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. 

Cambodia exists within a global context of violence and counter violence where there are few vibrant and lasting examples, on a national or political scale, to suggest that nonviolent alternatives to state-sanctioned violence are being seriously considered at the political level. This fits well within
Cambodia's own particular mythology of violence and domination. The well-known "judge rabbit" stories are full of a wily character who gleefully kills others in the pursuit of "justice". It's arguable that the stories and acts of death are metaphors themselves, but the themes that arise out of these stories include subterfuge, lying, craftiness and trickery, which don't belong in the nonviolent "arsenal".

On the streets things are different. Patience with autocratic, militarised, abusive and violent governments is growing thin.
More and more people, from every continent on Earth, are willing to take to the streets and demand a more peaceful and more just response to their daily problems. And rather than using violence they are discovering an ages-old form of waging conflict.

Choosing How to Respond to Violence

There are several choices for responding to injustice, violence and conflict. Some choices rest on an underlying belief that violence, aggression and competition is normal and should be used to maintain peace and order in our communities, nations, regions and the world as a whole.  When faced with evil, we are told, it is moral and necessary to use equal or greater force to rid ourselves of that evil, so that society can continue to exist. With this premise in mind we end up with two ways in which violence is enabled.

Passivity is the most common response to violence. At times we simply ignore violence. We think that as long as our life is ok and our goals for education, wealth and health are not disturbed the world is as it should be. There is no need to seek change. We may well be ignorant of the issues, and even unwilling to educate ourselves of the realities of violence and the potential for seeking change. At other times we accommodate violence when we see it occuring but refuse to act for change because we fear to rock the boat and our position within it. We fear that if we make noise about violence we will become the target of the violence ourselves. 

The second most prevalent form of responding to violence is to use retaliatory violence - w
e follow the old saying, "If you can't beat them, join them". When violence is all around it seems that the best way to survive is to use violence to secure our needs. We may either join in with the original perpetrators and enjoy their protection, or oppose the perpetrators in the hope that we can defeat them.

None of these options address the reasons that violence and oppression begin. By ignoring, accommodating or retaliating we either repress the violence or make it worse. The violence is still there making life difficult for all.

Cambodian Examples of Enabling Violence

Many communities in Cambodia willingly give over land and natural resources to authorities and business people because they think they are the only ones facing an unjust situation and don't want to be the only ones making a fuss. Or they think, "they are our leaders, they know what is best for the whole country". This is largely fueled by the denial of access to open media and news sources with almost all newspapers and the majority of radio stations owned by pro-government sources. A colleague who runs a youth program teaching about urban planning tells me that without exception these youth are completely unaware of the presence of relocation sites around Phnom Penh filled with previously evicted communities. 

Communities in the west of Kampot province have been threatened with reprisals if they speak out about a major port project, risking the loss of jobs in a local garment factory if they do. By not speaking out and seeking change the violence is accommodated and continues unabated.

Communities threatened with the loss of land, resources and livelihoods seek official support and generally receive silence, at best a general statement of support and promise to solve their problem. Nothing changes, however. Eventually frustration boils over into acts of vandalism such as burning property - buildings and machinery - of the perpetrator. 

It's worth saying that each culture has it's own ways of ignoring, accommodating and acting out violence. We cannot ignore our own complicity with violence by saying, "well, at least we're not like them!", and we certainly can't say that one culture is worse than another. By entering into the blame game we may quickly find ourselves perpetrating violence on others.

The Nonviolent Alternative

The "third way" of engaging conflict is active nonviolence. I say "active" nonviolence because nonviolence is often perceived as passive and inactive. It couldn't be any further from the truth! Nonviolence is a highly active and engaging form of responding to violence and conflict. It benefits from skill, discipline and courage, but is also available to anyone to use, including the young and old, men and women, students and professionals, the general public, civil servants and even the armed services. Most importantly nonviolence seeks change in the factors perpetuating violence and works against the enabling behaviours of violence: passivity and retaliation.

How Active Nonviolence Works

While nonviolence is assumed to be the option of the weak and those who just want to love everyone, nonviolent action generally begins from a place of deep frustration and anger. At first nonviolence is used becuase tactically there is no way for the aggreived group to use force and win. While this is a valid motivation for nonviolence it does not tap deeply into the vast power resources of active nonviolence. By working at building compassion for our opponents we begin to see that the violent action does not simply hurt us, but our opponent, too. Therefore we seek means and methods that allow the perpetrator of violence to seek change, too. This may take longer than we'd like, but it is more likely to ensure a stable peace than a temporary truce.

