Indian democracy must inspire South East Asian countries!
Is India doing enough?
Are we waking up to our Asian fraternity?

Blog-Angkor-Wat-CambodiaInside India, we have our own problems, yes. But outside India, the world looks at us as a great democracy.Are we,Indians doing enough to realise our own past contributions to the rise of Asia in the remote past and in later years when Indians migrated as labour to the various countries,from Singapore to Malaysia to even other South East Asian neighbours,Burma and even Vietnam and Cambodia.

Rubber plantations,tin mines,why,even coffee and rice and other plantation crops all absorbed so much of migrant labour.At the Bangkok airport we met an Indian entrepreneur,a youngman from Kerala who said,he was on his way to an interior rural area to explore setting up a rubber factory!That was nice to hear.There is now a new resurgence of new investments in these countries.

In Cambodia,China had become the largest investor with one billion dollar aid pledge.In Cambodia foreign aid becomes a big part of its budget.So too others,other donors,South Koreans are now a big presence in Cambodia,as investors and tourists.
Indians?Hardly,they had seen Indian visitors in either the city, Phnom Penh or in Siem Reap,the name of the town adjacent to historic AngkorWat.

Anyway, we were the only Indians without traditional dress and outlook. So too we could easily relate to the traditional reception with an Indian namaskar from the people wherever we went and also we appreciated many of the Indian style habits and practices in Cambodia.

We also saw how much the Cambodians like to retain their traditions.They display their traditional dances,the dances of apsaras,as they all,in every hotel and restaurant to showcase their traditional culture. They played their traditional musical instruments in our hotel lobby and also in the royal palace yard. They played their traditional musical drums and other instruments.Why,even in the city’s central “night markets”the traditional musical drums were played for the delight of the visitors.
Cambodia,culturally rich and inspiring country and society!

Cambodia, a great country with a great past!

Today’s Cambodia has enough energy and dynamism that could inspire people in the rest of South East Asia, may be even in the outside world.We seem to be living in a very dynamic world scenario. Whereever we travel we see this upsurge of peoples’ hopes and aspirations and dreams for their future.If there was a time when the thoughts of one world were so vibrant it was never yesterday.It is today!

When we travelled recently to Cambodia,what struck us so starkly everywhere, first in Thailand and then in Cambodia was the tumult and tension and the uncertainty and the fears and  hopes for a better future.There were protests inThailand and we were not sure how our travel plans would turn out.So too in Phnom Penh,the capital of Cambodia where there was already some tension and unspoken uncertainty in the air.

We left Bangalore by 1am and by the early morning by 6 we were in Bangkok.At the next flight bound for Phnom Penh. We arrived by 9 am and once in the town; we found there was some tension already in the environment.Once we drove through the streets of Phnom Penh,we saw the riot police,they call it military police amassed at the centre of the town and then only we realised that there were protests here too!

Thailand faces trouble from protestors,led by a former Deputy Prime Minister to the rule of the current Prime Minister,the youthful lady, Yinglak Shinawatra.However,the lady PM seems determined to hold on as she was duly elected.Thailand,as everyone knows,is a monarchy and the monarch is much revered.So,the prosperous 11,000 million strong Bangokians and also the military and the prosperous middle class seem to be opposed to the ruling party which is supported by the rural and poor voters.

In Cambodia, it is a case of a different order.

There is the long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is there for some 25 or 28 years!Of course he is elected but his rule has a long history.

Just when we were in Phnom Penh,there was this news item.The ruling party is called Cambodian People’s Party which won the elections in July and yet the government didn’t declare the results!The Opposition party,called National Rescue Party led by leadersSam Rainsy and Kem Sukha were called to the court and they were to appear in the court that day.

