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.
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.
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.
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.