Friday, December 11, 2009

Human Rights Day Goes Well Beyond NGO's

Sadly, the Cambodia Daily article, on page 27 today (November 11, 2009)
is titled "NGO's Mark Human Rights Day With Rally". While technically
correct, and nothing to be ashamed of, it hides the more beautiful truth
of celebrations that went on all around the country yesterday.

These celebrations were held by local communities with support from a
range of sources, including NGO's, but who gathered to express their
desires for a more just future where the voice of the poor is considered
equally to the voice of the powerful.

Many activities expressly included local officials in the proceedings to
build good-will and trust that the search for peace and justice will not
be at the expense of those in official positions, rather it will lift up
the marginalised and vulnerable to a place where they can access
freedoms and benefits of a country like Cambodia.

The article importantly highlights that NGO's "called on the government
to end forced evictions in land disputes" and "this celebration is to
show our deep appreciation to the heroes around the world, and
particularly Cambodian human-rights activists who have sacrificed their
efforts and lives for the cause and protection of human rights."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Negotiation is a Failed Tactic for Local Communities. Negotiation and Asymmetrical Power.

“If you are bargaining with somebody, you need to have equal footing for someone to listen to you.” Chea Vannath [1]

What happens in a situation when one group has no way to secure an equal footing against their opponent?

Consider the communities in Cambodia who today face the reality that private business, government and military interests will acquire their land and natural resources with little or no consultation or compensation. The situation seems a forgone conclusion to both the communities and many who support them, including the well connected proponents of economic development. This is what is referred to as an asymmetrical power system – one side has a disproportionate amount of 'threat power' compared to the other.

Asymmetric Power in Cambodia

Asymmetrical power systems arise for many reasons. In Cambodia a high-context [2] patron-client system strongly enforces a 'no-questions asked' culture by the masses regarding the actions of government , business, community and religious leaders. “It is the role of the leader to tell people what is the right way to do something”, “I consulted them by reading out the court verdict” and “I didn't go there to argue with them” are sentiments often held by patrons about their subjects.

It is the patron's role to provide protection from the threats of life, natural disasters, illness or military threats. It is the client's role to give unquestioning obedience to do whatever the patron asks (demands). Democratic and transparent organisational styles don't make sense and as a recent report concluded these goals are subsumed into the patron-client arsenal to further garner power, prestige and wealth. [3]

To illustrate the ineffectiveness of negotiation without equal footing, The Dey Krahorm community (or representatives of it) were given a one day training workshop in negotiation skills and went to negotiate with the 7NG Company the same evening. They went with high hopes in their new skills.

The experience was an abysmal failure. The community received a comprehensive tongue lashing by the company spokesperson and returned home with their tail between their legs. From a “Do No Harm” [4] perspective this experience could have derailed community resolve significantly by reinforcing the cultural expectations that those with no power should not attempt to question the plans of the powerful.

It may seem that what is lacking is the skill to stand up for oneself in the presence of a higher authority and training could obviously help redress this skill issue. But the core of the problem here is not skill for negotiation. Communities usually have at least one or two people quite skilled in standing up for themselves. The core issue is unequal power relations which was not addressed by the negotiation.

The Weaknesses of Negotiation in Asymmetric Power Systems

Negotiations in asymmetric power systems work well where there is an effective external source of threat power making the costs of non-negotiation outweigh negotiation, such as an independent, free and non-partisan justice system. Since institutional power in Cambodia is overwhelmingly in favour of those with wealth, power and political connections there is little or no threat power against the powerful.

Theoretically, the international community is a source of threat power (removal of donor funding, trade boycotts, publication of information – factual information of human rights abuses, international ratings scales on corruption or civil unrest), but their resolve to date has proven weak and the shifting global system gives greater influence to China where human, economic and social rights have little influence. Pressure must come from within.

A major concern for the use of negotiation by local communities is the reality of false promises and flat refusals. Flat refusals to demands and requests are easier to deal with as the answer is quite clear. False promises are much more insidious. Gene Sharp cautions us that the invitation to negotiation must be treated carefully as they are more likely designed to put the resisters into a passive mode.

Firstly, it takes a lot of courage, stamina and organisation for a Cambodian community to risk social mores in a high-context [2] environment and stand up against the powers-that-be [4]. Not only do they risk direct action against themselves, they risk sending the message that their goals are designed to damage the cultural base that all Cambodians take for granted and give deep credence to.

