Buddhist Democracy, Cambodian Style – Washington Times

Buddhist Democracy, Cambodian Style - Washington Times

In November 2022, President Joe Biden visited Cambodia to attend the 40th and 41st Summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Related Summits, joined by leaders from 28 other countries and international institutions. In May last year, the US-ASEAN Special Summit was held in Washington, D.C., for the first time when Cambodia was the rotating Chair of ASEAN.

These events are historical milestones for Cambodia, which has emerged victoriously from its darkest era — the 1975-1979 genocidal period of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed almost 3 million Cambodians which was nearly one-third of the population.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the successful Win-Win Strategy that Prime Minister Hun Sen used to usher in a much-loved peace in Cambodia in 1999. Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, the country has transformed itself, economically and politically, into an active player in regional and global arenas, promoting peace, multilateralism, the rule of law and International cooperation becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia.

International financial investment was necessary, and Cambodians are grateful. But equally important was the prudent use of these funds for the public good. Even if investments were doubled, had the money been misused by poor planning or unbridled corruption, then development would have been stymied.

But it was not. Instead, Cambodia’s economy grew at an average annual rate of 7.7% between 1998 and 2019, making it one of the fastest growing economies. More recently, following the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, this economy continued to recover in 2022, with real growth accelerating to 5.2% according to the World Bank.

On July 23, national elections will be held in Cambodia. These are the seventh general elections held in Cambodia since 1993 when democracy was restored. Compared to neighboring countries in Asia, Cambodian elections have several admirable qualities. First, they have been held on a regular, planned basis. There are no snap elections. Second, international election observers are welcomed. This year there were 425 international election observers from 65 nations, including ten former and current Heads of State. The observers needed to follow the code of conduct given by the National Election Committee, but otherwise, their movements are unrestricted. In addition, 18 political parties participated in the election.

Cambodia is a liberal democracy. It upholds the freedom of the people and their constitutionally guaranteed rights without jeopardizing the country’s security and stability. It promotes institutional reforms and capacity building for policymakers to serve the needs and welfare of the populace. As a result, Cambodia has effectively maintained peace, political stability, security, and social order for the last 30 years.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a Buddhist, has embraced Buddhist democracy, emphasizing equality, inclusivity, and cooperation with other religions. Buddhism has influenced his political views since he was 13 years old. Under Khmer Rouge, Buddhism was completely extinguished, and all forms of religious practice were banned. Before that, Prime Minister Hun Sen spent nearly five years living at a Buddhist pagoda, thereby giving him ample exposure to Buddha’s teachings. The prime minister follows pragmatism and favors a centric democratic system, straddling the lines of extreme capitalism and socialism. Social protection must coexist with a free-market economy, and government intervention is necessary to ensure that growth benefits are distributed equitably and justly.

Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen was granted the honorary title of “Patron of the World Fellowship of Buddhists” in May of this year by the World Fellowship of Buddhists in recognition of his lifelong commitment to peace and adherence to Buddha’s teachings. In late June 2023, His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni received the honorary title “Royal Patron of the World Fellowship of Buddhists” at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

Meanwhile, His Excellency Dr. Hun Manet, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Samdech Techo Youth Volunteer Doctor Association (TYDA), was awarded the title “Senior Advisor to the World Fellowship of Buddhists” in recognition of his efforts in civic education in Buddhist morality and ethics, peacebuilding, and saving lives during the COVID-19 pandemic by mobilizing medical personnel and providing free healthcare to people in Cambodia.

