How do Cambodians view “justice”?

The question of how Khmers view and practice “justice” is a highly complex one and has been the subject of investigation by numerous authors and academicians who have taken the tortuous path to shed light on the culture and inner workings of Cambodian society. Instead, in this post I intend to specifically address the use of the Khmer term “យុត្តិធម៌” (/yutte-tʰoa/; Pali: yutti dhamma; Sanskrit: yukti-dharma, युक्ति धर्म) which is the closest reference to, and is often translated as, the term “justice” in the English language.

‘Yukti’, Sanskrit-English dictionary, Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1899)

The term ‘yutte-tʰoa‘, which is a closed-form compound of two Pali lexemes yutte and tʰoa, has been defined in the 1967 Chuon Nath dictionary, the most comprehensive and authoritative lexicon of Khmer words to be produced as of date, as natural law that should be upheld (ធម៌ដែលគួរកាន់), process of being honest (សេចក្ដីទៀងត្រង់), the act of being morally upright (ការប្រព្រឹត្តត្រឹមត្រូវ).

The term yutte (or yukti in Sanskrit) has been defined in the Sanskrit dictionary as a union, integration of; application, usage; [use of] reason, [act of] reasoning, induction, deduction from circumstances. Chuon Nath defines yutte as process of being right (សេចក្តីត្រឹមត្រូវ), honest (ទៀងត្រង់), as an obligation to follow the law or enactments (ការគួរតាមច្បាប់).

Dharma‘, Sanskrit-English dictionary, Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1899)

The term tʰoa (or dharma in Sanskrit) has been defined in the Chuon Nath dictionary as state of existence or nature, which governs all living beings including aspects of merit, sin, good and bad character etc. (សភាវៈដែលទ្រទ្រង់សត្វលោក គឺ បុណ្យ, បាប, សុចរិត, ទុច្ចរិត។ ល។) which is a reference to the fixed and unchanging cosmological order or natural law. This definition of dharma corresponds with the Buddhist way of thinking in philosophy.

In my opinion, the compounding words come together to mean the use of reason in a manner that is in conformity with the law of nature (or even simply, the implementation of the law of nature).  This construction, however, will not be without controversy as the two terms constituting the concept cover a broad swathe across the ideological spectrum in Indic thought and philosophy.

For instance, Vajirañāṇavarorasa (1860-1921), the tenth Supreme Patriarch of Thailand expounded in “Right is Right”:

All wise men who have been religious teachers have therefore always taught men to do right.  Rulers uphold Right and repress Wrong.  Those who do wrong, who do injury to others, who rob others of their lawful possessions who commit adultery, or who practice deceptions, are punished, which is like extracting a thorn with another thorn. The infliction of punishment may not (in a philosophical sense) be considered a true Right; but to inflict punishment in accordance with some previously enacted law in order to repress wrong doing is called Yukti-Dharma (“Right by Usage,” in others words, “Justice”), that is to say Right by enactment, forming part of the Policy of Governance, which is the duty of a ruler to uphold.  Great Monarchs naturally hold Right in great reverence and had Right as the standard leading them in their kingly ways. The Self-Enlightened Buddhas of all the three times (Past, Present, and Future) also revered Right.


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