The Meanderthals

Words of hope from the streets of Phnom Penh

Hailed by a tuk tuk driver as I waited outside his hotel for our new friend Kevin to join me for a bike ride into the provinces, I used my favorite strategy to turn away Cambodians’ attempts to sell me something: I spoke Khmer to him.

Greeting him informally, I asked how he was and chatted for a bit.

I proceeded to tell him I was really happy today.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because Lok Barack Obama won the election in America,” I responded.

“I know,” he said. “I was watching it all day on TV.”

And here’s where things got interesting.

The guy went on about his hopes for Obama when he visits this tiny country in a couple of weeks. His plea echoed the sentiments of people throughout this nation of 15 million people to President Obama: Please help us.

He railed against his government, shaking his head and lamenting the fact that his people suffer and die while their land is stolen, their futures stunted and their families bullied.

“The government gives us $5 to vote on election day and my people take it and don’t question,” he griped. “I tell them, this is today. What about tomorrow? Will the government care about you tomorrow?”

“I hope Mr. Obama comes here and makes Hun Sen (Cambodian Prime Minister) take care care of his people. Kick him out if he has to.”

His bravado grew as we spoke, having abandoned speaking Khmer and employing flawless English. He had spent the morning watching US election results and echoed the sentiments I’ve heard from Cambodians everywhere: Mr. Obama is a ray of hope for us. Their eyes gleam when they speak his name, bestowing an awesome aura to a man with the world’s most difficult job before him.

I asked him if he was afraid to speak like this in public. Here, people routinely disappear – either into the jails or worse – for speaking out against the government, which wields the threat of defamation suits as a sizable club to silence public unrest.

“When I speak to my people, yes, but not to someone like you,” he said, acknowledging that there are spies everywhere in this country.

This election has left me humbled once again.

Warmed by the glow of a victory by my preferred candidate, but more importantly bolstered by the power of one person’s vote and by the knowledge that so many made the effort to participate. I have seen the respect in the eyes of many here who yearn for similar opportunities…to speak out and exchange ideas, to disagree – sometimes even strongly – and not be ruthlessly punished for it.

To vote, and to be counted.

For most, simply to matter.

I see the recognition in their eyes that this victory was not easy for a man they may love and respect more than I do, and they acknowledge his victory’s significance. For America. For the world. For Cambodia. For what is right, fair and just.

This isn’t a partisan choice on their part but clearly a visceral identification with the plight of a man who few decades ago wouldn’t have made it past the first round at the convention.

My new tuk tuk driver buddy has high hopes for Obama’s visit here, and big expectations on what he can deliver in talks with government officials on this trip. I caution him, explaining that US policy is likely not to dictate policy but to encourage change, reward improvement and hopefully help Cambodian people perform their own repairs on a political system very much in need of an overhaul.

He threw his arm around me and called me brother. Cambodians do this all the time to one another, but as a sweaty middle aged foreigner standing in the middle of a hot street in the middle of Phnom Penh with his own arm around a slight Cambodian working class guy, I took it for the intended compliment.

As one of the truly blessed, I bask in this moment. As an American, as an expat living life as I choose in my adoptive home, and as a member of a global community which – together – simply wishes, works and struggles for something better, more, and just.

I sense a continued wave of the US luster returning, mindful that this victory brings hope to all shores, to all people and to all causes.

And so the work begins anew.

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