Power and Political Culture in Cambodia

Power and Political Culture in Cambodia (Trude Jacobsen and Martin Stuart-Fox, National University of Singapore, as a pdf download here) is an examination of how Cambodian culture thinks of power, whence it comes and how it goes. Does this sound like Cambodia?

The client/patron relationship is hierarchical, but obligations are mutual. The patron is the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client, and his greater wealth, power, or prestige enable him to help or do favors for the client. The client is usually, but not inevitably, of inferior social class..Benefits a patron might confer include legal representation in court, loans of money, influencing business deals or marriages, and supporting a client’s candidacy for political office or employment. In return, the client is expected to offer his services to his patron as needed.

i-claudius-patrick-stewart_5_l-1-_wide-8964c78b8fc127f2ece9037f297f853db476b3fe-s4-c85It’s actually ancient Rome, according to Wikipedia. (Pictured here is Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, in the BBC mini-series I Claudius – he comes to a sticky end when he gets too big for his caligulas).

The patron possesses authority – omneach in Khmer or power, komlang. Such a man is a neak thom, “big person”. The first outward sign of his bigness are his wealth, as seen in his conspicuous houses and cars, his country house (apparently a must-have), his being seen at expensive restaurants and up-market nightclubs, and so on – the point being that he must not only be a wealthy man, he must be publicly seen to be such.

He will also have bunn sak, social status. This is shown through his possession of government and/or royal titles, a house near the house of the prime minister, his association with other persons of high status (including foreigners, who apparently are as good as a Rolex at a public event), and his immunity to the law. The highest neak thom can shoot someone dead in the presence of witnesses without fear of consequences, although this does test the extent of his bunn sak and should only be done if the outcome is assured.

The parking lots of the more expensive karaoke places, hotels and nightclubs in Phnom Penh are littered with shiny new Lexus, Mercedes and Audi four wheel drives sporting all manner of decoration stuffed toys, curtains, undercarriage lights in different colours but no license plates, because the owner of the car is so important that he or she does not have to conform to laws which apply to others. … Patrons at some popular Cambodian nightclubs are not permitted to sit in the upper gallery unless they are neak thom (and) Places usually frequented by a foreign clientele reserve space for neak thom (where) security personnel maintain an invisible barrier excluding other patrons.

The third quality of a neak thom is baramei, meaning charismatic powers of persuasion – Cambodians admire the ability to sway others through words alone. Sihanouk had it, Pol Pot had it, and Hun Sen has it. Paradoxically, the man who possesses baramei will be silent at social gatherings, because self-control is also admired, but when he speaks, all others fall silent.

Newsletter525_Narayana_clip_image002Whence comes greatness? Wealth and social rank and charisma are the result of bunn, the merit accumulated in previous lives through virtuous deeds. Since bunn, and not some accident of birth created the neak thom, he therefore has a moral right to his wealth and power. Some individuals possess so much power than bunn alone  can’t explain it – they must have inherited it, in a very personal sense, through the workings of reincarnation. Thus Sihanouk was thought to be the reincarnation of Jayavarman VII, and there’s a rumour that Hun Sen in a previous life was the legendary hero Sdech Kan. If reincarnation isn’t enough to explain the power of the powerful, there’s also magic – Hun Sen is also said to own a store of powerful koan kroach amulets, preserved fetuses that protect their owner from harm.

Bunn derives from anupheap, understanding, so that the man of power is also a man of wisdom, and wisdom derives from dhammapul, the laws of nature, so that the powerful hold power by virtue of the same forces that make apples fall down instead of up and cause winter to be cooler than summer. The powerful man will therefore see any challenge to his power as an attack on the natural order: Sam Rainsey is not just a political opponent, but an evil man to boot.

Power is expressed through khsae, strings of client/patron connections. The village farmer will have his village patron, who will have his patron in the district town, who will have his in the capital, who will be the client of a neak thom at the highest level. The traffic cop will share cash from motodop fines with his captain, the millionaire contractor will share a cut with the officials who put the contract for that road or bridge his way. In return the patron will protect his client from the law to the best of his ability, assist his children (or those of sub-clients) with employment, and attend weddings and other occasions where the presence of a great patron will increase the standing of the client among his own circle.

17821_07_NeakPean_bigthumbDonors talk about strengthening the institutions of the State in Cambodia. Forget it. Patron/client relations take the place of the State. In the early 19th century the Cambodians rebelled against the Vietnamese, not because of national feeling, but because the Vietnamese wanted to reform the tax collection in a way that undermined the client-patron relationship. Today the Cambodian elite resist the pressure of Western aid donors for greater transparency for the same reason. The flow of goods and services in a patronage-based system is through the client-patron tie, not the State.

All in all, a pretty depressing outlook. Here’s the nub of the concluding paragraph of the paper, in which the authors explain why Cambodians keep on voting for the status quo:

In the privacy of the voting booth people are free to register their displeasure with the CPP. But they won’t. And the reason they won’t is not because they cannot envisage better government or a more just society, nor because they have been duped and coerced into submission, but because of how they understand the nature of power. Cambodians accept that the well-oiled patronage network of the CPP that now extends throughout Cambodian society cannot be challenged. The ‘strings’ are too many and too strong. Moreover they converge on men … recognised as neak thom, whose personal claims to power rest solidly on a moral order … conceived as a law of nature. At the apex stands Hun Sen, who has risen in status from one among a number of neak thom to ‘bong thom’, ‘big brother’ to all Cambodians.

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 The Bong of Bongs

 

 

 

 

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