Sunday, November 25, 2012

Give our kids a better deal 
Youk Chhang, Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia
By: Youk Chhang
The great matters of high politics, statecraft, and grand strategy are built on mountains of the mundane.  Tedious processions of technocratic exchanges, diplomatic correspondence, and meetings working out each and every detail of a significant matter must precede any grand breakthrough between countries.  But once all of the details are worked out, and each issue and point of contention or agreement is essentialized, there is the equally important matter of translating the mountains of the mundane into the profound.  Every great matter in high politics demands some thought-provoking images, sound-bytes, or grand symbol to convey the matter in a way that touches the heart of an issue and speaks to the soul. Well-scripted meetings followed by lofty speeches in ornately decorated conference centers hold incredible value in the grand march toward greater peace, security, cooperation, and human rights. But lofty speeches need a beautiful backdrop; grand breakthroughs beg for a dramatic theme; and inspiring visits by foreign leaders cry out for a symbolic gesture that translates the great matters of politics and statecraft into something that can be remembered for all history.

President Barak Obama’s trip to Cambodia was certainly historic.  He was the first sitting United States President to come to Cambodia, and Cambodians eagerly awaited his arrival.  But there was something that was profoundly missing in this historic moment. 

In Thailand, President Obama met the King and was greeted by religious leaders at Wat Pho. He met the Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who hosted an official dinner.  They gave press conferences and reviewed honour guards.  In Burma, he was met by thousands of Burmese citizens lining the streets.  He met the most charming human rights leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, at her lakeside villa.  They too gave inspiring, even if tempered, speeches.  He spoke at Yangon University, a symbolic gesture to Myanmar’s dramatic turn to democracy.

In Cambodia, however, with little fanfare, the President’s motorcade drove through empty streets. There was no honour guard or charming women to welcome his arrival.  The President’s visit was buried in the mundane with little pomp or flare.  I regret that the President never saw Angkor Wat. 

It is perhaps a fitting reminder that the President’s visit, while highly anticipated, was never meant to be a grand breakthrough or an inspiring gesture of friendship renewed.  The visit was a meeting for ASEAN and not Cambodia; and in the context of Cambodia, the trip was never intended to be ground-breaking, inspiring, or profound. The meeting was a courteous discussion on important matters indeed, but the lack of a historic backdrop, theme, or symbolic gesture shows that Cambodia still has far to go.

But political themes aside, I lament the fact that the President’s visit did not afford a better window into the ageless beauty of Cambodian culture. Government leaders must follow tight agendas, and attention must go to the task at hand.  But Cambodia is a beautiful country, and I hope President Obama was able to sense this beauty. I also hope that one day he will return with his family to see Angkor Wat. 

Like Thailand and Myanmar, Cambodia is a sentimental country at heart, and I hope the President sees this in the idyllic painting he stood in front of with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Resorting to such a backdrop, in place of Angkor Wat, is a telling reminder that Cambodia’s glory continues to be ageless, even if the vision for the future is immature.

Youk Chhang is Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia


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