The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is expected by many in the international community to bring a sense of reconciliation to a nation still grappling with the aftermath of more than thirty years of civil war. Yet the gap between national and local reconciliation initiatives tests post-conflict reconstruction efforts to meet the needs of Cambodian citizens who feel unconnected to the tribunal. This article inquires into the interrelationship between national reconciliation processes and grassroots peacebuilding in the form of conflict resolution trainings. Noting that retributive justice processes cannot take the place of restorative justice, genuine reconciliation in Cambodia will need to incorporate culturally-based ritual derived from Buddhism in order to be relevant to local people. The Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID), a Cambodian NGO, serves as a case study for the successes and obstacles to local peacebuilding initiatives.
Key words: conflict resolution, Cambodia, NGO programs, human rights - East Asia
Cambodia today stands at a historic crossroad. The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), commonly referred to as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT), opened in 2007 after many years of accumulated expectations. While the KRT is poised to deliver retributive justice at the national level, it may leave the majority of Cambodians bereft of an experience of restorative justice, namely reconciliation in their local communities. This article explores the gap between national and local healing by asking the question: What is the relationship between national reconciliation and local, grassroots-level peacebuilding efforts in the form of conflict resolution trainings? Through a case study of the Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I examine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are providing civil society with conflict-focused capacity building to complement the elite, retributive justice mechanism of the KRT. I describe my quest to identify tools and techniques to culturally integrate democratic practice and conflict resolution techniques that honor indigenous knowledge and stress the possibility that these trainings could enhance reconciliation efforts nationally.
I address the question by first unpacking the dynamic between former victims, perpetrators, and alienated community members in a brief historical review of the Cambodian conflict. I then present barriers to reconciliation in the post-conflict political environment. The example of KID is next drawn upon to highlight the role of NGOs in civil society capacity building, with specific attention to the potential for conflict resolution training to facilitate reconciliation. I present Buddhism and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) as tools to move local communities toward their own healing processes and thereby contribute to genuine national reconciliation. The article concludes with a positive assessment of the ability for localized capacity building to contribute to national reconciliation. Fostering local cultures of peace with increased awareness and utilization of the power of communication may be the path to Cambodia's psychosocial rehabilitation.
Contextualizing Violence: The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge
Cambodia does not have a gentle past. In the last half century its people have experienced violence from the U.S. bombings during the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1973, followed by two epochs of civil war, most notably from 1975 to 1979, when more than a million Cambodians, at least one of every eight citizens, died from starvation, overwork, or execution under the Khmer Rouge regime.1 The idealistic teenagers and former schoolteachers who fueled the Khmer Rouge movement saw forced revolution as the only antidote to U.S. imperialism. Yet their agenda of gender and age-divided collective living and hard labor impacted the country long after their overthrow in 1979 and beyond the subsequent decade of Vietnamese occupation. …