There is the election commission,there is the election watchdog,and there is UN envoy for human rights in Cambodia etc.There is press freedom and also agitation,in fact two agitations were going on.One by teachers and another by garment workers.
Cambodia exports 4 billion worth of garments to the USA and other countries, very much like Bangladesh. There are day to day politics and agitations on one side and on the other side, Cambodia inspires by its history,culture and the day to day encounters with people and places.

Oh,what politeness,the average Cambodian citizens,the youngmen and women display!

For Indians in particular,it is an enduring source of pride and fulfilment that the Cambodian people are deeply affected by India’s age-old history and culture,the ancient Indian epics,the language,Sanskrit that you see the Hinduism and Buddhist imprint in the way they bow and fold their hands and greet you with a namaskar everywhere! At the hotel reception desk,at the airport at the street corners, offices, there is always a smile and a namaskar with folded arms and an invariable bow that captivates you and deeply moves you.

This was the best part of our journey,the excellent public face of Cambodia and its imprint in steep traditions.Of course,I have much to say on the incomparable historic Angkor Wat,the world archeological heritage site, the UNESCO designated site and for visiting of which only we undertook this journey.In fact,this was ahistoric journey for us.

As for me in particular,there were times when I used to wonder where the Angkor Wat lay and whether it was human and is it possible one day to visit the site.I never imagined this opportunity would come my way.

Thanks to the family’sdecision,we undertook this journey of pilgrimage,yes,it was a pilgrimage and it is not given to everyone to have such historic site visited so suddenly and so easily too!

Thanks to modern transportation revolution,the civil aviation industry is so developed now, that it is possible to travel to any remote places these days.
But then,Angkor Wat is some 300 kms away from the capital of Cambodia!So,you have to undertake a separate land journey from Phnom Penh.We hired an exclusive vehicle, a luxury van to drive us all the way through the country roads of Cambodia.It took us three hoursone way and so we stayed for two nights at Angkor Wat,the temple town is called as Siem Reap;the temple proper is called Angkor Wat.About the temple and the nearby temple town we would write separately.

So,we can say in a sense that we had almost toured the whole country of Cambodia and we almost travelled from one end of the country on the Western side where Thailand liesand to the eastern end beyond which lies Vietnam.On the north lies Laos.We found out very soon that it is possible that you can in fact travel overland from one country to another either by land,by cars and buses or on boats through the mighty Mekong River that flows through the entire South East Asiancountries.Now some statistics and abrief history,very briefly!

There are some 10 countries in this geography.The biggest economy is of course Indonesia.The most developed stock market is of course located in Singapore.Economically and industrially developed seems to be Thailand and also the most developed airport.Bangkok airport ranks along with Hong Kong and Heathrow, say observes.

The ten countries are Burma,Thailand,Cambodia,Vietnam,Hong Kong, Laos, Philippines and Malaysia and Singapore and Brunei.

The richest absolute monarch is the Sultan of Brunei,of course.He owns 7000 automobiles,so many Rolls and other good things of life.The richest common man,common citizen in South East Asia is Dhanin, worth 14 US billion from Thailand. There are other VIPs from the region listed in the Forbes, ASEAN:Association of South East Asian nations.This is exclusive to develop the region economically.The big countries like China and India are not members.So too the USA.But as strategic partners these countries have some form of association. The recently held Asian summit in Bali,Indonesia, saw Indian Prime Minister and Chinese leaders and Americans participating.

There have been lots of activities,new investments etc. There are vast building projects.Our own Cambodian National Highway that led us from the capital to Angkor Wat was being expanded,there were diggings almost the whole stretch and though we experienced much discomfort, it was great joy to see that the poor and impoverished rural Cambodian people,the villagers and peasant all through the region would stand to benefit and stand up in a brave new world in the near future!So, we could see that the whole of South East Asian nations are engaged in this new endeavour of uniting to grow,grow into a war-less,peace striving environment and there are so many indicators to raise the expectations and targets like per capita incomes,school enrolments,health and other HDI points.

