The abuse of clichés regarding Cambodia


What do we call a cliché? It is an expression repeated in the same terms very often to the point of becoming a banal truth accepted by all and therefore undisputable.

The press systematically hostile to Cambodia – essentially the Western press – makes abundant use of clichés. Its goal is to pass off tendentious information as indisputable truths. We will provide several examples and demonstrate to what extent these are unilateral assertions intended to impose a negative image of Cambodia.

The oldest of the clichés concerns Samdech Hun Sen whose name was, for more than forty years, automatically followed by the words “former Khmer Rouge” when “officer” or ” KR leader” was sometimes added. This was of course a matter of assimilating the Cambodian leader to the killers of Pol Pot. However, no serious historian – even those who have been the most critical of the policies led by Mr. Hun Sen – has ever maintained that he was ever involved in the crimes of Democratic Kampuchea. During the 1980s, when Mr. Hun Sen was the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the American secret services spent years finding reasons to smear him. And they found nothing. Not even enough to invent a fake criminal.

Three examples illustrate the extent to which, when it comes to Cambodia, the parable of the mote and the beam applies to the Western press.

First, another cliché applied to Samdech Hun Sen was to emphasize his longevity at the head of the Cambodian government (38 years). First, they forget that when he became Prime Minister in January 1985, he was the youngest head of government in the world. It is also forgotten that Mr. Hun Sen exercised responsibilities under three different regimes: the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (until 1989), the State of Cambodia (until 1993) and the Kingdom of Cambodia (since 1993). Above all, it is to forget that he is by far not the only political leader to have held high responsibilities for several decades. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore, was Prime Minister from 1955 to 1990, and then Senior Minister and Minister Mentor until 2011. A total of 52 years! This longevity was never criticized by those who spit on Mr. Hun Sen. Other leaders have also had exceptional longevity without ever arousing the hostile moods of an international press accustomed to double standards: Mohamad Mahathir, Malaysia (24 years), Jawaharlal Nehru, India (16 years), Indira Gandhi, India (15 years), Konrad Adenauer, Germany (14 years), Benyamin Netanyahu, Israel (14 years to date) …

The second example concerns the political system of Cambodia which is that of a constitutional monarchy. But there are foreign observers who regularly deplore – another cliché – that HM the King has no power. It is forgetting or, rather, pretending to forget that as in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, or the United Kingdom, according to the principals of public law, “the King reigns and does not govern”. But, nevertheless, representatives of these countries do not miss any opportunity to deplore the lack of power of the King of Cambodia. What is the constitutional feature in their own country should see different treatment in Cambodia.

A third cliché emerged when it became certain that HE Dr. Hun Manet would succeed his father as head of the government of Cambodia. It has become a habit to talk about nepotism, or even “monarchical drift”. As if the so-called democratic models had never seen sons or daughters succeed their fathers. Isn’t George Walker Bush, president of the USA from 2001 to 2009, the son of George Herbert Bush, president from 1989 to 1993? In India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister, was none other than the daughter of a previous Prime Minister, the famous Jawaharlal Nehru. Isn’t the current Prime Minister of Singapore, HE Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, the son of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew? And, in many European countries, how many political figures are there who have extended their father’s commitment? To take only Belgium, the Eyskens, father and son, were Prime Minister, and the current Belgian Prime Minister is none other than the son of a prominent Flemish politician of Belgium. The current President of the European Council is pursuing a brilliant political career like his father. Examples abound in Europe which are never the subject of the harsh remarks made when it comes to Cambodia. Why does what is accepted in the West become open to criticism when it comes to Cambodia?

After being treated during the eighties of the past century as a “vassal state” of Vietnam, then during the nineties as a “state sold” to Thailand, for the past ten years, Cambodia has been qualified as a “client state” of China. These clichés, repeated tirelessly, are only intended, of course, to give Cambodia a negative image whose leaders are sold to the power of the moment. Of course, a Western press will never remind us that “without the Vietnamese, all the Cambodians would have died”, as SM Norodom Sihanouk recognized in 1991.A Western press will never recognize the overwhelming responsibility of rich countries in the isolation of the survivors of the Pol Pot regime who could only count on help from Vietnam to prevent the return of Pol Pot to power. Western journalists paid to denigrate Cambodia will never emphasize what Cambodia owes to the countries that participated in its reconstruction and today in its development. Because these countries are mainly in Asia.

All these clichés reflect at best a mediocre level of information, at worst a systematic desire for denigration. They provide, from a press that is fertile when it comes to giving lessons, the most mediocre examples of what journalism is.

by Dr. Raoul M. Jennar