To paraphase nonviolence scholar Michael Nagler, nonviolence is inserting positive energy into a negative situation and seeking a positive outcome. It is true that many nonviolent tactics are obstructive, such as blocking roads or making life or work difficult for our opponents, but the purpose behind these actions is to highlight acts of violence that are often hidden from view and thus the normal responses of ignorance and accommodation are facilitated. Nonviolent action seeks ways and means that highlight the often hidden conflicts around us, and has been termed "conflict escalation" by at least one nonviolent activist.

Take earthquakes, for example. Scientists know that the earth is made up of many different techtonic plates which the continents ride on. Some of these plates rub up against each other, but for the most part we don't see this happening until there is a huge scraping together in an earthquake. There is conflict going on between the two plates. One going one way, the other going a different way. Eventually the tension builds up and is released in a violent moment. Active nonviolence seeks to highlight the underlying conflict before it builds up to a dangerous level and deadly physical violence erupts. Once the conflict is visible we have a chance to deal with it, and make changes in the way we relate to one another more compassionately and creatively.

To give a local example, a company is awarded an economic land concession on or next to land used and owned by a community. The company decides to encroach on the community land and the land owners get upset, angry and feel like fighting back. The general public, however, have no idea this conflict is going on. The community then cut a tree down and block a major road causing traffic chaos. People take notice. They cannot go about their daily lives as normal and start to ask why. This is a risky tactic because people unaffected by the company may simply be annoyed at not being able to use the road. But if the community can clearly explain their grievance then public opinion can be built to support their desire for justice, compensation and the return of their land. The authorities are more likely to seek a resolution so that public opinion does not get out of hand.

This is a simplistic example but helps to show how nonviolent "conflict escalation" works to address underlying conflicts that could easily erupt into physical violence.
Conflict is not seen as the enemy, rather violence and injustice. 

Writer and nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp has identified three categories of nonviolent action that can work in escalating conflict in order to transform violent systems into more peaceful systems:
protest and pursuasion; noncooperation; and intervention. The last two being most effective. In Cambodia, we are seeing many spontaneous community-led nonviolent actions fitting into these three categories.

Legitimacy and Obedience

Asymmetric power in Cambodia takes the form of economic injustice, judicial corruption, lack of transparent government and business practices, economic and land concessions, bribery throughout the school system at all levels, domestic violence, military crackdowns, the list goes on.

The first real task of responding to asymmetric power in Cambodia is to realise that it's not really asymmetric. The idea of asymmetry is that one side is larger than the other - it's not balanced. So the Cambodian population believe, and are led to believe, that certain people hold more power than others. Adults hold more power than children, men hold more power than women, Khmer hold more power than indigenous communities, Buddhists hold more power than Mulslims or Christians, authorities hold more power than "normal people".

The nonviolent actor understands that power resides in legitimacy and obedience. When a particular person or structure is seen as holding legitimate authority, say the police, then people will obey their instructions. But what if that authority is not acting in the best interests of all concerned, should that authority still be obeyed? For the most of us we are taught to say, "yes" from the moment we came out of the womb. And this is how most violence is accommodated and perpetuated.

When individuals and groups of people decide to stop obeying authorities that work against their best interests the issue of power suddenly changes. A crucial source of power that the authority relies on - obedience - has suddenly been taken away and channeled somewhere else. At this point nonviolent change is possible. If the authority wants it's source of power back it has to respond, either using force or by acceding to the demand of change. Suddenly, what looked like an enormous uphill battle can seem like an even match. This has been called 'people power' (4).

Examples of Active Nonviolence in Cambodia

This kind of active nonviolence is being used regularly across Cambodia. It shows that in general public policies support big business and communities are forced to seek alternative processes to bring about change. Not every community is strong enough to resist the urge to violence, and not every community is positioned to successfully carry out a nonviolent intervention without negative consequences. Many communities using nonviolence are faced with heavily armed police and military. People have been shot, wounded and killed. Homes have been burned down. Community leaders imprisoned. Nonviolence is not for the weak-hearted and their is every likelihood of a violent backlash. But that should not diminsh our hopes in active nonviolence.

