Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
A person’s story should never be reduced to the most horrible situation he or she has faced, or to their most promising trait. Likewise a country with a traumatic history is much more than its trauma.
Being in Cambodia for a week was a constant reminder of the basics. In the words of Aristotle, the father of systematic logic, “the whole is [and will always be] greater than the sum of its parts.” The whole can never be fully comprehended by only looking at its components, even when you have all of them in front of you. The history, a specific event or a series of events in Cambodia’s past will not fully depict what Cambodia is; not even when the understanding of its history is mixed with understanding of its politics and culture (those different and at times indefinable and fuzzy aspects of ‘Cambodian-ness’ – if such thing actually exists).
The opposite is of course worse. Ignoring key elements of the country’s past will leave a blank, an incomplete picture, an unreal picture of the country; however, taking a reductionist view, or even being fixated on Cambodia’s dark past is almost as if we are robbing the dignity of a country. In the same way that presenting a country as a hungry child for a utilitarian purpose tells an incomplete story, a single story, it also robs the dignity of that child and of its people (on disaster pornography). Coming into a country and seeing it only through a lens of hopelessness and despair also denies the dignity it deserves. It is not a picture that reduces a reality, but our brains instead.
Cambodia is not the Khmer Rouge, it is not the story of its genocide, or its people only as suffering from prolonged and intergenerational PTSD. When I see Cambodia, I see the efforts of its people to live in peace, to build a future, to free themselves from fear. During our trip to Cambodia, we saw countless street vendors fighting to make ends-meet. Most of the organizations we visited were formed by visionaries and peace-builders committed to positive change; we witnessed that many with insufficient and inadequate resources were making a difference in people’s lives. And we experienced how responsible tourism, when confronted with an unacceptable situation, decides to take a stand and fight for what is right. For all the challenges that it continues to face, one must not forget that Cambodia also has many lessons to teach the world about peace-building.
Regardless of whether my opinions are tamed by an idealistic worldview and/or an innate cultural curiosity, one thing remains clear: Cambodia is at a crossroads. A promise of hope can be sensed in the air, and the legacy of fear is breaking. Its youth seem eager to claim their present. The realization of that promise lies in the hands of the government, the opposition, civil society, and the youth themselves. It depends on how they mediate and resolve the dispute over the election results; how the people and the government react to these decisions; and how the country’s governance and political culture are shaped by these events.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Though I have repeated this phrase in my head countless times trying to grasp when and how one comes to understand the whole, I still lack an answer. I do know, however, that for me Cambodia was hope, resilience and spark. I wish other visitors to the country also identified those elements.
A woman that survived rape, a kid that witnessed the death of a parent, a person who as a child had abusive parents is much more than that. They are whatever kept them together, whatever allowed them to become a functional member of society. They are their strength; the force that kept them going (the gum lung jai, as the Thai would say). Their resilience, their inherent dignity and the dignity of being a survivor. What inspires them. All of this is Cambodia, much more than its traumatic past.
With this in mind, I invite people coming into countries with difficult pasts or presents to depose themselves of preconceptions and expectations when walking in. It might be surprising how little disappointment you will find in yourself and how much space for wonder, surprise and discovery will be created…to allow space for a country’s dignity.
A gift of coincidence: As I was writing this post, I found a piece from one of our first lecturers in the fellowship, Michael Fryer. It speaks of resilience as a blessing and a burden in the context of mental health. Maybe that is also what I am speaking about. Check it out!
Luvy Rocha Rappaccioli, Nicaragua
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2013 Session