Secondly, if a community is finally granted a negotiation and promised compensation or “further investigation” a community may feel they have won the war, when the battle has not ever begun. These are beginning manoeuvrings that put the powerful are much more comfortable with.

“We have accepted their petition and ask the community to go back to their homes while we investigate their claims over the weekend” is not an uncommon statement to hear. What this does is put the onus of response back to the community. Culturally it is highly inappropriate to question or challenge authority. But by not doing so they prolong violence and oppression. While the authority is 'investigating' their claim, the violence continues unchecked. If a freeze to all provocative behaviours is enforced immediately that is one thing, to wait is quite another. And the community is not even at the negotiating table.

Thirdly, any action criticising or resisting the will of the powers-that-be [4] will be considered threatening and will provoke a response: from a mild tongue lashing in the media to the use of armed force as was seen in Kompong Thom this week.

Nonviolent Social Power

For all the advocacy efforts of NGO's, donor countries, and even the King, little external pressure balances the scales enough for a “true listening” in Cambodia. What can be done about it?

Certainly this is not a new experience, and many have learned that you don't need guns to gain equal footing. Over the last century, since the dawn of the satyagraha [5] in South Africa, individuals and people movements have been experimenting with a different form of power, one that doesn't rely on position, status or the barrels of many guns. This is nonviolent social power [7] used successfully against brutality and violence in countries such as: India, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Guatemala, USA, Argentina, Poland, South Africa, Philippines, and many more. [7]

Nonviolent social power [7] rests on the understanding that power is not innately present in a person of status, but is acquired by the consent of the masses below him or her. This consent leads to unquestioning civil obedience. However, if the masses withdraw their consent the power base of the powerful is removed or severely weakened and change can occur.

It's certainly not as easy as it sounds as the consent to authority may range across an array of interest groups, communities and even countries. Nonviolent social power [7] has to engage the support of many of those who currently support the status quo. Failing to do this will lead to a failure to achieve nonviolent social change, and losing the 'equal footing' so needed simply to be heard.

In most cases that we see in Cambodia communities are eager to negotiate with companies and government officials only to find themselves being thrown out of board rooms and provincial offices and thrown into prison or 'relocation' camps. This is because there is no equal footing. No matter how legally sound and water-tight a community's case may be it simply doesn't matter in a country where it is the 'right' of the rulers to rule.

Should communities stop trying to negotiate? Currently, attempts at negotiation raises a community's plight to the national and international sphere of attention. But rarely goes further. As such communities should not see negotiation as their means to a just compensation package or court decision. The theory of nonviolent social power [7] requires local communities to find ways of withholding consent to the power they have been giving to businesses and authorities who refuse to give a fair listening to their cause.

In short, negotiation with little or no strategic thought to power asymmetries will not succeed.

How could a community ensure a negotiated agreement will be honoured?

Gene Sharp [8] counsels nonviolent activists to not enter into negotiation. However, realising that change takes time, what can communities do if they continue using negotiation? A community will need to plan to maintain nonviolent pressure before, during and following a negotiation until any and all agreements are implemented in full. This may require daily activities of nonviolent social power [7] to display ongoing commitment, such as sit-ins, media campaigns, demonstrations, peace walks and vigils, fasts and blockades (see Gene Sharp for a full discussion on tactical options).

Both the agreement and a timeline of implementation should be clearly written and witnessed by third parties, and if possible, made public in media statements. The written documentation enshrines that any agreements or time lines that are broken are cause for an immediate resumption or escalation of nonviolent social power [7].

This is the most dangerous phase of negotiation as all the hard work may yet be lost, resulting in loss of morale within the community, and a temptation to give in. It is also possible for the opponent to use a failed negotiation as a weapon: “we entered into good faith negotiations with the community yet they still complain ...”. The period from negotiated agreement to full implementation of the agreement should be as short as possible to maintain pressure and community mobilisation.

Without nonviolent social power [7] there is little reason for a powerful opponent to give into community demands, nor even to enter into negotiations. This, of course, will take time to catch on. Communities are not fully equipped in the range of tactics and strategies of nonviolent social power [7], and community leadership continue to be prey to direct sanctions and violence. The powers-that-be continue to believe that they can use direct and structural violence to ensure their plans proceed on time. They will need to see unrelenting commitment by not just one community, but by all.

