History doesn’t repeat itself, despite the thoughts of a certain German philosopher, and it certainly doesn’t manifest a dyad of tragedy and farce. If there is one iron law of history, it is of unintended consequences. Yet the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) assumes the first and neglects the latter.
For decades, the CPP, which came to power in 1979 after helping to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime, has delighted in telling its citizens that Cambodia will fall back into the murderous, anarchic ways of the 1970s if the ruling party is ever removed from office. Just this week, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng warned that if the CPP were toppled from power, Cambodia would “fall into mud” like in the 1970s.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is often more explicit. “You must know that as long as I am the prime minister, I will not let them kill me. At any cost, I must protect peace and lives of Cambodian people,” he said on one occasion. On another, this January, he said that his government had “ended completely the chronic civil war” and brought “full peace” to Cambodia. “Cambodia, which used to be full of killing fields and dominated by the dictatorship regime and horrific genocidal regime, now becomes a land of freedom,” he said.
This narrative is well known among ordinary Cambodians, journalists and analysts, but it is worth reviewing every now and then, for it reveals a certain psychology of the ruling party. In the CPP’s framing of events, history certainly does appear to be repeating itself.
Rise of Khmer Rouge
In 1970, military commander Lon Nol seized power in a coup, supported though not necessarily materially backed by the US. But his brief republic was plagued by corruption and mismanagement, and five years later the Khmer Rouge violently took power, instigating a four-year tyrannous regime. Fast-forward to late 2017 and the CPP claimed that its main political opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was also plotting a coup, and also with US backing – claims that have never been supported by a shred of evidence. The Supreme Court forcibly dissolved the CNRP in November 2017.
The CPP clearly wants to demonstrate that if it were ever ousted, it would be a repeat of Lon Nol’s coup of 1970 – the implication being that whoever removes the CPP from office would unleash the same disorder that allowed the Khmer Rouge to come to power, and then decades of civil war. Yet the CPP’s analogy of a repetitional history is sloppy. Today, there is no band of Maoist radicals waiting in the forests to seize power and unleash class warfare; there is no major geopolitical flagellation taking place in neighboring Vietnam and Laos; and Cambodians have known peace for decades now (remember Norodom Sihanouk’s regime only ruled for 17 years between independence in 1953 and Lon Nol’s coup in 1970).
Historical analogies are attractive for their simplicity and ease of understanding, but all too often they are widely off the mark. Yet they are revealing about the thoughts of the interlocutor.
Read between the lines and what the CPP is saying is that all that separates Cambodians from slipping back into the tyrannous brutality of the 1970s is the calming hand of the CPP
Pay attention to the latent meaning of the CPP’s warnings. What it basically assumes is that Cambodian society, at its heart, is brutish and violent and anarchic – bellum omnium contra omnes. Indeed, read between the lines and what the CPP is saying is that all that separates Cambodians from slipping back into the tyrannous brutality of the 1970s is the calming hand of the CPP – the Leviathan on the Mekong. (Indeed, modern Cambodian politics resemble the paying out of the Hobbes-Locke debates.)
If the party falls from power, it says, anarchy and murder will resume. It is a rather nihilistic view of the society it governs over. It is also rather arrogant and paternalist. Indeed, it assumes the worst instincts in its citizens and the finest in the government. Self-reverentially, the party sees itself as the force of order that prevails over a brutal state of nature.
Of course, all this might be described as just rhetoric, a clever (and quite effective) way of the CPP presenting itself as the noble savior and custodian of Cambodian peace – Cambodia itself, if the analogy is taken to its logical conclusion. Yet there is no reason to doubt that senior CPP politicians don’t believe in their own stories.
Perhaps their own histories offer some explanation. It ought to be remembered that almost all of the CPP’s founders were Khmer Rouge soldiers and generals who defected, quite late in the game, once it appeared to them that they were on the wrong side of history. Hun Sen joined the Maoist forces in the late 1960s (Hun Sen was the name he took in 1972; he was born Hun Bunal) and served as a battalion commander in the Eastern Region. He fled in 1977 to escape internal purges, returning two years later with Vietnamese forces to overthrow the Khmer Rouge.
Years among genocidal ideologues, and then decades at the helm of a government where conspiracy, assassination and opportunism were autochthonic, must affect how a politician views human interaction and community.
Yet the Hobbesian analogy isn’t exclusive to the CPP, though it is the main purveyor of such thinking. The academic Sorpong Peou said last year that “the lack of legitimate state institutions has left Cambodia more or less in the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ and the politics of survival remains intense.” One also finds such sentiments in, for other examples, Alexander Laban Hinton’s Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide, which, to put it briefly, partly attributes a supposed culture in Cambodia of perceived humiliation that must be responded to with disproportionate vengeance for the genocide.
But there is no reason whatsoever to think that anarchy and murder are the default states of human nature in Cambodia – indeed, no less reason to think the same in the United States or Britain. And there is no reason too that if the ruling party were ever removed from office, then order would suddenly tumble into tyrannous disorder – unless, that is, the current force of order decides to unleash its own brutality. (“To protect the peace for millions of people, if necessary, 100 or 200 must be eliminated. Please listen carefully…. Whoever intends to undermine peace will receive what you deserve,” Hun Sen said in 2017.)
Moreover, what strands of democracy and decency the country has left are owing to the constitution of the Cambodian people, and not to the constitution of the government. It is found in civil society that, while repressed, has courageously failed to keep quiet. It is found in land-rights protesters who understand that rule by law does not impose order, but the opposite. It is found in the people who almost tasted change at the 2013 general election and, acquainted to the flavor of autonomy, aren’t prepared to settle for a lesser diet.
What Cambodian history shows – by comparison with what the CPP thinks it does – is that past tyrannies were not the results of a supposed anarchical natural order left unchecked by the state, but the fault of regimes that thought all means justified ends, and saw violence as the means to achieve them.