In Cambodia – social hierarchy is important

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Cambodians have a very strong sense of hierarchy within society. Parents are superior to children, teachers to students and managers to subordinates. Even in the way the Khmer language is structured: the various pronouns recognise the relationship between two people in conversation.And, as ever-faithful Wikipedia points out, there are rich traces of hierarchical or social classifications in everyday language.

The Khmer language reflects a somewhat different classification of Khmer society based on a more traditional model and characterized by differing linguistic usages (see Languages, this ch.). This classification divided Cambodian society into three broad categories: royalty and nobility, clergy, and laity. The Khmer language had—and to a lesser extent still has—partially different lexicons for each of these groups. For example, nham (to eat) was used when speaking of oneself or to those on a lower social level; pisa (to eat) was used when speaking politely of someone else; chhan (to eat) was used of Buddhist clergy, and saoy (to eat) was used of royalty.

You can see hierarchical behaviors in everyday scenes. Monks can be seen walking in rank order, highest in front and most junior at the rear.

A feature of social hierarchy in Cambodia is the “patron-client” relationship in which wealth and power trump poverty and dependence. You see this expressed on a grand scale (the Prime Minister’s patronage/power versus the public) but also on an everyday level where a village elder who is both typically older and wealthier than the people under his patronage, may have many people obligated to him in return for this or that favour.  That’s the essence of the hierarchical relationship: it isn’t held together by overt power so much as by nuanced reciprocity. This from Dr Judy Ledgerwood in her paper: Understanding Cambodia: Social Hierarchy, Patron-Client Relationships and Power.

Both sides provide goods and services to the other. The patron possesses superior power and influence and uses them to assist his clients. The clients in return provide smaller services and loyalty over an extended period of time. The relationship is complementary, with both sides benefiting. The client is protected and assured a minimum level of subsistence. The patron in turn has followers, who serve to increase his power.

The relationship between the patron and the client is a personal one. The clients are not united as a group; rather they are linked to the patron by personal obligation. This then works in a pyramid fashion, midlevel patrons know someone higher and they in turn know someone higher – up the social ladder. The only way to get something that is beyond your capacity is to attach yourself to a superior.

Where does this social stratification come from? It is thought that it originates more than 1000 years ago in the Hindu caste system, though it has been tempered by the more egalitarian Buddhist philosophy. But herein lies a spiritual dimension to the patron-client relationship. There is an inference that success and power in life reflects one’s spiritual attainment and that you are my patron not simply because you are powerful, but because you are spiritually more blessed having shown great piety in your life.

Again, one can see this linkage, quite overtly in the political theatre – and it’s not unique to Cambodia – where powerful leaders invoke religious devoutness in their various ceremonies. But the charade kind of works! A good patron must do as a good Buddhist – and be generous of spirit, and grant favours to the less fortunate. In a sense there is some social control here to ensure a measure of fairness in an otherwise unequal relationship.

But the social acceptance and institutionalization of hierarchy has a dark side as well. As my patron, you might expect me to show my humility (when asking you for a favour,) by granting you an offering. Fair enough? Though at what point does this constitute simply a bribe?

And in an increasingly complex society who are my Patrons? One hundred years ago it might have been easier to answer this. My village elder perhaps. Or the head monk at my monastery.  But today a villager must also pay respect to the village elder, the local police, quite possibly the local political part organisation, not to mention the bank.

Meanwhile these patrons are bound less by religious values, and more by the desire for more power, or greater wealth. The old rules may apply, but the game has changed.

Foreigners are often greeted with a long list of questions as Khmer try to ascertain your place in the hierarchy. Are you the President of your company? Or a low level employee? Are you a friend of the Government and the Minister in charge?

I recall Savong telling me of an incident that occurred 3 years ago. A policeman was trying to bribe him, and he wanted Savong to meet him at Police HQ, Bakong to “sort out a little matter.” According to the Policeman the District Governor was “most displeased” with Savong’s School because it wasn’t registered. (Actually it was, and Savong had the papers.)

The Policeman phrased his story as a Patron. Look, he had contacts with the Governor’s office, and for a small consideration (of several hundred dollars) he could sort this matter out.

“Why don’t we sort this matter out right now?” replied Savong cheerily. “I have the Governor himself on speed-dial.”

And he did, because he’d had genial dealings with the Governor a few months earlier. He picked up his phone.

As soon as Savong began dialling, the panicky Policeman back-pedalled and said there was no need to call and that there had been a terrible misunderstanding. No money was required, there had simply been a mix-up.

When he first told me the story I saw it as a naked example of corruption and bribery. Clear and simple. But now I see the exchange as a much more nuanced exchange, where a young cop wasn’t simply asking for a bribe – he was trying to create a dependency relationship; he was trying to elevate himself, power-wise, up above my friend.

This is one game that any NGO leader needs to be good at playing. A few years earlier the outcome of that meeting could have been quite different.

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