End Notes:

[1] Ms Chea Vannath, political observer, Cambodia Daily October 27, 2009, p2.

[2] “high-context” refers to cultures where communication is conducted through symbolic actions and accepted assumptions rather than direct verbalised statements. The use of direct communication can often be a cause for conflict, rather than a way to resolve it.

[3] Nee, M. & McCallum, W. (2009). Roads to Development. Insights from Sre Ambel District, South West Cambodia. AFSC, Phnom Penh.

[4] “Do No Harm” is the Hypocratic Oath of peace workers. In short, be conscious that any given intervention may exacerbate, not reduce, a conflict. Anderson, M & Olsen, L. (2003). Confronting War. Critical Lessons for Peace Practitioners. Collaborative Learning Products.

[5] “powers-that-be” a common phrase to describe the individuals and institutions which maintain and enforce socially agreed behavioural, moral and economic standards. These often include politicians and government insitutions, wealthy individuals and classes, businesses, religious leaders and institutions, etc.

[6] “satyagraha” means 'truth force' and was born on September 11, 1906 at the Empire Theatre in South Africa by Mohandas K. Gandhi. It is the key power source for those who wish to make use of nonviolent power.

[7] “nonviolent social power” is also known as nonviolent direct action (NVDA), nonviolence, nonviolent action and active nonviolence.

[8] Sharp, G. (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Extending Horizons Books.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Update on Kep Thmey

A lone man attempted to prevent trucks from entering the community by lying down on the road. He was arrested by police after they used electric batons on him. He was released a day later (Wed 11th November).

Apparently the man was drunk when he did this.

Such a tactic can be effective at preventing violence. Lying down is about as non-threatening as you can get. However, doing this alone, and drunk to boot, dramatically reduces the likelihood this tactic will work. In this case it did not work, and did not serve to raise the case in the public sphere.

What will be interesting is to find out what the reaction from the rest of the community is. Would they consider doing this on a larger, more coordinated scale? Did this action serve to engender discussion and futher thought from inside the community? Also, what did the man learn from his experience?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In the words of the Maha

Maha Ghosananda is the father of nonviolence in Cambodia, sometimes referred to as the Gandhi of Cambodia. His book Step by Step is filled with his reflections on peace, war, violence, nonviolence and spirituality. I will post some of these each week.

The Gifts of Cambodians

Cambodians have a precious heritage. The richness of Cambodian culture includes many gifts:

Cambodians are fearless because they can overcome greed, anger, and delusion.

Cambodians are humble, courteous, and noble.

Cambodians are grateful to their mothers and fathers, to their leaders, to their land, and to the whole world.

Cambodians keep the five moral precepts, the constitution of humanity, and the Dharma of goodness.

Cambodians have mindfulness and clear comprehension as their protectors.

Cambodians practice loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

Cambodians have patience. They can bear great difficulties, suffering, and hardships.

Cambodians forgive and forget the wrongs of other people. They learn from the lessons of the past. They use the present to build the future.

Cambodians are truthful and well-behaved. They follow the middle path.

Cambodians are soft and smiling. Their speech is truthful, loving, and practical, clear, vibrant, and sweet. Their speech ahas the power to free the mind from anxiety, to purify the mind from delusion, and to make the mind strong. Cambodians have the tradition of solidarity, united by Buddhism and their love of Dharma.

Maha Ghosananda, Step by Step

The Banner

From left to right, top to bottom

M.K. Gandhi, "Father" of modern nonviolence. Coined the term 'satyagrahi' variously translated as soul force, or truth force and is a way of applying ahimsa (sanskrit for nonviolence) to an individual and her attempt to engage with her context

Maha Ghosananda, the "Gandhi of Cambodia" inaugaurated the dhammayietras in Cambodia. These peace walks initially went through the most violent parts of Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia as a statement that Cambodia was no longer under the control of violence and fear.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese democratic champion, leader of the National League for Democracy, and nonviolent proponent. Her father led the nation to indepence but the country fell into the hands of the military. In 1988 a nonviolent student 'uprising' led to a nation-wide strike and led to the agreement to hold elections. In 1990, those elections were resoundingly won by the NLD, but the military reneged on it's promise to hand over power if they lost. Burma continue to struggle for a nonviolent society where peace and justice reign.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the spiritual leader of South Africa through decades of apartheid oppression. He was devoted to seeing practical and political peace, and equal race relations a reality in his country.

