A Discussion with Dr. Kim Hourn Kao, President, University of Cambodia, Executive Director, Asia Faiths Development Dialogue (AFDD)
August 21, 2009
Background: Dr. Kim Hourn Kao was born in Cambodia and educated in the United States. He received his B.A. in Asian studies from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. After completing his B.A., Kao went on to earn a master's in international affairs and political science, as well as earning a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii. As a scholar and a diplomat, he has made various important contributions to both Cambodia and ASEAN. Kao is the president and founder of the University of Cambodia. He also currently acts as the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and as the Secretary-General of the Asia Faiths Development Dialogue. In this interview, Kao shares stories from his childhood in Cambodia and his family's struggles to escape the Khmer Rouge, sharing details about the difficulties he and his family faced upon fleeing Cambodia for the United States. He also shares his opinion on how religion influences the politics of Cambodia. This discussion took place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia between Dr. Kim Hourn Kao and Katherine Marshall.
How did you experience Cambodia's extraordinary history as you grew up? What path took you to where you are today? Can you give us a capsule of your early life?
Let me start with an important piece of advice that I remember well from a critical moment, in 1976, at the height of Cambodia's trouble. I was separated from my family for the first time. My father said that I should always follow three principles. He said that, no matter what the temptation, I should never take something that did not belong to me—not to steal. Then, he said, I should not hesitate to ask for what I needed. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. And third, he said that I should make sure to offer myself to serve others, and should always be kind. If I followed his advice, he said, life would be less difficult.
I was born in 1966, in war-torn Cambodia, in the Koh Sotin district of Kompong Cham province, so I grew up in a turbulent time. My father was a schoolteacher, and was posted to an area not far from the Vietnam border when I was very young. Some of my earliest memories are the sounds and smells of bombs falling, often not far from us. We moved several times during my early years. I was one of 10 children of my parents, originally. Three brothers and three sisters are still living; three died very young. In those times, we went to school off and on but mainly we struggled as a family to survive.
I was about 9 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over. We had heard rumors of great changes but could not get good information. I have one distinct memory of a day when it became clear what was happening, that life had changed dramatically. I was walking early one morning with my sister along a road near our rice fields. As we walked along the path, we first saw piles of shoes, then shirts, scattered all over, then other clothes, and then, suddenly, wallets and money. And then, just beside the road, bodies. Some soldiers appeared suddenly and asked us who we were. We pretended to be very stupid and said we were farmers going to our rice fields, and they let us go.
Over the next years we moved several times. School teachers were under serious threat (the Khmer Rouge held power from 1975 to '79) so my father stopped teaching and went back to the traditional life style of a rice farmer. For one period we lived in Battambang province, just outside the provincial city, farming rice. We were often hungry, trying to figure out how to get food each day. The sounds of gunfire were all too familiar. We were well aware of the death and destruction around us and saw many aspects of it. We lost many members of my family. But my own nuclear family managed somehow to survive through it all.
After a series of moves that took us to different provinces, following the ousting of the Khmer Rouge so that we could find safety and could find food to eat, we ended up in a refugee camp near the Thai border. We spent several years there. I was a young teenager then, and got involved in trade to try to help support my family. I had a bicycle and bought things on the Thai side, then rode my bicycle across the border to sell them in Cambodia. I was arrested more than once and spent very unpleasant times in prisons. We often slept outside and spent our energies trying to survive.
We were finally, as a family, successful in our appeal to come to the United States. I am not sure how or why, but suddenly one day we heard that our application was successful. We arrived in Oakland, California, stayed there briefly, then went to Texas where we had some friends. Sadly, my father died there, quite suddenly. We settled in Herndon, Virginia where we also had close friends.
I began high school there, with virtually no basic education and no English, at the age of 16. Somehow despite loneliness and with hard work, and the encouragement and support of my mother and American friends, I graduated three years later, in 1985. I went to Baylor University as an undergraduate. I had originally wanted to study medicine and become a doctor, but quite soon I became captivated by political science. I also began to study South East Asia. My focus turned east and that has never changed.
I was keenly aware of exciting changes in Cambodia at that time. My brother was then in Thailand, though illegally, and I became caught up in his struggles. I became more and more interested in politics. I met a congressman in Texas who heightened my interest. I was able to get students at Baylor to sign a petition that was eventually sent to the U.S. Embassy in Thailand. It was successful and later he came to the U.S. I finished Baylor in May 1989, just when Cambodia was signing a cease fire, that failed not long after.
That summer I was a Baylor sponsored INS Justice Department intern. That led me to a scholarship to study at the University of Ohio (a National Fellowship scholarship). I spent two years there. I got two masters degrees, one in political science, the other in international affairs. I was the president of the Southeast Asian students association, becoming very active in political affairs.
