On the street on which I lived in Phnom Penh was a small grocery store that would diligently hang the banners and posters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The owner of the store was not a supporter of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party; he would vote for any opposition group that could reasonably stake a claim for turning out the CPP, he confided in me. Nonetheless, he would put up banners and collect his few dollars to parade around the capital come the ruling party’s pre-election motorcycle parades. “It’s the easiest thing to do,” the owner told me. Not doing so, he feared, could elicit a visit by the local CPP officials or more inspections from the authorities.
That conversation returned to my mind as I was recently re-reading Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless,” the Czechoslovak dissident’s thesis, written under a communist regime. It echoes Havel’s story of the greengrocer who hangs in his store the sign “Workers of the world, unite!” The greengrocer doesn’t believe in the communist slogans, but failure to display the sign could be seen as disloyalty. By displaying it, he might not show his enthusiasm for the regime, yet it becomes a marker of his humiliation by the authorities, his acceptance of having to live under the lie, Havel reasons. Those living under authoritarian regimes “must live within a lie,” Havel wrote. “They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”