Marching Monks of Myanmar, the Saffron Revolution. This abortive movement rose over the increasing costs of living such as fuel in Myanmar in 2007. Thousands took to the streets. Tragically, the military junta used brutality to quash this people movement. Many monks were tortured and killed.

Martin Luther King, Jr, recognised as the spokesperson for the American Civil Rights Movement. Dr King and thousands of black and white Americans used nonviolent means to bring equality amongst the two races. Well known tactics of the Civil Rights Movement included the Freedom Rides and Lunch Room Sit-ins.

Obviously these are just the highlights, people who are symbols of a far greater movement that cannot be simply reduced to the greatness of any one person. But their stories, and the stories behind them inspire us to a beautiful world where nonviolence is the norm, peace our expectation and justice a reality.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Nonviolence: Australia-style

Here's a great piece on nonviolence in Australia. It helps us realise that nonviolence is NOT mainstream and requires a lot of thought and energy to translate our words and actions for the wider community. Cambodia is no different.

Bryan Law: Was it all worth it?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The young reporters at the Cairns Post call him a serial pest. A serial protester. A serial stirrer. A serial activist. They've almost run out of ideas. When you can't debate and analyse a complex issue, it's much easier to call someone names. Stick and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me, so goes the age old saying.

read it all at:

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Well Done Kep Thmey

In an exciting turn of events this week, Kep Thmey villagers took the gutsy step of appealing to the Prime Minister to voice their concerns over an economic development project on their coastal waters. What some describe as a bizarre plan, two weathly businessmen plan to fill in roughly 9 kilometers of coastal water to create a new special economic zone (SEZ).

Why Cambodia needs to create land for an SEZ as many others lie vacant and bereft of investors, is a question begging to be asked and answered.

On Wednesday the Keo Chea company began filling in coastal waters directly in front of Kep Thmey village. Villlagers were unprepared and were able to do little but give token resistance. They were easily moved out of the way of over 100 large trucks by 60 police. On Thursday morning an un named resister (or resisters) cut down a tree to prevent access to the village, but again were easily thwarted with overpowering machinery.

Completely daunted by the company, yet still willing to risk all, villagers, including Chan Dara, travelled to the PM's residence in Ta Khmao on Friday and amazingly their petition was recieved by prime ministerial secretary Nov Nara.

Well done Kep Thmey!

Officials politely asked the villagers to return home and wait for a response after the Water Festival. Hah! We've seen similar delay tactics before (remember Dey Krahorm?!). In the mean time company trucks will continue delivering payloads of dirt. Keep up the pressure, and voice your dissent until you get a fair hearing and the change in company's plans that you want.

Coastal waters may sound a little irrelevant, but they are a major source of economic activity for the villagers of Kep Thmey, Totung Thgnay and Roluos. Not to mention their cultural heritage as fishing communities. Without this natural resource their livelihood will be severely curtailed and need to look for work elsewhere (ie a dead-end factory job or moto dope).

Upcoming Posts

The Problem With Negotiation.
Negotiation skills seem like a simple capacity building project. However, negotiations can exacerbate conflicts and undermine community empowerment.

Community: A Misnomer?
In land conflicts all over the country, newspapers and NGO papers often refer to "the community" as if it were a homogenous entity. Without acknowledging the complicated web of social arrangements present in a geographic locale nonviolent efforts will go to waste.

Peace and Justice: Cambodia - PJC

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The First Word

Unless you happen to be one of the groopies, nonviolence seems kinda wierd, doesn't it? I mean, it sounds whimpy at best, ineffective and idealist in a real world of real violence, at worst. But I want to change that perception that both you and I are likely to hold. We are told from knee-high and earlier that violence is part of the natural order. From Tom & Jerry to Die Hard violence gives us both laughs and adrenaline rushes we will be chasing for many years to come.

Nonviolence is a completely different story. Hence the title. Telling it requires patience and some eye surgery. It is a commitment to see things quite differently. A paradigm shift, you might say. And it takes some time to make the shift. It takes some healing (of ourselves and others) to deeply value it's alternative vision.