After finishing at Ohio in 1991, I worked for the summer and went straight on to study for a Ph.D. at the University of Ohio. I wanted to return to Cambodia and found a way. I arrived there on January 1, 1993, initially to do research on the UN peacekeeping activities. It was a grant from the Asia Foundation that made it possible to return. The Asia Foundation provided a stipend and accommodation at their office in Phnom Penh. Dr. James Klein was in charge then.
I quickly, with support from the Asia Foundation, was drawn into the emerging world of think tanks, and from 1993 to '94 became director of the new Khmer International Relations Institute. It came under the Preah-Sihanouk Raj Academy. We did this from my office at the Asia Foundation. From that base I became involved in my first major professional project: the Cambodia Public Accountability and Transparency project (CPAT), whose goal was to stop corruption, at its very earliest stage. But at that point there was virtually no interest in the topic. The only support we could find was USAID, the Asia Foundation, and the U.S. ambassador. I approached many others, but they were not interested. After I left, I handed over this project to another person. Pok Than. He took over as director and was able to found another institution through the project, the Center for Social Development (CSD). He left to join FUNCINPEC, then became Secretary of State for Education, Youth, and Sports. CSD continued with a new director, Chea Vanneth. Now, CSD is in limbo because of tensions between the Executive Director and the Board, but it made many contributions.
Then, from 1994 to 2004, I worked in another think tank, the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP). It existed on papers, and they recruited me as their first staff. We rented a room and got a fax machine. It is still functioning today.
My main interest was regional affairs, especially the course of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Cambodia became a member in 1999, as it was moving away from its period of isolation. CICP was at the forefront of supporting Cambodia’s integration in the world. I began then to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
And during this period I spent time at the University of Hawaii where my doctoral work was in process. I earned my doctorate in political science in 2001. My thesis topic was Cambodia’s foreign policy and ASEAN.
To finish my capsule biography quickly, I have settled in Cambodia, working with several organizations, including think tanks and the Ministry. I married and have three growing children. In 2003, I was instrumental in founding the University of Cambodia, and have been its president ever since. I also have been continuously involved in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, now serving as Secretary of State. My main portfolio is Regional affairs and I have been deeply involved in the development and negotiation of the ASEAN Charter, in relations with the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) and in crisis management, notably, over the past year, the ongoing border dispute with Thailand.
I hope that you will write the full story sometime! One of your “hats” is executive director of the Asia Faiths Development Dialogue. What is its purpose and its origin?
AFDD was inspired by Dr. Haruhisa Handa, who has been my close associate in developing the University of Cambodia (he is Chancellor). Dr. Handa is a trustee and supporter of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), co-founded by Lord Carey and James D. Wolfensohn. He was convinced that a more intensive effort was needed to bring religious leaders in Cambodia and Asia more broadly into development work and to develop their potential for peace.
AFDD is still quite new but has organized two successful meetings of leaders from many different faiths, both in Phnom Penh, the most recent in October 2008. It is based at the University of Cambodia and works closely with WFDD. It is contributing to the World Parliament of the Religions which will meet in Melbourne, Australia, in December 2009.
What is your own faith background and experience?
During that tumultuous Khmer Rouge period, religion was barely part of our lives. Indeed it was dangerous to talk about it, as religion was a taboo subject, the monks were considered dangerous to the regime, and many were killed. No one talked about Buddhism in those days. My father rarely mentioned it. But I remember that at one point he abruptly stopped eating anything that had been alive. I remember the empty temples in those days, deserted by the monks, overgrown with grass, with cattle wandering about.
But I remember that, for reasons I cannot recall clearly, I prayed a lot during those years. I would ask for something, promise to do something. In some sense I was aware or thought that there was a power who could help me, especially at the most difficult moments. I had no specific idea what that God was but I had a sense that somewhere was a being who was watching out for me. So as I moved from place to place I would appeal.
When we were living near the Thai border in the camps, again religion was not very visible. My grandfather was also in the camp and he sometimes referred to the Buddhist stories or principles. There was a time, I remember, when we practiced reading from a Good News Bible which was at hand.
When I came to the United States and was in high school, I became far more aware of religion. Those were very tough years for me, very lonely. I met some people who were very kind to me, who were part of a church. One lady was lovely, Mrs. Carolyn Baker, pure at heart. I began to go with them to the Ox Hill Baptist Church in Chantilly, Virginia. When I applied to college, the three I looked at most closely all had church ties, all were Baptist. One was a Baptist university in Kansas, another was Baylor. I got into Baylor.
I remember that during my freshman year at college I talked to my grandfather, who was then living with my aunt. He surprised me by asking me to dedicate my life to Buddhism, as a monk. But he also conveyed to me a sense that the essence of all religions was essentially the same, just with different paths. The key was to search.
