The Youth is Cambodia’s Only Hope for Social Reconciliation

17 December 2018   ·   Soth Plai Ngarm, Emma Leslie

In Cambodia, there is no political will for a broad national reconciliation program, and the Khmer Rouge tribunal is too removed from people’s lives. Thus, transitional justice strategies should focus on social and emotional reconciliation through public institutions such as peace museums. What’s more, they should focus on and develop the leadership skills of young people.

In any society that has experienced violent conflict, the issue of reconciliation is a critical matter that can continue to affect society for many generations. True reconciliation that can break the cycle of history and prevent a return to violence has three levels: political, social, and emotional. In Cambodia, through the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, political reconciliation was pursued without recognising the need for social and emotional reconciliation. Today, a broad national reconciliation program is unrealistic due to lack of political will and the Khmer Rouge tribunal is too removed from people’s everyday lives. Strategies should focus on intergenerational and social reconciliation through public institutions such as peace museums. What is more, they should focus on and develop the leadership skills of Cambodia’s young people.

After its independence in 1953, Cambodia experimented with a spectrum of political systems: from monarchy, then democracy, to republicanism, communism, and to socialism, returning finally to constitutional monarchy. These changes were only superficial: inside, Cambodia never changed. Cambodian culture remained rigidly hierarchical, for example. Political changes rarely went smoothly, and resulted in thirty years of bloody wars as political leaders attempted change overnight, forced from the top to the bottom of society.

The key to avoid repeating the same mistakes

Learning from past mistakes is key for Cambodia to ensure that it does not repeat them. The country is learning about the importance of reconciliation. We did not have opportunities for reconciliation under the monarchy system, because reconciliation is rooted in dialogue. In the monarchical system, dialogue did not exist and communication was one way: from the king to his subjects. The king had absolute power to make decisions for the whole of society. 

Cambodia missed two opportunities to achieve real national reconciliation. First, during colonization, many independence movements emerged. Though they shared a common goal to remove the colonizers, they held incompatible visions for the future. The society divided and developed into different camps of thoughts and ideas. Despite not being seen by political leaders as anything serious at the time, these divisions acted like a time bomb buried underneath society. When the Cold War spilled across the region, the divisions exploded open. This was a major factor contributing to the rapid shifting of systems, from monarchy, to republic, to Khmer Rouge communism, to extreme socialism.

The second opportunity for reconciliation came with the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, but Cambodia seemed to repeat the same pattern: it seemed that leaders did not see reconciliation as important. Leaders have focused on economic development as the answer to every problem since the war and peace and stability are seen to be the means to achieve that goal. Since the first general election in 1993, political leaders in Cambodia have not been able to work together to build a common pathway for the democratic system, leaving the population uncertain about the future. There is no doubt that the legacy of war has already begun spreading into newer generation.

Civilians must learn to take responsibility

Cambodia’s political leaders seem stuck in conditions created by wartime experiences: they only trust and rely on likeminded people. As Cambodian civilians, we need to learn from past mistakes, namely the mistake of not taking action ourselves, yet still suffering from the leaders’ decisions. Cambodia must begin with what is possible by analysing political, social and cultural aspects of our situation, and hold on to principles such as resilience, being value-driven, respect, learning, adapting, creativity and innovation, and continue to engage others to take part and encourage younger generation to take the leadership.

Cambodian reconciliation requires something different from reconciliation in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the former Yugoslavia. Many lessons learned during these reconciliation experiences can be applied in the Cambodian context, however, conflict in Cambodia has different characteristic to those countries: for example, Cambodians are 90 per cent Khmer and 90 per cent Buddhist. Ethnic, racial and religious differences do not drive conflict. The relationship between perpetrators and victims is also complicated and differs according to the period of time in consideration. We cannot afford a broad national reconciliation program due to lack of political will. An inter-generational and social reconciliation approach offers a starting point: developing common values will contribute to a culture of peace, leading to political reconciliation and emotional healing.

What is Intergenerational and Social Reconciliation?

The damage from violent conflict is not only what is destroyed, it is also what is created: violent memories will remain with us until we die. In our generation, we grew up divided, wearing different lenses for looking at the same world. It seems as if Cambodian political leaders genuinely cannot understand each other and continue to argue about what kind of world they see. The possibility for change lies with young leaders who can combine those lenses and begin to see the world together for the future of our country.

Social reconciliation is the process of bringing Cambodians back together, building unity and relationships between the people and the community, by working together to eliminate feelings of animosity generated when different identities linger from the conflicts of the past.

This encompasses several concepts such as:

Justice: The Khmer Rouge tribunal is too far removed to provide justice for those who died under their regime. Even if justice cannot be found for the dead, we can explore justice for future generations. No child should bear the guilt of its parents. We must expand the concept of justice to one in which collective responsibility is taken for not allowing inhuman acts and crime against humanity to happen.

Truth and Memory: It is difficult to find one truth in our history, as there are different truths depending on which sources we look at. Cambodia was divided into rival factions and prefers not to write that history now, but it should not prevent young people from learning about it. Painful memories remain with the old generation, but we can turn those memories into useful energy to lift young generations from the darkness of our history. There are also hopeful memories that can be collected and gathered in order to inspire. 

Healing: It is important to take care of those with severe psycho-social suffering from the violence. It is also important to not transfer wounds to future generations. Right now Cambodian society is like a wounded patient whose functioning is limited. We need healing now so that the future generation are able to fully function to full capacity, to contribute to society and the world. If the wounds are not transformed, they will be transferred. We need to create space for young people to build their leadership capacity, so that they can turn the page themselves without carrying the old wounded legacy.

Peace Museum as an Approach to Social Reconciliation 

On October 23, 2018 the Cambodia Peace Museum opened. The museum showcases peacebuilding approaches, and shares positive stories of strength, resilience, and recovery. The museum is a living space for young people to learn history, to heal the wounds of the past, to build leadership with determination and to achieve peace and social justice for the future. This is where our inter-generational and social reconciliation project begins.

Jugend in Konflikten Transitional Justice

Soth Plai Ngarm

Soth Plai Ngarm is a Senior Consultant on Peace Process Support and Research at the Centre Peace and Conflict Studies in Cambodia.

Emma Leslie

Dr. Emma Leslie is the Executive Director of the Centre Peace and Conflict Studies in Cambodia.