Everywhere we could see by our own eyes the schools are all neatly built and maintained very cleanly.The high schools are so neat and so too the primary schools.
Another phenomenon that caught my eyes was the sight of young boys and more girls on the cycles.May be there is free cycle distribution subsidy in operation in Cambodia. It is welcome. If not, please introduce the same very soon,expand it.Midday meals and free cycles had enabled Indian schools to enroll more girl children.This girl child-centric revolution is on in Cambodia.We could see the small girls on the cycles at almost all time of the day!

Politics in the region
Yes,in economics and trade,there are some positive developments.
These countries are becoming low-cost manufacturing hubs for low-tech garment making to new markets for low cost other products and services. China’s labour costs,wages are rising and so there are opportunities for people from these countries to get jobs by new investments that are flowing now from even China.For instance we are told that Intel,the US IT giant had built a one-billion factory.So too others.But the political side is not so rosy.

First the South China Sea waters is now emerging a new disputed topic.190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves estimate in the disputed South China sea.And countries such as Malaysia,Philippines, Vietnam and even Brunei have territorial claims!

So,this would be the underlying disputes and tensions in the region in the years to come. And then,there is the Cambodian political history itself is a very tragic one, if we see the long reign of the late,much-loved king,Prince Norodom Sihanouk who was the helm of Cambodian politics,both on the throne and off the throne,installed and deposed,kept a prisoner himself within his palace when the Hitler-like Pol Pot held sway.

If you ask in Cambodia what to see as tourist spots one word invariably crop up. That is the infamous “Killing Fields”.This word had become so notorious,thanks to a film also in that name.

So,one of the first things we did in Phnom Penh were the two torture chambers.One within the city itself and the other,the main center is some 15 kms away outside the city.I avoid describing the spots any further.May be some other time.

The really worrisome political aspect of the Cambodia country is that it never had had a really admirable leader as in other countries.Of course,the leaders of some of the countries have become idols and icons like in Myanmar,Hoh Chi Min,as in Indonesia or Singapore.

Even in Thailand we have dynamic figures.In spite of so much influence Prince Norodom Sihanouk did so much for his country,his long career earned him so much goodwill and very influential friends all over the world,if we look at his long career,we are left with a sense of sadness and much disappointment. How can he lead a life of great ease and comforts?I don’t want to hurt the sentiments of the ordinary Cambodians who seem to be all innocent of these big questions or simply unconcerned.

But the fact remains what politics,political culture of total grip of the ruling party which has over the entire society and society,the ruling party,namely,the Cambodian People’s Party is so entrenched,it is said that the party leaders have strengthened their grip by marrying within their own close-knit families so that the power remains within a narrow circle of party fanatics.Very much like the dynastic politics we see in the Indian parties,the Congress and other regional parties today have done this dynastic politics so blatantly,so too in the relatively backward society of Cambodia it is not democratic politics as we want or as it prevails even in neighbouring Thailand where with all its protests and demands for undemocratic rule,there is a well-established ruling party and opposition parties.

In Cambodia,the Opposition party leaderSam Rainsy had been in exile to avoid prosecution!He had been slapped with defamation.Again very much in some Indian states?

Also, there is some left-over legacy from the Pol Pot years and also very longer legacy of the old royal rule under the redoubtable Prince Norodom Sihanouk.The present king is also playing a role.In the Constitution,it is a constitutional monarchy but the legacy of the Norodom Sihanoukis so heavy and it is this legacy that led to Cambodia losing its otherwise unique cultural and diplomatic relations so long cultivated by the late King.

We very much appreciated his legacy as we went through his royal palace and saw his glorious years.But somehow the disappointing feeling lingers after seeing the great glory of Cambodia,the ever-lasting,ever-glorious AngkorWat!About which in the next issue!

South East Asia is home to 620 million people ie.8% of the world’s population.The four biggest economies are:Indonesia,Malaysia,Thailand and Singapore.China is the biggest trading partner.

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