Cambodian Women for Peace

by Liz Bernstein

There is a movement growing in Cambodia, a people’s movement, led by women. It is a movement of peace and of people excited by the new possibilities dawning in their country. The possibility of laying down weapons after more than 20 years of war, where a new constitution may finally provide them with basic human rights. The movement began as a coalition of monks, nuns, women’s groups, student associations, development and human rights groups who were determined to seize the current unique opportunities in creating a new peace.

Nou Sambo, vice-president of the leading women’s organization, the Cambodian Women’s Committee for Nonviolence and the Election, explained, “We women are tired of seeing our sons come back without legs and arms. We are tired of the violence and bloodshed in our country. We are 60 percent of the population and we can no longer remain silent. That is why at first we began a campaign to educate women to exercise their voting rights. Indeed we are 60 percent of the voters.” This coalition has organized several activities over the past months, turning out thousands of people empowered by the successful elections. Over 90 percent of the Cambodian people braved threats and intimidation to express their burning desire for peace in the May 23- 28 elections.

The Women’s Committee for Nonviolence grew out of the first Cambodian National Women’s Summit on March 8, 1993, (International Women’s Day), as did another women’s association called Indra Devi. These two were encouraged and supported by Khemara, the first Khmer non-governmental organization in Cambodia, which focuses on the development needs of women. During the start of the election period, political threats, intimidation and assassinations were widespread. Nevertheless, the committee focused on the need to engage women in the elections and to educate them on their basic human rights, particularly their right to vote. The women also realized their vital role in building reconciliation and peace.

The various womens’ organizations organized the arrival of the Dhammayietra, a Walk for Peace and Reconciliation, into Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Mobilizing students and human rights activists, the women’s groups forged a coalition with the Walk as their first project. The Walk of 350 monks, nuns and lay people began 17 days earlier at Angkor Wat. The Walk totalled some 350 kilometres and crossed several war-torn provinces. As it entered the city, which was tense with the fear of violence, the walkers swelled to nearly 3,000 people. Nearly 10,000 people participated in walks and meditations for peace during the next three days (May 22-24), just before the historic UN-sponsored elections. One spectator testified, “People were so afraid of elections. Here in Phnom Penh they had started to stockpile rice…but the Walk has relieved us all, inspired us with hope.”

One week later, June 4-6, the Coalition organized a three-day ‘Peace Festival ‘,before the election’s final results were announced. The Festival consisted of silent meditations for peace, and ceremonial offerings to monks, which congratulated the Cambodian people on the successful elections. They also encouraged people to follow the Buddhist principle of equanimity, and urged winners as well as losers to remain calm. Slogans quoted the Buddha’s words: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred. Hatred is appeased by love. This is an eternal law”.

On the Festival’s final day some 1,000 people gathered at the Independence Monument to meditate and listen to the words of Buddhist spiritual leader Maha Ghosananda. Afterwards the crowd, joined by thousands, paraded a boat made of banana leaves to the river front. The boat was launched into the Tonle Sap river, symbolically casting off the past 20 years of violence and hatred and, as one participant said, “sending all those weapons back to where they came from!” People piled the boat with money before it was launched, as a symbol of ridding themselves of their own hatred, greed and delusion.

The Coalition met the next day to plan another peace event. When they presented their next plan to Mafia Gliosananda, he laughed and said, “You all understand very well working for peace. There is no beginning and no end. We must continuously begin again and never become discouraged.”

The ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which won 38 percent of the election vote (as opposed to the FUNCINPEC Party’s 45 percent) began to contest the results of the election. They refused to recognize the results, and called for an independent commission to review the election results. Several eastern provinces, traditional CPP strongholds, declared themselves autonomous. They tried to expel United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) authorities and FUNCINPEC and to partition the country, and caused

fear and anxiety among people. People’s hopes for peace were shattered. The whole nation lived in a state of limbo awaiting UNTAC’s response. When a monk commented, “But regardless, we must continue. We must have a sustained peace movement”, a woman activist said, “Yes, we cannot stop until there is TRUE peace, and a new constitution in Cambodia.”

On June 10, the day UNTAC head Yasushi Akashi announced the election’s final results from the Royal Palace, the Coalition organized a “Bon Chlong Wiel Bey.” During this festival thousands of people walked through the streets to the Palace, where birds and balloons were released as symbols of freedom. The name of this festival in Khmer indicates crossing three deserts. Maha Ghosananda explained how Cambodians had now crossed the three deserts—hatred, greed and delusion—that cause war. “Like our breath, in and out,” he said, “like day and night, war and peace are always interchanging. Nothing is permanent. One leads to the other. Now we leave suffering and enter peace.”

On June 14, at the first meeting of the new Constituent Assembly, thousands of monks, nuns, and representatives of human rights and other community groups gathered in front of the Assembly building “to encourage the new Constituent Assembly in their noble task of preparing a new Constitution for Cambodia.” They also requested seats for representatives of monks, nuns, and non-governmental organizations and observers in order to make the writing of the new Constitution truly democratic. Their statement read, “The Constitution should be a reflection of the will of the people to move forward to peaceful times. We strongly believe the Constitution will provide us with freedom, security and create a civil society wherein basic rights of the people are guaranteed and respected.”

The crowd prayed and mediated as Assembly members filed past to enter the building. There were banners reading “The New Constitution Must Respect Womens’ Rights” and “Cambodian Women Support the New Constitution”. On June 28, the Coalition was granted three observer seats, on a permanent basis, in the Assembly.

A video of all these peace activities was made by a group of six women. The group was able, in a very short time, to document the whole period of the election, including the Peace Walk. Training in this medium gave the women confidence, as well as a way to reach thousands of others. Both local as well as international media continue to cover all events organized by the Coalition. The Women’s Committee for Nonviolence also created short poems, skits and texts on women’s rights and the election, and on nonviolence and peace. These are broadcast daily over UNTAC radio.

The Coalition also developed plans for the following three months, the time allotted to write the Constitution according to the Paris Peace Accords. The Coalition wants to make sure the process is a democratic one. The Coalition created the “Ponleu Khmer: A Citizens’ Coalition for the Constitution”, which lobbies for the inclusion of the UN Bill of Rights, the establishment of an independent judiciary and for provisions for the advancement of women and gender sensitivity.

To encourage women’s participation in the writing of the Constitution, a workshop was held entitled “Women and the Constitution.” Copies of the draft constitution and information on women’s rights and mechanisms to secure them were printed and distributed. Public meetings with teachers, women’s and human rights groups are being held throughout the country by teams of women. A video is being made of interviews with women about what they want from the Constitution. This video will be shown to Assembly representatives, as well as broadcast on Khmer television. The Coalition will continue to broadcast radio sketches about women’s rights and the Constitution.

Sochtia Mu Leiper, director of Khemara, said that “the people clearly want to show their newly elected leaders the way to lead, a way which serves the people. It is not their right to lead, but rather their responsibility to respect the peoples’ rights to live in dignity.”

Liz Bernstein works with the Coalition for Peace and Reconciliation, clo AFSC, P.O. Box 604, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.