of the country.
To question the borders resulting from colonisation is to deny not only the historical facts (Cambodia lost Kampuchea Krom before the arrival of the French and Koh Trâl because of the French), but also the international law and its principle of uti possidetis, however successfully invoked when it comes to the border with Thailand. This is the first essential consensus: to accept the borders of November 9, 1953, and to take into account the consequences of 30 years of war that require modest and balanced adjustments.
This is a historical fact: it was the 1970 coup that plunged the country into a civil, regional and international war in the end of which Polpotism triumphed. To recognize and accept this fact must help to turn the painful page of divisions between Cambodians who survived these events. It is a second constituent element of a necessary national consensus.
The Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot was the one who systematically organized the physical elimination of more than two million Khmers. Evidence has been gathered of the responsibility of this regime and its leaders for the innumerable crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated against the Cambodian people, between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979. To deny it, to attribute it to other than to the Polpotists, is to insult the victims and the survivors and to rewrite history. The third consensus that Cambodian democracy needs is to recognize that fanatical Khmer people blinded by a mortifying ideology have massacred their own people.
The Polpotists launched in 1975 a war of aggression against the Vietnamese neighbor. For reasons of national security of its own and to answer the call for help from tens of thousands of Cambodians who fled to Vietnam, after failed negotiations during two and an half years followed by the rupture of diplomatic relations and the intensification of fighting, it ended Pol Pot’s regime by entering Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979.
Even though people may have a different opinion about what followed, there is no doubt that January 7, 1979 symbolizes the end of a regime of terror and massacres. Recognizing this fact is the fourth component of a necessary national consensus.
What followed was probably, for those who lived it, still too present to agree on a common appreciation and should therefore be restrained in political debates. As a fifth element of the common ground, it should not be difficult to unite all to recognize that the real pacification of the country took place at the end of December 1998.
And finally, to secure the future, an endorsement and commitment by all to give up the anti-democratic practices used by Sam Rainsy should be the sixth element of the political agreement sealing reconciliation.
How can national reconciliation and peaceful democracy be envisioned if those who govern and those who do not want a dialogue respecting mutual values do not agree on these six elements which constitute the historical and political heritage of Cambodia? Will the whole Cambodian political class have the wisdom to conclude a pact that recognizes these six elements of a national consensus and thus open a new era, looking to the future?
Thomas Fowler is a Cambodia watcher based in Phnom Penh.