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Unsettled peace in Cambodia

Written By vibykhmer on Thursday, September 17, 2009 | 6:59 AM

By Chak Sopheap
Guest Commentary
Published: September 17, 2009

Niigata, Japan — The world will soon once again celebrate the United Nations International Day of Peace, marked every year on Sept. 21. Yet the world is far from peace as civil wars, religious conflicts, growing insurgencies and the economic downturn bring more hardship than joy and smiles to people. Cambodia is no exception.

Cambodia claims to be a peaceful state, having recovered from a series of civil wars that included horrendous acts of genocide. However, there must be a clear consensus on how the country defines peace.

Peace should not be described as merely the absence of war or violence, which is “negative peace.” It should also include communal harmony, socioeconomic cooperation and equal political representation in government for all citizens. These, along with good governance, which respects the rights of the people, constitute the positive side of peace, or rather peace building.

Even when we say “absence of violence,” we must first examine what violence is. While war is direct visible violence, there is also a kind of “structural violence,” the result of bad and harmful state policies that have long-term negative effects on people, such as hunger and poverty, which harm and put peoples’ lives at risk.

If we look at the current trend in Cambodia, negative peace has been obtained but is jeopardizing positive peace. While parts of the economy are making considerable progress, more than 30 percent of the population is still living in extreme poverty. In addition, with corruption and continuous human rights violations – especially forced evictions and land grabbing under so-called development claims – there is little hope that Cambodia can move out of poverty.

In its current pursuit of development, the government of Cambodia has abused and violated people’s rights to housing and development. The judicial system is corrupt and the state is the main violator of the law. This state of affairs has rendered poor communities voiceless and powerless.

At the same time, freedom of expression – a fundamental right – has also been abused by the government, which applies various ill-defined laws with the help of the judiciary it controls as a political tool to silence critics. It is not surprising that the government recently filed many lawsuits against political activists, journalists and human rights defenders.

Systematic structural violence has not yet affected peace in Cambodia, but it will soon if the government does not undertake and implement reforms immediately. For example, there is fear that the ongoing land grabbing and evictions by the government could lead to a peasant revolution. This would then revive the cycle of bitter agrarian revolution that brought past political regimes, like Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, to power.

The government therefore must commit to not only maintaining negative peace, but also to building positive peace in order to attain social harmony.


(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)


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