There are many areas in Khmer society that share the responsibility for peacebuilding to ensure a future stability within Cambodia. Non-governmental organizations, the national government, and independent institutions are all players in a multi-front movement towards peacebuilding for the Khmer society. They are inherently connected and without effort from one, the entire peacebuilding process is lacking. Peacebuilding is intrinsically connected to culture and history, making it a complex and long-term process. Highlighted below are examples of efforts from these three different sectors.
Tean Thor is an educational and vocational school that also is a a refuge for AIDS patients. The organization addresses this taboo issue by educating young children about AIDS, how it is contracted,and how it is not contracted. They house, feed, provide medicine, and support AIDS victims. The children who have AIDS also take classes alongside children who are not infected. This NGO, like many, faces budgetary constraints and a lack of assistance from the government. It is also battling a social stigma and cultural resistance to addressing this issue. It has done an impressive job with the resources it has, from engaging the once distant monks to work with AIDS victims. The monks are an integral part of Khmer society and have a far reaching influence amongst the Khmer people.
The National Election Committee (NEC) has the responsibility of organizing and facilitating "free and fair" elections, held for the first time in 1993, with the support of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) . As international organizations and NGOs have descended onto this country, there is huge international pressure upon this institution. I cannot comment on how free or fair the elections are, there have been numerous criticisms from the international community as the NEC has attempted to meet international standards. There is also skepticism and a lack of trust in institutions that are connected to the government among the Khmer people (the Cambodian government contributes funds to the NEC). As many institutions in this country, they seem to have done remarkably well against extreme odds, with much work still to be done.
Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) will try five former members of the top commanders in the Khmer Rouge. There are several challenges that have beset the court thus far. Both high costs and the lagging trial schedule are sources of criticism from the international community. Currently, they are one year behind the original set date for the trial of Guek Eav Kaing, or Duch, the former head of the torture center, Toul Sleng or S21. Duch is the only one who has confessed; the pretrial is due to begin in February 2009, while another application for extension is due. The current projected cost for the court is approximately $90 million over three years.
Cambodians themselves have characterized their culture as one of impunity and silence. Symbolism is very important in the Khmer society, much more so than in western culture. This trial is important symbolically for the Khmer people. First, to address the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, whose leaders have lived under impunity for thirty years. Second, it is important in the personal healing process of Khmer because it provides a venue and a reason to talk about the atrocities committed against them. As one NGO employee stated, "the first challenge for addressing the genocide is getting people to open their mouths." Whether it justifies the amount of money the tribunal costs is another issue. Many Khmer feel that that money could be better invested in the health care system, the economy, or social programs.
These are just three examples of institutions we visited during our time in Cambodia. For a more in depth look at the government perspective, or lack there of, in peacebuilding, look out for the next blog to come....