Cambodia and the Cult of Personality

Way back, I was thinking of writing an article on “The Cult of Personality” that is the root causes of many tragedies suffered by the Cambodian people. The January 30, 2019 op-ed in the Cambodia Opinion section of the Asia Time “Hun Manet, Cambdia’s Western-educated dictator-in-waiting” by Siwathey Ek pushed me not to delay.

I began by going to Wikipedia to look for a definition of this concept that I had come across many times before. It says: “A Cult of Personality arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. A cult of personality is similar to apotheosis, except that it is established by modern social engineering techniques, usually by the state or the party in one-party states. It is often seen in totalitarian or authoritarian countries.”

For Cambodia, the “cult of personality” stems from the long history of absolute monarchy when the people put all their trust and fate in the hands and the head of a Chieftain, a King or a God King, or an Emperor. It was only on May 6th, 1947 that the Kingdom adopted a constitution  that changed the regime to a constitutional monarchy,  a byproduct of the post-World War II new world order. Even then, it seemed that both the King, then Norodom Sihanouk, and the people were not accustomed to that.  After the Royal Crusade for Independence, Norodom Sihanouk chose to abdicate the throne in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit, and launched himself into politics by creating and leading the political movement-cum-party, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum. His personal attributes and his success in securing the nation’s independence made him a national hero of no equal, known and recognized nationally and worldwide. It was a perfect case of the cult of personality, promoted by the Cambodian people, comparable to Lenin for the Russian people or Mao Tse Tung for the Chinese.

After the elections of 1955 when the Sangkum Reastr Niyum won all the seats in the National Assembly, all the other political parties, including the lead contender, the Democratic Party, dissolved themselves one after another, and Cambodia became a one- party kingdom, ruled unopposed by Sihanouk, sometime as President of the Council of Ministers, and sometime as Head of State. People trusted his wisdom, and those who dared to have divergent opinions were forced to lead a guerilla war deep from the border jungle. Instead of being fully neutral, Sihanouk favored and accepted to help the communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War that led to his deposition on March 18, 1970.

In the same manner, though to a lesser degree, General Lon Nol, was faithfully promoted by his soldiers, but could not sustain the war for long. Then came the cult of Angkar, the secret leadership of the Khmer Rouge with its bloody rule, and now Hun Sen, a self-made leader who commanded respect and obedience, a strong man claiming indispensability who believes that it is OK to be feared and not loved: a cult of his own.

And now Hun Sen has made preparations, with the destruction of Cambodia’s rich natural resources, for his three children- first the elder Manet, then Manit, and Many- and his extended family, i.e. the Hun Dynasty, to stay in power.

Forget about the Cambodian National Rescue Party that is supported by more than half of the nation population, and the fate of the FUNCINPEC that were essentially killed off in the July 5-6 1997 coup. Forget about the people who were killed for their opposition to Hun Sen’s rule such as Chea Vichea, Thuch Vuthy and Kem Ley, and people like Piseth Pilikar, the star singer who made the mistake of falling in love with Hun Sen and was killed by a killer hired by someone in the prime minister’s circle according to the French magazine, L’Express, and Touch Sunnix, another star singer, who was shot and left paralyzed for singing in memory and love of Kampuchea Krom…

Dear compatriots, it is about time to ban for good that cult of personality. The longer these personalities stay in power, the more corrupt they become. The only gains are for themselves and their family. They made our nation dependent, and sooner or later our beloved Kampuchea will be the battleground for cold war adversaries and ruled by stronger neighbors.

As for Hun Manet, please remember the French saying “Tel père, tel fils” or “Like father, like son” in English. If the father is the tyrant, so is the son. People accused Sam Rainsy of being the son of the “Traitor Sam Sary.” No, Sam Sary was not a traitor; the communist Vietnamese blamed and hate him because he fought successfully at the Geneva Conference in 1954 against the communist Vietnamese who wanted to divide Cambodia and gave the Eastern part to their protégé, the “Khmer Vietminh.” That was confirmed by King Sihanouk.

Only true democracy with truly free and fair elections and term limits for leaders, can save our motherland. And No to the Cult of Personality!

  • Khemarak Botrey 

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