Letter from Cambodia

Tasneem Jamal

Sumita Dixit

The Ploughshares Monitor December 1999 Volume 20 Issue 4

Sumita Dixit spent six months working as a Project Ploughshares intern with Nonviolence International in Thailand under a program sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs. She recently completed a second stint in Thailand working directly for Nonviolence International.

There is something in the air in Cambodia that is difficult to convey in words, yet it is almost palpable like a thick musk. An intermingling of the deep sadness that comes from living with suffering and death; a nervous hesitation of embracing peace after watching it slip through the fingertips of outstretched hands; suspicion of the future after years of resignation to the fact that there wasn’t one. This is the wind that blows over the curiousness of innumerable karaoke bars, an absolutely chaotic system of motor vehicle traffic, babies and adults wearing US Army paraphernalia, fast food restaurants and glitzy gas stations. The middle ground lies in the mischievous eyes of children who have no memories of the past and are the first generation of Khmer people in decades who will have the chance to go to school, grow up, fall in love and live long lives without battle scars.

My official mission in Cambodia is to collect information on weapons related violence and impunity to help the Working Group for Weapons Reduction. This has involved trips to the main English language newspapers, sifting through their archives and pulling up articles which pertain to my issue. In addition, I have been visiting local NGOs (mostly Khmer) who have projects relating to weapons and impunity, or who might have other information that would be useful. I have been very impressed by the number of Khmer NGOs – there is a solid network dedicated to social change here.

My stars and planets must be lining up quite nicely, because there actually is some positive government action taking place while I am here (something I have been told not to get used to!). It has started a new weapons seizure exercise to reduce the number of weapons, by setting up checkpoints for gun collection across the country. This is not the first time they have tried to run a program like this, but the NGOs are really acting on this one to create a cooperative effort to help it succeed. There will be a public ceremony, where many of the weapons will be destroyed – a bold and positive step for the Cambodian government. Their methods are sometimes questionable, but this is a big step out of wartime mentality.

Being here is like a study in what happens to people who forget what normal life is supposed to be like. The suffering of the Khmer people is so thick you can almost smell, taste, and touch it. Every person over five years of age has a tragic story here. Most Khmer adults have no educational training and are just now starting to rediscover their culture. For decades they had to pack away their identities and were indoctrinated to conform with an identity which had forsaken culture and morality for the blood of its own people.

I visited Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum. It is a high school building which was converted to a torture prison during the Pol Pot years, and has been preserved as testimony of the genocide of millions of Cambodians by their own people. Despite having been thoroughly scrubbed down, there are still blood stains on the floor and ceiling that tell a tale beyond the imagination of most people. It is ripe with ghosts, whether that is in my own mind or not.

I don’t mean to make it sound hopeless, because it isn’t. It is just going to be a very deep, long and difficult process to bring Cambodia back to a peacetime mentality. They have to undo three decades of brainwashing, get rid of the hundreds of thousands of guns circulating in the hands of civilians, clean out the corruption that taints its government, military, and police. The enormousness of the task is enough to intimidate even the most efficient and optimistic minds.

It won’t happen overnight, but it is already starting. Peace is planting its roots in this devastated society and the first blossoms are starting to appear, fed by creative vision, hard work and hope.

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