Debate on Changing society – Changing values? Reflections on Cambodia

On Wednesday, December 3, Heinrich-Böll Foundation organized a public debate on the current issue "Changing society - Changing values? Reflections on Cambodia" in the Meta House.

The event was launched with a presentation of a short film "Justice done" that was produced at this year’s Heinrich-Böll conference “Justice done? – The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal after the judgment of case 002/01” in order to give an impression of the work of Heinrich-Böll Foundation.

After the country director Ali Al-Nasani had greeted the guests, many of them representatives from NGOs, ministries and researchers, moderator Ben Rutledge from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), led through the discussions and introduced the keynote speaker Dr. Markus Karbaum, a German political analyst and author who is an expert on Cambodia and has been studying political and social development in Cambodia for more than 12 years. Dr. Karbaum opened the debate by giving a speech on "The dynamics of social change in Cambodia: moving away from traditionalism?".

Drawing from his research project's preliminary results he presented 4 causes of social change in Cambodia: 

  1. Increased access to information through education, media consumption and connectivity among the Khmer.
  2. The dynamics within Cambodia’s demography: Young people are the majority and scrutinize the traditional thinking of their parents and grandparents 
  3. Geographic mobility takes people beyond their villages, communes, and districts – in particular important for rural Cambodians who are about 75% of the whole population.
  4. The economic rebound causes new desiderata beyond basic needs. 

He further provided inside at six core levels in which change – not yet a change of values – in Cambodia are most likely. Obtaining an overall view on the levels and indicators of social change in Cambodia Dr. Karbaum analyzed trends towards modern patterns in the Cambodian society. 

As far as the level of religion is concerned, Dr. Karbaum pointed out that Buddhism, the state religion in Cambodia, is experiencing a second rebirth as it is closely connected with the average people instead of the elites. However, though there is a clear morality and an awareness of how Buddhism can contribute to the social development beyond pure rituals and liturgy there seems to be no clear evidence about a possible change of religious values so far. 

When it comes to the social micro-level, the family continues to be of great importance to Cambodians because, even in the darkest hour of history the family operated as the only backbone and served as a safe haven for the individual. Unlike the family as a place of security, he recognized a massive lack of trust within the Cambodian society itself, which is due to historical experiences. Due to these circumstances Dr. Karbaum did not expect a major change in family values unless the political environment changes; he predicted that families in Cambodia will retain their significance for the next twenty years. 

On the social meso-level he specifically focused on the role of women in Cambodia and found evidence that there is an ongoing emancipation of Cambodian women, as they increasingly engage on the political level or take responsible roles within civil society organizations. Nevertheless, it has also become clear that women in Cambodia are still facing a number of challenges and the country continues to be far from reaching gender equality. 

On the social macro-level Dr. Karbaum laid out the deeply fixed hierarchies in Cambodian society which can be observed throughout any other sphere of Cambodian life. As many Khmer depend on this structure for their self-image and the classification of their position in society, Dr. Karbaum declared that he is far away from being able to detect a change of values here. 

With regard to economic values, he mentioned the significance of religious belief in rebirth and the corresponding fate reflection. Although he acknowledged that there is a minority with a notion of social responsibility in civil society organizations, he emphasized that there is almost no social responsibility from the state and that most people exhibit huge materialistic and status-orientated attitudes and behavior, irrespective of being rich or poor. 

Analyzing political values, Dr. Karbaum focused on the question whether there are democratic values within this war-torn Cambodian society. As far as his interview results are concerned there is a concept for liberal democracy and participation in Cambodian society. Equally important is the distinct majority that is of the opinion that the economic development is definitely important or even somewhat more important than democracy. It came as a surprise to him that democratic values are not as stable as one might have hoped.

Given these facts it may not be the case that Cambodia is a modern country at this point but nevertheless, Dr. Karbaum expected slight changes towards modern attitudes and behaviour. He closed his speech by underlining that most likely only political leaders who are able to incorporate changes into their policies will be successful in Cambodia.

Following this presentation, comments and remarks were given by Ms. Sok Panha from Heinrich-Böll Foundation’s partner organization Banteay Srei. 

Sharing her own work experiences of empowering vulnerable women to improve their political, economic and psycho-social situation, she called for more women as role models on a political basis as well as representation and inclusion in general leadership positions. 

While she acknowledged the importance of exchanges and dialogue on political topics, themes and opinion through increased access to information, such as Facebook for example, as a major cause of social change she also raised the question whether international organizations, international engagement, foreign aid and trade can also contribute as factors of social change in Cambodia. 

In the same way as Dr. Karbaum criticized government misconducts, Ms. Panha raised awareness that the government needs to work on the absence of relevant resources and to end the culture of impunity in Cambodia. 

Thereafter the audience engaged into a vital debate on suggested themes of social change in Cambodia or the lack thereof! Discussions shifted towards further reasons for the lack of trust within Cambodian society, a current movement towards political change, the politicization of Buddhism, and the impact of events in 2013 for values and attitudes in Cambodian society.

Dr. Karbaum denied different result for levels and their indicators if the data were divided by age. There was no dramatically evidence that the younger Cambodian generation had an opposed perception. 

Finally, after two hours of interesting presentation, remarks, comments, and questions Ben Rutledge closed the forum, thanking all the participants for their great interest and contribution to the reflection on the change of social norms and values in Cambodia.