More than that, nonviolence attempts to offer concrete solutions to concrete problems. The problem of violence is not just cartoon fable, but something which assails us from many angles - CNN and BBC coverage of the "War on Terror" to news items of 15 year-olds in 'indefinite confinement' for their destructive urges. Clearly violence is more than just a projection, but a hard reality of wars both 'out there' and 'in here'.

I've found the journey to nonviolence hard work. I've uncovered violent urges I had preferred to ignore and deny, a penchant for the Myth of Redemptive Violence (more on this later) that seems almost unquenchable. At the same time I reject violence and desire nonviolent techniques for solving the most mundane to the most blood-curdling of issues. It could be argued I embody humanity's great capacity for cognitive dissonance.

I'm particularly concerned with Cambodia. With the ever-increasing economic 'development' that leaves most Cambodians with less, and a few with a lot more. It is not a new story by any means. What is new is the emerging story of nonviolent responses to violence and development-induced repression that began with Maha Ghosananda during the Khmer Rouge years. Each day new communities are forced into the economic development 'reality', and required to make a choice: fight, flight or nonviolent resistance. The few who chose the latter are often untrained in the ways of strategic nonviolence. In addition, few who try to support those local responses know much about nonviolence themselves, and focus more on human rights and legal process. These certainly have their place, yet the local Cambodian resister needs more.

Trucks empty loads of soil into the sea to create a new economic 'development', despite community protests.

I floated the idea of a nonviolent action and research 'entity' a while back with some folks and the response was positive, and any who didn't like the idea have yet to inform me! So the idea of a forum, this blog, has emerged in the attempt to be more collaborative and engaging than the current attempt at a website ( which has been received quite well.

This blog is attempting something different, though. Rather than focusing on the negatives, the abuses, violence and general feelings of hopelessness (there's more than enough of that already), this blog will focus on thinking through what a nonviolent response could look like, and celebrating the stories that have made use of active nonviolence in some shape or form.

To end, this blog is an invitation for you to join in on telling the nonviolent story. From where you are now on the journey. Your questions, insights, learnings, hopes and dreams. So sign up for RSS, make a comment, or if you'd like to contribute a post contact me at peaceandjustice.cambodia[at]

Peace & Jusitce: Cambodia (PJC)

End Notes:
Myth of Redemptive Violence - term coined by theologian and nonviolence proponent, Walter Wink, and refers to the notion that violence is able to redeem evil. Hence the US can start a violent 'shock and awe' campaign at the beginning of their invasion of Iraq during the 'War on Terror'. This is to say, violence used for the cause of the greater good will redeem violence used in the cause of evil.

Cognitive Dissonance - psychological term referring to the ability to hold two or more contradictory positions at one time. Eg "teenage violence is a scourge on our nation" and "anyone who opposes the war is unpatriotic".

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Today I learned of Socheat, a brave young woman of 22 who faces court
tomorrow. Her crime: pulling a police officer off another community
member and protecting her from a serious beating. As a result Socheat
was beaten and charged. She faces 8 months in prison. But is willing
to do so. What a champion for peace, nonviolence and her community!

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Municipality cancels meeting with Dey Krahom

PP municipality, PM cabinet & 7NG have postponed today's mting with DK reps. UN calling/writing to PM cabinet, UK embassy calling PP Deputy Governor and LICADHO calling PP governor to encourage decision to set new date/time for mting with DK.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dey Krahom

As a result of today's event by DK villagers at the PM's house, Rithy, an officer of the PM's cabinet has organized a meeting for Dey Krahom people at 7NG with Phnom Penh muncipality representatives, Pal Chandara, Lem Keanser & 7NG company representatives on Tuesday morning at 7NG office. From colleagues of Licadho.

Dey Krahom

DK villagers heading to Prime Minister's house tomorrow AM to submit petition incl details of damages during eviction. DK appeals for observers/monitors to join them at PM's house at 8 AM. All media welcome.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Group 78 representatives hold news conference demanding land titles

PHNOM PENH Feb 5. This morning community representatives from the Group 78 community held a press conference highlighting their rising concern over the lack of information recieved from the government of Cambodia regarding plans for their community. Displayed in English and Khmer a letter requesting land titles for the residents of Group 78.

In attendance were community members, members of the Cambodian and foreign press, the UN, Mu Sochua of the Sam Rainsy party, local and
international NGO's. About 60 people were present. For photographs of the event go to