Quieting Old Storms

August 12, 2010 3 min read

The recent conviction of a war criminal in Cambodia and the Rwandan
election seem like positive steps in two countries still recovering from
the two largest mass murders in my memory (over 3 million people in both

By mere coincidence, I first visited each country 16 years after their
respective genocides, meeting with prime ministers and working with each
country’s development board.  There were real differences between the two
at that stage of recovery: Cambodia was much poorer than Rwanda (Phnom Penh
had one stop light but Kigali had several); Cambodia was still one-third
controlled by the Khmer Rouge at that time while Rwanda’s main fear was
unstable neighboring countries; Rwanda had gone through a process of
reconciliation involving a traditional village justice system to deal with
their murders, but Cambodian villages and cities cautiously reabsorbed most
of the Khmer Rouge fighters without any process.

But the similarities between the two are more striking: both nations lost
almost 20% of their population to genocide (compared to 2% of American
lives lost during the Civil War); the population of each country was, and
still is very young and growing; each nation wants to get past their
troubles and move on, but fears slipping back into civil strife.

A conviction and an election should be reasons to celebrate the progress of
each country.  But both events have been criticized and are quite
controversial.  Why?

Most of our largest debates/arguments/fights through recorded human history
have been philosophical (or religious) disagreements.  We tend to cast
“our” side as good and the other side as bad (sometimes bad enough to go to
war over).

My current research started with a simple question: What if our biggest
disagreements in life were about people trying to be good – but being good
in different ways?  (I know there are hazards of relative moral philosophy
involved with this question, but bear with me.)  Through over 2,000 surveys
and interviews with people from more than 20 cultures, I’ve found that you
can roughly categorize eight broad divisions, or “Goods” (basically, “
______ is good”) that people, organizations, and even nations pursue: life,
stability, society, growth, individuality, fairness, joy, and belief. And
most interestingly, how nations prioritize their goods largely shapes their

Rwanda and Cambodia have been focused on Stability since the tragic events
in their countries.  Both are run by strong-man dictators with the support
of relatively large militaries; they have limited press freedom; there are
accusations of election rigging; and citizens look over their shoulder
before they say anything bad about the government.

These claims can cause discomfort to any country that sees Individuality
and Fairness as the Greatest Goods. The US was created in reaction to a
repressive ruler.  Europe reaped the bloody harvest of power-hungry
dictators during World War II.  Their greatest Goods flowed from sad

Given the Goods priorities of the US and many countries in Europe, it
should come as little surprise that these nations are quick to condemn
Cambodian leaders for obstructing court procedures and Rwandan leaders for
mitigating the potential for opposition in the coming elections.
(Interestingly, countries that take the remaining six goods as their top
priority seem to have little reason to criticize these actions.)

Cambodian and Rwandan leaders see their moves as necessary steps in
maintaining stability and safety … and allowing for a more predictable
government and economy.  But their behaviors are decidedly non-American,
given that Fairness and Individuality rank lower in these countries’

As Americans, it is easy to forget that it took almost 100 years after the
Civil War for the South to become reconciled with the North (some might
argue it never has).  For decades, elections were relatively
non-democratic, many politicians were corrupt, and Black citizens were
still treated as near-slaves.

For Cambodia and Rwanda to have come as far as they have after a few
decades is an amazing feat.  It would be hard to predict how these
countries’ trajectories would have faired had their governments chosen to
reconstruct around a different Good.  But after 30 years, the recent
conviction in Cambodia suggests that maybe Fairness is moving up the
priority list.  And Rwanda’s election – the second under their new
constitution – may mean that Individuality is in ascendance there as well.
We, and the people of Cambodia and Rwanda, should celebrate these events as
evidence of all the good now present and the good still to come.