To Progress, Gov’t Must Embrace Intellectuals and Dissent

In the history of Cambodia many years from now, it is to be seen whether the sizable losses of the CPP majority in the National Assembly in the 2013 election, followed by the Freedom Park and garment workers’ protests later that year and in 2014, will be recalled as a watershed moment or no more than an interesting occurrence that was soon forgotten. In the vagaries of politics, such is the fate of many political and social movements, which are born with the boundless aspirations of its leaders but soon perish in a stillborn death.

Much of the future course of this opposition movement will be decided by the adjustments made by the ruling regime to regain the political initiative, counterbalanced with the determined will, prudence and charisma of the opposition movement to build on its initial success while finding ways to include new voter blocs within its ranks.

I believe that a key determinant in the ongoing success of the current regime will be its ability to both embrace and utilize intellectuals in its policy formation and political decisions. I should clarify what I mean by “intellectual,” because I do not mean that the regime has no educated or intelligent individuals working within its ranks. In this context, an intellectual is “someone who has significant learning with particular emphasis in a particular area of expertise who also possesses the freedom to express his or her unbiased beliefs with regard to issues or controversies within this area of expertise.”

There are several ways to prove that the inclusion of intellectuals is important for the advancement of any nation. It is through think tanks, scholarly meetings and seminal texts that the course is forged for many nations, or for the world as a whole. It was the writings and teachings of key intellectuals that eventually transformed Europe from a continent suppressed under the “divine rule” of monarchies to a place where regular citizens believed that they should have a voice in what happens to their nation and how their taxes are spent.

Any government has experts and various learned people. But a critical difference between these intelligent people and a community of intellectuals is the willingness and the ability to freely express their opinions without fear—“the freedom from fear,” as termed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The lesson of ignoring dissenting voices or failing to include those with differing views was best summed up in research on “groupthink.” Groupthink is a phenomenon where a leader surrounds him- or herself with like-minded individuals who are all fearful of being ostracized from the decision makers. Therefore, everyone agrees with whatever idea or solution is presented by the leader, even though it may be unwise.

This might go some way toward explaining why the entire inner circle of the Democratic Kampuchea regime concurred with Pol Pot, even though today, the decisions they made are clearly utterly horrific. Generally, a government is going to hire people who share its vision and values, so one should anticipate that these people will, in large part, generally go along with the overall direction of the group of which they are a member, or keep their opinions to themselves in order to retain their position.

Because intellectuals have freedom, it is their opinions and criticisms that should chart, guide and stimulate the conversation on what needs to be changed or how the status quo can be maintained or modified to the advantage of all citizens. This is a basic lesson originating from the Age of Enlightenment nearly 500 years ago with the emergence of thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Renee Descartes and Isaac Newton. This lesson encompasses the notion that scientific research is needed to prove anything, and it is this research that should be the basis for any serious intellectual activity.

By embracing those intellectuals who may agree or disagree with their policy, the government can open itself up to more options while at the same time demonstrating its openness to change, reform and criticism. When the direction and future of Cambodia is at stake, one would hope that no potential barrier would deter the government from its duties. Furthermore, there are many moderate thinkers both here and abroad who simply seek to craft small and doable policy reforms that do not strive to completely overhaul the system or threaten the regime. While we all want big changes done quickly, this is neither expedient nor prudent.

To move forward, Cambodia needs to draw upon every resource, especially those people who are most qualified—based on their experience, education and critical analysis skills. It is these qualified thinkers who should work in concert with the government and average citizens for the benefit of all.

Sonya Chum is the vice president for research at the Mengly J. Quach University Research Center and a PhD candidate in political science at Waseda University in Tokyo.

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