In the past half-century, Cambodia has been a victim of the horrors of a war, the exact account of which is unknown in many corners of the world. The accounts of the Rwandan Genocide, the Holocaust, and even the Bosnian Genocide are the stories that come to mind immediately when one think about genocide. The atrocities committed in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime (1975 to 1979) and the ensuring civil wars both pre-1975 and post-1979 are appalling. Nearly 25% of the Cambodia population (between 1.6 and 2 million people) was killed during Pol Pot’s reign. This number alone is appalling and it does not take into consideration the Cambodia death’s during the 1970 to 1975 civil war, the US carpet bombings of eastern Cambodia, or the continuing casualties and fatalities of Cambodia due to mines, particularly along the Thai border. These events are ground enough to create a society full of bitter hatred and resentment; yet, my experience with the Cambodian people was, in fact, the opposite.
In spite of all of these atrocities, in spite of the destruction of Cambodian society, in spite of their complete and utter loss of self, Cambodians remain incredibly happy and friendly. It’s a resilience that is almost indescribable; you almost have to see it to believe it. The motivation of the Cambodian people to try to bring some peace or ‘loving kindness’ back into their society is unmatched by any other post-genocidal situation.
Take Chea Vannath for example. She lived through the Khmer Rouge regime and since has spent almost 20 years helping to reconstruct and rehabilitate Cambodia. She served as the President of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections in the 1990s, an organization that monitored the election process in order to improve the transparency of the election process. She also served as President of Cambodian Social Development from 1996 to 2006 where she helped to establish public forum debates on national issues, conducted surveys on corruption, and created the first national curriculum on transparency and accountability. Chea is motivated by the Buddhist philosophy, particularly the struggle for balance as is quoted to have said, “Cambodia must balance between national growth and the dignity of the people. I am not so naïve as to think I can change the country, but I continue fighting for the struggle.”
Sek Sarom is another example of an extraordinarily Cambodian. Born in a refugee camp in 1979, Sarom spent the first portion of her life living in the camp. In 1993, she and her family were repatriated to Battambang province. After having taken a class in 1997 about peace, Sarom became inspired by the lives of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mhah Ghosananda. Sarom has actively taken a role in pursuing peace in Cambodia society. She has taken on opportunities spread her message of peace through teaching by translating Buddhism in to English at Preh Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University and teaching language at Battambang Prison. She also established Battambang Prison Library, organized food collections during Pchum Bin, and worked in translation for various NGOs. Her happiness and dedication to creating a peaceful Cambodia is contagious.
The last example I will provide here, though definitely not the last of the resilient Cambodians, is Cheang Sokha. He was a child who survived the Khmer Rouge regime only to grown up in its aftermath, which was still ripe with danger and insecurity. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Pedagogy and after, began a career as a teacher. He is currently the Executive Director of the Youth Resource Development Program, a local NGO that offers free course to university students to develop critical thinking and social responsibility. He strives to create a future generation of Cambodians that have the conscience and intelligence to create a peaceful future.
These are just three of the many examples of the resilience of the Cambodian people. In the aftermath of so much violence, they could have chosen to admit defeat but instead they are fighting back, determined to create a peaceful Cambodia, determined to create a better country for the next generation. How they are able to do this – put the past aside so quickly and start to more forward – is not entirely clear. Some can argue it is the Buddhist philosophy teaching loving kindness and forgiveness, while other could argues its is simply a characteristic of Cambodians themselves. Whatever it is, it is a quality that could prove to be very useful in post-conflict situations. Reconstruction and reconciliation processes work best when they come from within, when the have the motivation and support of the local populations. Cambodia is slowly turning the corner on its violent past, something that would not be possible without such an outright expression of resilience and dedication to find peace.
This post was written by Jolene Hansell, a M.A. Candiate in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University, with a focus on transitional justice and rule of law. You can contact Jolene by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @joleneh340