That may have contributed to some intensive soul-searching I did during that first year of university. I came close to dropping out at one point. I felt lost and lonely, and at one point shaved my head. Baylor was a Baptist university, and very conservative. And I was required to take two religion classes: one on the Old Testament, one on the New Testament. Over time I sorted it out, and my faith outlook today is one of deep respect, and curiosity and openness to all faiths. And today I appreciate the knowledge that I gained then about Christianity.
My mother has returned to Cambodia recently, and lives in a temple as a nun. This is something that quite a few women, especially widows, do in our society. She is very happy spending her old age there, working to benefit her community.
What do you recall about the religious scene when you returned to Cambodia?
I have to admit that the topic was not at the front of my mind and it rarely if ever came up in the think tank world of policy where I was working. But I continued to have many personal questions. As I was creating my think tank, Moral Rearmament was very much present in Cambodia and it had a strong spiritual tone. There was also talk of meditation. I remember one meeting in 1994 which had a very spiritual tone. People talked about purification and the need to return to our spiritual roots. And during this period, slowly, the Buddhist Sangha, decimated during the Khmer Rouge period, was being rebuilt and temples restored.
In the early days of the 1990s, there was much talk of the important role the courageous Buddhist monks had played in bringing peace. They had organized a series of what we call peace marches in Cambodia. They were very much an accepted part of the emerging civil society. We were all looking for ways to achieve non-violence, and looked to religion as a way to stabilize the society. There were guns everywhere and we knew we had work to do to change the situation. Fighting reemerged in 1997/98, so violence and the issues around it have been and remain a very live issue.
I became very interested in Islam during this period, and wanted to understand better what was behind it, and how it was different from Buddhism and Christianity, both of which I knew well. And the same applied to Taoism and Confucianism. And Hinduism. Overall I was more and more conscious through this period that spiritual solace was important to almost everyone, though in different ways. Especially in the early days after the Khmer Rouge period, I was aware that people were praying to many things. In that an especially important theme was respect for nature. Many in Cambodia, no matter what their religion, care about the mountains, the trees, the environment around, and that is very much part of our prayers.
What about the politics around Buddhism? Do monks vote today?
That’s a long story, and is tied up both in the historical divisions of Cambodian Buddhism between the two Vehicles, the Tammayuth and Monanikay, essentially two sects. They were unified for a time, now are separate. And there are divisions within each.
During the Khmer Rouge period, many if not most Cambodian monks were killed, and most others were forced to disrobe. After 1979, some began to practice again but it took time. Initially, the monks were quite involved in political work, and there was support all around for their efforts to mobilize support for the government against the return of the Khmer Rouge to power.
In short, the politics of Buddhism is plenty controversial and there have been tensions. But overall there are some very progressive forces within the Sangha, which have worked actively on areas like HIV/AIDS. Buddhism is coming back strongly. There are specific debates today about how far and whether the temples and monks should be involved in politics with some believing the monks should refrain from political involvement. But the reality today is that they can be involved and can and do vote.
What about the politics around Christian groups?
I have not been deeply involved in this area but it is well worth exploring. There are many groups, most doing wonderful work. HOPE worldwide, which works with Dr. Handa on the King Sihanoukh Hospital, is just one example.
There are perhaps thousands of NGOs operating in Cambodia, and faith-inspired groups are an important part of the group.
Were religious groups, either the Buddhist Sangha or the various Christian organizations that were becoming so active, involved at all in those early anti-corruption efforts?
Not formally or officially in any manner. They did raise questions. And the Moral Rearmament movement which was quite active then was to an extent an inspiration for the think tank that I created in 1994. We ran a one week program where the theme was to purify, reinstill values. There was some laughing by my colleagues, but they did participate. The sense was that people did not want to talk out loud about the issues and also about underlying values.
What are some of your current responsibilities as secretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry?
I have a very broad portfolio, and also am counselor to the Prime Minister. I follow the ASEAN relationship closely, and it has many mechanisms (there are some 700 ASEAN meetings a year, involving many different sectors and thus ministries!). There are ten dialogue partner countries and 26 member states plus one regional organization in the ASEAN Forum. More recently I have taken on responsibility for the ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) portfolio; the next Summit will be in October 2010, in Belgium. Immediate issues are that both Australia and Russia have indicated an interest in joining ASEM. And there are other assignments from the minister.
I stay in contact with Cambodians overseas, especially in the United States. There are an estimated one million Cambodians overseas, of which 400,000 in the U.S. Long Beach California is the largest community, with 200,000.
Any final observation?
Just to note that the importance of religion is reflected in the national motto of Cambodia: Nation, Religion, King.