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Responsibility and Accountability – in Cambodia and in Khmer

By: Norbert Klein Posted: December-23-2010 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 696


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The Cambodia Daily reported on Monday, 20.12.2010, that the Municipal Tourism Department and the Ministry of Tourism had cooperated to make international tourists visiting the Wat Phnom area in Phnom Penh feel more comfortable, so they erected a number of signboards in English. Some examples were given:

  • Join of Prevent Environment Site for Brighten Charming
  • Join of Protect and Maintain National Heritage for Sustain
  • We All Joint To Protect and Maintain Historical and Culture Tourism Site for Sustain

Some people may just laugh about it and dismiss it as a completely failed effort, not realizing that a good intention – to communicate in the language that the majority of foreign tourists will understand. – went wrong.

  • Who should join whom and how, to prevent – no, to assure?! – that the environment at this site should be charming and bright?
  • How could a visitor join to protect and maintain the national heritage – which is probably under careful control and supervision by some government organization?
  • And who are the “we all” who have already joined to do what the second sentence seems to be calling for?

But it is a serious issue: public funds have been used to produce these signs at a prominent place in public view. Much more serious: the responsible officers – the deputy head of the Municipal Tourism Department, and the director of the Tourism Ministry’s Cultural Department, defended these sign:

“I will check on the sign again. Perhaps there is an error in a technical word, but that would be normal because English is not our language.”
“We just give approval of the meaning and provide criteria for standard signs to each committee who carry out the building process… Khmer people have enough ability to be responsible for translation to English.” What is obvious, is that the person who actually was responsible to implement this work, with public funds, does not have the necessary ability for this task.

The problem is also not that everybody involved in the administration of tourism and related facilities should be fluent in English. The problem is that the difference between public and overall responsibility, and technical or linguistic competence, is not seen and dealt with differently for different tasks – to determine the content of the signs – to translate the text properly – to determine the proper way to make signs – and to select where to place them. Where different skills and qualifications are required, different persons will have to be consulted. And while, for example, the translator does not need to know how to make signs, the different people involved will have to consult each other and to cooperate.

But now the question remains: Will the signs with these ridiculously wrong sentences remain as public proof that the officials responsible for this did not employ professional advice? Are they accountable to anyone for what they performed correctly, and for the mistakes they made?

This case is only a minor problem, compared to others – others where the same analysis might have been applied, separating a complex issue into a sequence of many different inter-linking simpler steps, where different people with different skills are responsible for their fields.

The government came to an astoundingly speedy conclusion that nobody will be held accountable for the disaster at the Koh Pich bridge which killed 351 people. Looking at the experience in other countries – to take examples from very different cultures, like Germany and Japan – it is unthinkable that a decision would be taken there, like the one that was taken in Cambodia.

How can there be learning for the future without professional analysis of the past? It has now been announced that there will be two more bridges built to connect Koh Pich Island with Phnom Penh proper, and they will not be suspension bridges which can swing. But some experts say already: This will basically not avoid another stampede, if there is no proper crowd control. The stampede in Germany in July was clearly the result of the fact that agreed upon crowd control procedures were not followed.

Some information and opinion collected after the disaster is discouraging.

The head of the Cambodia Defenders Project, Mr Sok Sam Oeun, said that the notion that a government is accountable to the people is generally lacking in Cambodia. “They [the people] do not think they have the right” to ask. This situation is also confirmed by a UNDP study over a period of one year, carried out under the guidance of an adviser, Mr. Rezaul Karim: “In a nutshell,… the people did not understand very well the meaning of accountability,” and he thinks that this is partly due to the fact that the English word “accountability” has no established equivalent in traditional Khmer word usage.

Mr. Moen Chhean Nariddh, the director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, took this linguistic question up in The Cambodia Daily on 2.12.2010, saying that it is often translated into Khmer, derived from “accounting” as “keak’neak’ney’ but he adds that “not many ordinary Cambodians would understand what the word means except for people who work in the governance and development fields. They might think it is just an academic term.”

But then he proceeds to a synonym of the word “accountability,” that is “responsibility” – to be responsible is not rendered by a Sanskrit/Pali derivative which is difficult to understand, but by simple words, meaning “totuol’koh’trov” – “to accept wrong or right” in everyday language, or, rendered as a nominal expression, also used for accountability: “somnuol’koh’trov” – the acceptance or statement of what it wrong and what is right.

The spokesperson of the Council of Ministers, Mr. Phay Siphan, is quoted to also defend the practice of not holding individual government officers responsible for what happened during the stampede on the Koh Pich bridge – saying that this practice is part of the country’s culture.

One would like to know more in detail: Nobody can say what was wrong and what was right?

Norbert KLEIN

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 696 – Wednesday, 22.12.2010
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror is a daily comprehensive summary and translation of the major Khmer language press - More about The Mirror


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