Despite the rather short distance between our countries, I had not known much about Cambodia except the fact that they have Angkor Wat and have suffered from the genocide during the reign of Khmer Rouge until I met with young people from Cambodia on a program called Young Southeast Asia Leadership Initiative (YSEALI). There are young people from five ASEAN countries namely Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam but I find Cambodia culturally close with my country, Myanmar in an exclusive way.
I was lucky enough to have a Cambodian who shares the same interest with me in the region’s politics, ASEAN’s future and cultural factors as my roommate while we were staying at a dorm during the program, to begin with. As soon as we entered into the common room (but we have individual bedrooms), Vathna told me he and his friends discuss every day if Myanmar (also known as Burma) would get ahead of Cambodia in the economic development because Myanmar has been doing democratic reforms since 2010. I answered I wish.
Later, I found out the striking similarities between our countries through the conversations we have had during the program. The similarities I learned have debunked the myth that the issues my country has been facing are incongruous with what is happening in its neighboring countries. Indeed, the two countries are bound to each other through religions, languages, political situations and so on. The history has all the roots.
Although the two countries are separated by Thailand now on the map, it is not the case centuries ago in the era of ancient kings. The kingdoms of Mon and Khmer were next to each other and are categorized as Mon-Khmer group by the anthropologists and linguistics. Mon are one of the eight major races in Myanmar and at times in history, they have established the empires throughout what was now lower Myanmar and Thailand. As a result, Burmese kingdom inherited the elements of Mon culture like clothing which are now central parts of our lifestyles and religion, Theravada Buddhism.
The language is an interesting topic for us. The grandmother on my father’s side is half Mon but she cannot speak the language. Still because of her, Mon people and their language and kingdoms are familiar subjects to me. I used to think Burmese and Mon are related because there are a lot of Burmese words that are derived from the Mon language. But Cambodian is more related to Mon language because they both are Austroasiatic languages in the Mon-Khmer language family. When I talked to my Cambodian friends, we found out the similar structures in syntactic structures. In my opinion, Mon language is like a bridge between Burmese and Khmer and I regret for not learning to speak Mon language, which might enable me to understand Khmer more. However similar the languages seem to be, we can only talk to each other in English.
The way people dressed is also very similar. If you see the photos above, it is almost indistinguishable from Myanmar to Cambodia except that Cambodian men wear trousers instead of Longyis. In addition, I find the food made by Cambodian friends meet really well with my tastes buds.
What astonished me most is the social and political structures of the two countries. I laughed very much when I found that they have the same stories in their schools and societies. For example, both countries are facing the problem of government school teachers opening tuition classes illegally to make money because their salaries are not enough to make their living. Also we share the funny stories of how boy students get into a fight with each other because other student “looked at them” and they do not like that look. But generally people in both countries are really peaceful people. Most of them are free of worries and wear smiles on their faces.
On a wider scale, I have this feeling that we can learn from each other a lot since both countries are virtually in the same conditions trying to have development in the economy as well as politics. For example Myanmar is ranked at 157 and Cambodia at 160 in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2013 by the Transparency International. Also Cambodia is ranked at 136 and Myanmar at 150 in the Human Development Reports prepared by the United Nations Development Programme.
As an emerging democracy, Myanmar has a lot to be done in finding a solution for the human rights abuses and violations. Because Cambodia had faced similar issues since 1993, it will be very helpful for Myanmar to work together with Cambodia. Also they can cooperate with each other in such issues as clearing land mines left by the civil wars in these countries.
To be honest, I was not very impressed by the ASEAN’s mottos “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” before I met with people from other countries in ASEAN community. But now I believe, because we have common issues, we can work together towards the same goals to achieve success. To quote Henry Ford, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” ASEAN community is on the first step of it and I am sure they will gradually attain the success.
By Aung Kaung Myat, ASEAN Correspondent from Myanmar