Peace in Cambodia: Enjoy Peace when It Lasts

(Phnom Penh): I would like to contribute to the debate about war and peace in Cambodia and write this letter to my fellow Cambodians. I have extensive background in armed conflict and genocide research both in education and in work. I would like to say that peace is fragile and war can happen easily.

Western and Eastern scholars study war and peace and they have never reached any real conclusion on how to prevent war and sustain peace. Everyone should read Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s work on war and peace to get a better understanding of how difficult it is to have a really long period of peace and prevent war. A world without war is really a dream, almost like the Khmer Rouge’s agricultural utopia.

So for me what we have today particularly freedom of movement throughout Cambodia, assisted by extensive paved roads, is a luxury. Cambodia is such a small country but 25 years ago certain corners of our country were “great mysteries” simply because we did not have access due to security reasons. I remember in 1997 in Siem Reap when Kulen Mountain was open for the first time and people flocked to it. The mountain locating only 30 Km from town had been a place of history and perceived as “magical fertile land” from which the Siem Reap river flows providing blessed water throughout the entire Angkor archaeological site. Yet this mountain had been completely inaccessible due to presence of the Khmer Rouge there. Everyone now takes this mountain for granted, the same with Bokor, Aural, Dangrek and even Kirirum mountains. Because of peace and infrastructure development we have discovered new beautiful places in our country along the coast, in the highlands, in the Cardamom mountains and in Siem Reap itself such as Peung Tanon. So we all should try to preserve this peace, embrace it and enjoy it when it lasts.

Looking into global history, I do not find lasting peace. You do not have to call for war, war will happen to you at some points. War can happen for the simplest of reasons of fighting for women between princes to ideological, religious, economic, ethnical, racial, and territorial reasons. Normally a polity has the longest lasting period of peace when it is under a strong, powerful and effective leader on the back of a protractive conflict which ended. We should also look at war and peace as interchanging in cycle, just like economic and business cycles. This relates directly to the human mind. For Cambodian case, younger generations who have never experienced war underestimate the value of peace that we have and view current developments as default, meaning it does not need maintenance, just like a large fruit tree at the back of the house which requires no fertilization and watering and yet provides fruits every year. Peace is different. We have to respect it. We have to maintain it. We must not be complacent while we enjoy it. Throughout our history, Cambodia did not enjoy a true period where there is no resistance or guerilla forces in the forest, like we do today. Even in Sangkum Reastr Niyum period, there were the Khmer Rouge, the Khmer Issarrak and the Khmer Serey. This created instability and limited certain freedom of movement and development opportunity.

Global power contestation which characterized the Cold War is still at play, and a lot of people have been surprised at how quickly the world is attempting to return to racism, as in France and several other European countries through populist campaigns. Nobody expected the threat of World War III to be coming so soon only 27 years after the end of the Cold War which had lasted 50 years. With the use of Islam as a tool for struggle, the clash between Islamic and Christian cultures is rising. In Burma, nobody expected harsh treatment, some term it genocide, we see against the Rohinya Muslims by Buddhists (supposedly Buddhists are peaceful?) when we all believe that genocide should never happen again especially after all that happened in the Balkans and Rwanda in the early 1990s and many other cases throughout the world, and for Southeast Asia, the genocide that happened in Cambodia. The Cambodian genocide should be a strong lesson for SE Asia but it is not for Burma apparently.

Who would expect Thai politics to be so divisive for Thailand, with so many changes of government and coups in a few years? This Thai internal politics did spill over to Cambodia in the most unexpected way. Had anyone expected Thailand to forcefully attempt to take back Preah Vihear temple in 2008? Very few expected it especially after the temple had been adjudged to be Cambodian by the world court in 1962. Lao more recently became aggressive. We have rarely heard of Lao being militaristic. Cambodia is always a variable within larger spheres of influence in Southeast Asia, Asia and Eurasia. What happen in these regions can affect our country, just like the Vietnam War. The conflicts are all around us, in South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the Mindanao, Korean Peninsula, Southern Thailand, Burma, the scourge of terrorism, going further west we have the Middle Eastern wars.

Please don’t consider Cambodia as safe from war. We are not. We are enjoying a period of tranquility where there is “zero” guerilla force in the forest. I do not take our peaceful period lightly and I embrace it. When there is power struggle outside Cambodia, there will be many countries or groups who are willing to arm the “guerillas,” and that is when internal conflict becomes regional and regional becomes internal and eventually things become complicated.

Kok-Thay ENG, Ph.D.
Director of Cambodian Institute for Peace and Development

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