Monday, June 21, 2010

Cambodia and the Way of Nonviolence

by Chris Baker Evens
April, 2010

In Cambodia rampant economic development is fuelling discontent and creating social, economic and cultural upheaval through forced evictions, loss of natural resources and an inaccessible legal system. Cambodians are fighting back using active nonviolence.

The reality of conflict (1) and violence (2) in Cambodia, especially over land and natural resources, but also within communities and families, is a daily reality for hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Communities are frustrated with the lack of responsiveness by local, provincial and national authorities to listen and act on their concerns, resulting in a number of communities resorting to threats and violence. The subtext is, "we know we are going to lose, but we're not going down without a fight!"

In addition, there are a range of country characteristics (3) for Cambodia suggesting that a time of national choice will come, when the frustrations over structural violence will boil over the cultural values of maintaining relational harmony and respect for authority. The country is held together by a strongly centralised and authoritarian political structure that is more oligarchy than democracy. A recent report (Roads to Development, Meas Nee and Wayne McCallum, 2009) suggests that Cambodian authorities have been able to subsume the language of democracy and development into existing structures of corruption gaining international recognition as a successful post-conflict democracy and access to ongoing financial aid. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Community Petition Parade

This morning at 6:30am 200 community "activists" prepared to walk the short distance from Wat Botum to the Prime Minister's offices in the center of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Dozens of riot police were dispatched to prevent the action, designed to highlight the plight of Cambodia's many tens of thousands of people affected by unrestrained economic interests. Around the country economic and land concessions are awarded to national and international companies to "develop" Cambodia. In turn over one hundred thousand people are at risk of forced evictions, environmental degradation, loss of livelihood and cultural continuity.

While riot police attempted to intimidate the peaceful group, individuals, notably older women approached the heavily armed police and tried a sly nonviolent tactic called "rehumanisation". One woman implored a security officer to call her "mother-in-law" to show that they were both from the same Cambodian "family". In response his face turned bright red with embarrassment. The absurdity of the heavily armed response to a peaceful group armed only with a petition of 60,000 signatures obviously dawned on him.

In terms of "effectiveness" this action has several points worth reflecting. Any action that provokes a response has some intrinsic effectiveness as it is obviously pushing a button that the powers-that-be do not like to be pushed. If this issue or group of people were talking about a "politically safe" issue there would not have been the police response. On the other hand, Cambodia has tightly controlled protest regulations. While public protests are not technically illegal, municipal authorities demand groups arrange "permission" ahead of time. A public gathering, then, can simply be a statement of resistance to such a practice, not necessarily the issue being raised.

I am aware that officials from the Prime Minister's Office did in fact arrive to collect the petition (instead of allowing the group to march the less than one kilometer from the pagoda to their offices). This marks an important action-moment for the group. On the one hand officialdom has publicly acknowledged their grievance, on the other hand they have potentially removed the source of tension, depending on the group's demands and goals. Were they simply after the successful handing over of a petition? In which case they are successful but real change is unlikely. Or are they demanding real resolution to the raised issues that, unless acted on, will be followed up by further nonviolent actions until a full, transparent and acceptable response by the government has been made? In which case it's too early to say if there has been success. The history of nonviolent action in Cambodia so far is mixed. At the local level there have been some impressive successes. On the national level very few. However, this continues to provide an opportunity for Cambodian peoples of all ethnicities, religions and language groups to express their ongoing desire for protection of the land, natural resources and human, cultural and economic rights.

Photo by Moses Ngeth