Buddhist compassion was demonstrated when Cambodia responded to a desperate situation at the beginning of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2020, the Holland America MS Westerdam cruise ship was stuck at sea for about two weeks after several countries refused its request to dock at their ports. Prime Minister Hun Sen thought first about the safety and security of the passengers and crew members. He allowed 2,257 individuals aboard the ship to enter the port at Sihanoukville and then assisted in their return to their home countries.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has embraced pragmatism throughout his personal life and profession. He risked his life to liberate the Cambodian people from the genocidal regime and achieved peaceful national reconciliation. He secured transformative growth and continuous development of Cambodia, putting Cambodia back on the global stage. Equally important, he helped restore the Cambodian monarchy and revive Buddhism, alongside the busy nation-building programs. The post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country and reintegration of Cambodia into regional and global multilateral arenas, allowed freedom and democratic values to thrive. His well-known Buddhism-inspired Win-Win Policy shines and has provided a leadership lesson in peacebuilding.

Under his leadership, he strengthened governance through many fruitful reforms, thus giving a new and renewed impetus to the tenets of democracy, the rule of law, justice, social and economic development, and equal opportunity for the Cambodian people and beyond. Most remarkably, he showed that peace can be achieved through open, honest, and inclusive negotiations. This never-give-up initiative that brought peace to Cambodia is now building relationships of trust internationally. As a result, Cambodia is known not only as an “Island of Peace in the Mekong,” but also, “A Small Country with a Big Heart.”

Cambodia is the only Buddhist-majority nation where Buddhism is the national religion. Nevertheless, compared to countries in the Mekong region religious freedom is a model to be replicated. As a result, all religions respect each other and interact easily.

Due to the shared values of Buddhism, the late Prince Norodom Sihanouk, while living in exile, and Prime Minister Hun Sen met each other in the 1980s. Negotiations to end the civil war and achieve national unity for the country began. On October 23, 1991, the Paris Peace Agreements were signed, thanks to their efforts and those of the international community. This was followed by the establishment of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to administer the first general elections in 1993, which led to the formation of the coalition government.

After the UNTC’s mandate ended in 1993, the peace and reconciliation process continued. At that time, the Khmer Rouge remnants were boycotting the 1993 elections and turned down the proposal for its reintegration into the national army. But by 1996, Prime Minister Hun Sen began his well-known Win-Win Policy. This effective war-ending strategy put no one in harm. It guaranteed the security and protection of all Khmer Rouge forces and their families and integrated them into a one-government system. Thus was the merit of the Win-Win Strategy, which was built on the ethics of Buddhism’s middle path and compassion.

By putting Buddhist values and people-centered development at the forefront, Cambodia achieved peace in late 1998. This ended decades of civil war and paved the way for peace in the Mekong region and ASEAN to a greater extent. Without peace in Cambodia, there would not be peace in the Mekong region and ASEAN. In this way, Cambodia shared its peace dividends with the region and world.

Furthermore, to provide “justice to the dead and peace to the survivors,” Cambodia established the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in 2006. Also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the ECCC was supported by the UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials (UNAKRT). Under this Cambodian judiciary, senior Khmer Rouge leaders were brought to trial. The process allowed the nation to be healed in a Buddhist way, all the while ensuring justice under international and national laws. The ECCC concluded its work and closed in December 2022.

Through this judicial mechanism, peace and justice were delivered, revenge was prevented, and the way for Cambodian national development and global integration was ensured. Moreover, the success of the ECCC presented an important window of education to the younger generations and a model of peacebuilding for the world.

Peace in Cambodia has allowed the country to give back to international efforts under the umbrella of the UN Peacekeeping Operations. Since its first mission in 2006, over 8,000 Cambodian soldiers have been dispatched on UN peacekeeping missions and landmine-clearing operations in nine countries.

Cambodia has also shared its peacebuilding experience with the Mekong and the Asia-Pacific regions. In 2022, Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed the initiative “Two States Toward One Nation: One Peninsula, One People, One Culture,” based on the values of Buddhism for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

In sum, Buddhist democracy in Cambodia has had an immense impact on the sociocultural domains and the governance of the state and public affairs, including politics, economy, and foreign policy. It is a robust foundation for Cambodia’s ongoing national development for greater peace, justice, harmony, and prosperity for the Cambodian people and beyond.

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