I have to admit that arriving to Phnom Penh felt a bit like traveling back in time. While this international field study of the Rotary Peace fellowship was designed with the idea of studying the post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding of a country, Cambodia is still in the process of recovering from tremendous damage of decades of wars and foreign interventions. Almost twenty-one years ago they had their first free and transparent elections -under the supervision of the United Nations- and since then, some progress has been achieved but there’s still a lot to be done. Our field study included more than 10 organizational meetings with different Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in three different cities (Phnom Penh, Pursat and Siem Reap); additionally we had several field visits to some of their projects, which was very inspiring.

One thing that impacted me deeply, early on our field trip was the visit to the Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial (“Killing Fields”) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (“S-21”) -a school-turned-prison during the time of Democratic Kampuchea. Not just because of the thick air that we breathed while there; and the thousands of unidentified skulls that we saw on display in a seventeen-story ivory tower; but because it’s hard to see the inhumane conditions in which those men, women and children were held in and the types of torture that they were subject to before leaving this world.

Stairway at S-21 Prison

Before coming to Cambodia, I had listened to hundreds of stories of torture from my survivor clients (from Cambodia and many other countries where torture is or was practiced like Cameroon, Eritrea or Sudan -to name a few) but being there, walking the same grounds where tens of thousands were held inhumanely, was a very painful experience.  I will not forget. The big question that I’m taking with me after visiting Cambodia is how can we foster forgiveness and peace without forgetting that these violations of human rights and violent behaviors are still being repeated in our times.  We’ve seen it happen in Rwanda; in Bosnia; in Democratic Republic of Congo; Syria and most recently in Central African Republic. In all these, one group has tried to erase diversity of thought, expression and opinion of another group. Sadly, many countries today are still experiencing some of these same attitudes -both in peace and in conflict- but why do other countries stay silent knowing what could happen?

 For most of us visiting Cambodia for the first time, deciphering the events and motifs of the Khmer Rouge era was at the center of the discussions in almost every single one of the visits and conversations with local NGO staff and even with our guides who were so kind to share more of their personal stories with us. However, those three years, eight months and twenty days were such a horrific time that I can understand why Cambodians would prefer to forget and not talk about what happened. The fact that only foreigners were visiting these memorials could be an indicator of how Cambodians would rather delete this from their memory, even when they were meant to acknowledge this dark time of their history and help them rebuild their country. Today, Cambodians are tired of this “victim” label. Has their government tried to move away from it? It’s enough. But does the Government agree with its people or are they just interested in getting more charity-tourism and reconstruction funds from foreign governments and hundreds of NGOs?

Cambodians are trying to tell a different story. This is a young country -77% of the population is under the age of 40- which means that most of them were young children during the Khmer Rouge era. Their lives have been marked by the deaths of family members, friends and neighbors. Many continue to search for answers. At the same time, they also want to move away from those painful memories and look forward to a better and brighter future. We were told that this could be connected to Buddhism, as for them focusing on the present and the future is more important than getting stuck in the past.

How is civil society contributing to change the image of Cambodia? Are they trying to rebrand their country to attract investment, more tourism and/or to improve relations with other states? And who composes civil society in Cambodia? Is it limited to Cambodian citizens and private companies or are the over five hundred NGOs with a combination of foreign and local staff also included here? From what I saw, NGOs have come to fill in the gaps on areas that the government is not paying attention. Agencies like Friends International, are fostering youth integration and showing a new face -and a different flavor- of Cambodia through their cooking academy, various restaurants and distinctive menus.

Lunch at Friends

Cambodian diaspora that has returned to the country has also put a lot of effort into changing those negative perceptions, especially through the arts. Examples are fashion designer Romyda Keth; movies like The Missing Picture’, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars, and documentaries like ‘A River Changes Course’, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance Film Festival, are products of the explosion of creativity and culture that has emerged in the post-war era of Cambodia. Nevertheless, there’s not enough being done by domestic or international actors to use arts in their favor.

A River Changes Course

Thirty-five years after the fall of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK or Khmer Rouge), I could feel the leftover effects of all the lies and confusion infused on the population by the CPK and the atrocities of the Cambodian Genocide. But I tried looking further and listened carefully and I found the strength that comes from the pain that this country has suffered: their resilience.

