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.


 The Bong of Bongs





Strongman Hun Sen

strongman Hun Sen

Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen, (Harish C. Mehta and Julie B. Mehta), published by Marshall Cavendish Editions in 2013.

I’m reviewing this because Hun Sen is so important to Cambodia, but I haven’t actually read it (I promise to do so in a month or two), so this will be a review of reviews.

Over on Goodreads, Khem Yuos panha says: “If you know much about Cambodia already, I guess you will find it funny.” That’s the complete review. Khem’s favourite books (Goodreads lets you list your favourite books) include Hayek’s “The Road To Serfdom”, David Chandler’s “History of Cambodia”, and Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion”.

Also on Goodreads is Julian Haigh. He says: “Terribly biased … poor writing … the only book on one of the world’s longest reigning leaders … not available from street vendors in Phnom Penh ….” Haigh also says, and I find this intriguing: “Getting to know his character and even insecurities from this book, provide a valuable understanding of the Cambodian situation.” So the book lays bare Hun Sen’s character and insecurities?

Over on Amazon, D. Jameson notes that this is a revised version of a book first published ten years ago. “The original version was not earth shattering but the revised one is a huge disappointment. I cannot see why anyone would want to read it, much less spend money to purchase it. For anyone looking to find relevant information on contemporary Cambodia and its leader this is a big let down.”

The Cambodia Daily reviewed it when it came out, under the headline “In Praise of a Strongman“. The reviewer says that Marshall Cavendish rushed the revision out to to be on sale for the September 2013 elections. “the book fails to present a thorough exploration of Cambodia’s ‘Strongman,’ offering instead an idealized portrait of the prime minister written by two enthusiastic fans.” From the passages quoted in the Daily, the book seems to be based on the sort of thing you’d expect from North Korea – just substitute Kim’s name: “Giving little thought to his personal comforts, Hun Sen worked through breaks. He would not eat dinner at a fixed time, refusing to leave office until all the papers had been read, discussed and signed.”

But this is not North Korea, and so senior statesman Hun Sen has the chance to explain politics to rookie president Barak Obama: ““A talented and experienced negotiator, Hun Sen explained to Obama the harsh realities of life in Cambodia.”

The Daily’s review has this line, which I much admire: “The Mehtas say in the book’s introduction that Mr. Hun Sen did not ask to see their manuscript prior to publication, which they were free to write as they saw fit. His trust in them was justified.”

The most thorough review is from an unnamed “correspondent” at Asia Sentinel: pretty much like the others, but he gives a few details that make me really want to read this book – like this, describing divine signs eminating from a tree on the birth of Hun Sen’s son and apparent successor-to-be, Hun Manet: “[T]he light from the tree, being only about 70 meters away, bathed their home in silvery bursts at the time when Bun Rany gave birth to Manet.” Read the whole review, it’s very good.

This, by the way, is Harish Mehta’s Wikipedia page: it seems he’s written some quite well-regarded works on the press in Cambodia. I wish he’d read this article from the Economist. But it seems we still await a truly useful biography of the man who, for good and ill, has shaped the Cambodia we see today.