Protest and Persuasion

In Kampot province 2008, fishing villagers were ordered to hand over their mangrove forest and fishing grounds to a small handfull of businesspeople. This would be the end of their livelihood. However, they refused the legitimacy of the order, which came from the highest authority in the land. The affected villages marched in the streets of Kampot and the governor refused to give the mangrove forests to the business people and returned the right of use back to the local community.

Nonviolent Intervention

More recently, a community in Kampong Speu province engaged in nonviolent intervention by cutting down a tree and blocking National Road Four which connects the major port of Sihanoukeville, and the capital city, Phnom Penh. This intervention came in response to the arrest and detention of two community leaders after the community had razed the property of a sugar company they claim was encroaching on their community's land. Having received no effective response from the local authorities the community took matters in their own hands and burnt down the buildings. Police later showed up and arrested the two they thought responsible. The villagers proceeded to cut down trees blocking the road and demand a meeting with the Provincial Governor and the release of their leaders. At the same time, other community members camped out infront of the local courthouse where the two were being held. Others camped out in their fields to prevent the excavators from destroying more of their land. And people from other communities traveled to the remote area to add numbers to the actions and provide moral and material support. By the end of the day both demands were granted and the two were released about a week later. The issue of the land encroachment has still not been settled and many villagers continue to simultaneously protest the company, the Kompong Speu Sugar Company, owned by the powerful Cambodian People's Party senator Ly Yong Phat, and nonviolently protect their land. Others, however, have sought compensation in the form of relocation to another area.

This last case is interesting in it's use of violence and nonviolence. The obvious frustration felt by the community built up to an explosive action of burning down the company's buildings. This could have easily undone the community. Violent reprisals in the form of police or military action could have eventuated but they did not. The community regrouped and found nonviolent means to gain leverage in the situation. Causing a major traffic disruption quickly got the attention of the local authorities. But it is clear that the company is unwilling to budge. The release of their leaders does not ensure the return of their land. A long-term nonviolent struggle may be needed.

Cambodia, ranked as 111th in the recent 2010 Global Peace Index, obviously has a long way to go to address core issues of violence and injustice. Nonviolence is clearly linked to increased stability and peace. The pursuit of nonviolent change is most likely to benefit all stakeholders and is, by nature, an inclusive strategy. There is plenty of work to do by local activists and those who support them such as building up strategic and analytical skills. Yet, that Cambodians so quickly default to active nonviolence is greatly encouraging - Maha Ghosananda began the nonviolent dhammayietras while the Khmer Rouge still controlled large areas of Cambodia and many are following in his footsteps. We can expect to see more advanced practice of active nonviolence in the future.

(1) Conflict. It is important to know that conflict and violence are very different. Conflict is a normal and inevitable part of life. We go about our lives, choose goals and find that we have to work with people who have different goals to us. We choose how to navigate this difference of goals. Violence, on the other hand, is a way of addressing conflict, as is nonviolence.

(2) Violence. I use the word "violence" in it's broadest form possible, which included acts of physical, structural and cultural violence. While we equate 'violence' mostly with physical acts such as hitting, shooting, fighting there are other non-physical forms of violence that do as much, or more damage.

(3) Country Characteristics. These include: natural resources, and primary commodities (Paul Collier, 1999); practice of speculation (Levy & Scott-Clark, 2008); high risk of civil unrest (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2009) and the Global Peace Index (2010) which rates Cambodia at 111th out of 148 countries and assesses for a large range of factors that increase the likelihood of violence and instability.
Collier, P. (1999). Doing Well Out of War. The World Bank. Paper prepared for Conference on Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, London April 26-27, 1999.
Economist Intelligence Unit (2009). Manning the Barricades. Http:// Retrieved 26 March.
Levy, A & Scott-Clark, C. (2008) 
Country for Sale. The Guardian. [accessed March 10, 2009].

(4) People Power. People Power directly refers to the nonviolent overthrow of Philippine dictator Ferdinande Marcos. The process by which People Power succeeded has been ustilised in many other countries. The list of nonviolent revolutions grows yearly, with approximately 3.4 billion people involved and counting. The list of countries include:
The Philippines, Haiti, Panama, Colombia, Chile, India, Guatemala, Poland, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Thailand, Serbia and many more.
If you take into account nonviolent action that has sought systemic change, but not necessarily regime change, then the list gets even longer and the range of actions even larger.

Other Sources:
Gene Sharp (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential.
Walter Wink (2003). Jesus and Nonviolence. A Third Way.

Image Sources:

Techtonic Plates Collide

See Saw

See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil

Philippines Nuns

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