Angkor Wat

The Quest for Meaningful Peace

For the last two weeks, Venezuela has been on my mind as its citizens have taken to the streets calling on the government to cease repression and violence. You may have heard members of their diaspora giving echo to relevant news that are not being reported inside the country. But, in case you haven’t…

On February 12, university students in the Western city of San Cristóbal, tired of violence, high inflation and lack of basic necessities, marched demanding change from the Government. Seven of them were arrested. Days later, opposition leader Leopoldo López called for a big rally in Caracas, and thousands occupied the streets, dressed in white and raised their tricolor flags, full of optimism that their voices would be heard and that those students would be freed.  Some used the opportunity to express their frustrations with the current government, complained about corruption, scarcity and inflation, and many marched because their friends asked them to. The messages from the opposition’s side read: “Free the students”; “Stop the violence”; “The only way is out” (“#lasalida”) and “he who gives up loses” (“#elquesecansaPierde”). The Government too, called State employees for a rally to show their support to the President. They wore red shirts with the emblem of the Venezuelan Oil Company (PDVSA) and a tagline from Ché Guevara’s speech in Havana in 1969: “(…)Being apolitical is to give your back to all the movements of the world(…)”.

As people were wrapping up for the day, three armed thugs from paramilitary groups (“Colectivos”) started shooting at the opposition supporters, injuring dozens and killing two people. This created unrest and since, more people have taken the streets around the country demanding change. More restrictive measures were put in place: security forces diffuse protesters using excessive force with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, and armed thugs are shooting at unarmed civilians. Scared of all this, they have improvised barricades with debris (“guarimbas”). To add more to the picture, the government is in control of all communications and has revoked the credentials of various foreign journalists, as well as taken off the air one TV station for being too supportive of the opposition. Freedom of speech is not being respected and to date more than a dozen deaths have resulted from this chaos. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to support peaceful and sustained protests and the messages have shifted to #sosVenezuela, #PrayforVenezuela, #IamYourVoice and “Say No to Repression and Violence”. In spite of other violent events happening in Syria, Central African Republic, Ukraine and Thailand, foreign media has started to pay attention.

Never again?

Twenty-five years ago, on February 27, Caracas was immersed in riots, looting, shootings and nonsense violence between security forces and protesters in what was called the “Caracazo”, a bloody stain in that country’s history. I still have a vivid image of what I saw on Spanish television at the time: a warzone with looters carrying refrigerators and police shooting at civilians. Today, I’m scared to see violence escalate again for very similar reasons: citizens protesting against the government, tired of its corruption and security forces using force against them. Not until 1999, the country was taken to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and was found guilty of all the charges surrounding the arbitrary suspension of various freedoms; the deaths of 276 people and the disappearance of many. To date, no national court has heard these cases.

Has there been reconciliation from these events of a quarter century ago? Did the investigations reveal the perpetrators of these crimes and are they still part of the security forces? How do the Venezuelan people feel about this dark past? There are too many questions that remain unanswered, and too many perpetrators that remain unpunished, so I wonder if the country really healed those wounds, and if this is the underlying reason for so much discontent between factions in Venezuelan society.

Today, president Nicolás Maduro calls the opposition fascists and accuses them of being the cause of the country’s problems. At the same time, he likes to talk about peace and has convened a National Peace Conference, creating two national commissions: one on economic truth and another one on reconciliation, which will include representatives of different sectors of Venezuela’s society. Is President Maduro and his government open to reconciliation with the other, and is he willing to take a step back from his aggressive tactics? Will all the voices be heard? I fear that this effort will fail and that it’s too early for this type of transitional justice mechanisms to be put in place. Unfortunatelt, this calling for peace is no more than a rhetoric campaign in an attempt to rebrand his international image and that of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV.

In spite of what many of my socialist friends think, I don’t think that taking a stand on the situation is about being with the left or the right, the context is very different: it’s about respecting human rights while living in democracy. In a real democracy, people, the citizens should be listened to (regardless of the color of their skin, their political opinion or their social status) and the Government has the mandate to protect these rights and create spaces for dialogue when there’s so much structural violence. I don’t think these last governments (Maduro’s and Chávez’) have provided enough opportunities for reconciliation. Instead, there’s yet more division between “us” and “them”.

Today there’s a call for unity, but I wonder how will that happen after so many years of this blaming game. Venezuela needs to heal its past and a dialogue process can’t be imposed. For there to be reconciliation, relationships have to be rebuilt and political consensus is needed. But this cannot happen in an authoritarian state that attacks its citizens and does not guarantee their human rights. Only by combining truth, justice and accountability will the country transition into a peaceful future.

Peace Fellows take a stand for Venezuela