Cambodia Needs to Learn How to Properly Deal With Grievances

By Chivoin Peou

Cambodia and its people seem to constantly find themselves on the verge of tragedy after brief periods of hope.

We, the “righteous people”—as we like to believe based on our idealized past—are often ready to point an accusing figure at the “others” (foreign governments and races) for our situations. There is no denial that the “others” have played a part, yet such acknowledgement should not excuse us from examining our own share of guilt and responsibility.

Perhaps it is agreeable to most that greed and grievance are part and parcel of the destruction and violence Cambodia has experienced in the past century. Grievance (i.e., rage at unfairness; bitter resentment toward actual/perceived mistreatment) has in particular formed the backbone of our tragic history. Yet, the current political development shows that some of us are creating conditions for our people to nurse a strong grievance, which could be self-destructive.

Cambodia is a post-war economic success story, but current redistribution of wealth is objectionable. Extraction of resources benefits the economy, but the poor peasants find their livelihood threatened. Industrialization relies on cheap labor, but workers live in abject conditions. Public infrastructure has improved, but public services are corrupt. Accountability and transparency are appealing buzzwords, but abuse of power is rampant.

The privileged can of course purchase security, but the majority of the population, who live on less than $2 a day, are exposed to the risks and threats resulting from the current situation. There is every reason for many people to harbor a grievance against the conditions of life made beyond their own making.

The rather unexpected election results last week, in which the incumbent government saw its popular support greatly reduced, might have indicated the extent of their grievance. There surely are people who readily dispute this account, pointing insistently to the “development” seen in Cambodia over the past three decades. Disagreement over what is “real”—development versus deterioration—then arises.

Determining what is objectively “real” in such political climate is hardly possible. Instead, we can learn from the Thomas theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Our interpretation, rather than what is objectively “real,” causes action. Even if we want to cling on to the insistence of the “real” development in Cambodia, we need to accept the interpretation of many people, through their votes, that the current conditions of life warrant a grievance for change.

While such grievance needs urgent redress and political commitment in good faith, we seem to be doing the opposite. First, instead of recognizing and urgently fixing the current conditions of life, some find a comfortable way of dealing with this grievance through denying and suppressing the people’s indignation and resentment, thus perpetuating abuse and social injustice.

Second, some play upon popular grievance dangerously through ethnic demonization.

Third, due to our traumatic experience of war and violence, some want to avoid contestation and struggle (a price for building an inclusive and transparent society) at all costs, and hence being content with “stability” with rooted grievances.

Here again, the weight of the past forbids us from foresight. Should a tragic history repeats itself, we shall have to share the collective guilt.

Chivoin Peou is a doctoral candidate in sociology, studying social transformation and young people, at the University of Melbourne.

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