This was written about events in 2003 (not sure of the exact date of publication anymore) for my old blog threefloors.org that no longer exists. I am going back to it again in the context of some work I am doing thinking about globalization, networks, and learning.
At the office I listened, with everyone else, to royalist radio – one of two semi-independent radio stations in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh broadcasting during the election. Amid the fast-paced Khmer-language chatter and the high-pitched chants of the royalist political party’s name, “Funcinpec! Funcinpec! Funcinpec!” and the classic Cambodian tunes of pre-war musicians, I heard the word “Kakada” over and over. Meanwhile Kakada, the co-director of the organization with which I volunteered three days a week, worked away on his laptop, seeming not to notice his name on the air. I sat in his small, closed office; the shades had been drawn and the air conditioner turned to maximum to fight the heat and humidity. Not sure if I had heard it correctly, I went back to editing the English text that I had been asked to work on.
It was the summer of 2003 and I was living with my partner Rich in Cambodia for three months. I had taken a leave of absence from my job at the National Writing Project and I found myself in a strange city, feeling equal parts enthusiasm, curiosity and dread. He had been hired to work there for an American non-governmental organization (NGO) supporting the election. I was there to learn and do … something.
It had been six years since Pol Pot died. The last Khmer Rouge soldiers had turned over their weapons, and Cambodia was awash with foreign aid workers, international aid, and corruption that soaked up most of the money before it could make a dent in the rising infant mortality rate.1 Most side streets in the city of two million remained unpaved, either obscured by rising plumes of red dust or covered with water-filled potholes after the daily summer rains. Children living on the streets begged and scavenged to support their families. Elderly people and war amputees begged too, through betel-nut-stained grins, in the tourist-rich parts of town.
But as a foreigner I could live quite comfortably. We rented an apartment twice the size of even a middle-class Cambodian house and much bigger than my home in Philadelphia. My savings allowed me not to have to work to pay rent or for meals, so I was free to spend my time as I chose. International restaurants allowed me a choice of food to eat and menus in English, while supermarkets were also available in town if I found myself craving something very non-Cambodian, like pasta and red sauce, or cheese.
I had expected it to be difficult, and it was. Poverty, the effects of globalization, war and colonialism and more war, were all right at the surface. And of course cultural and language barriers were a constant challenge. My job at home had kept me busy and engaged, but suddenly I was in Phnom Penh, without a job to keep me grounded. Just walking out of the house I found myself overwhelmed by the traffic, the sounds and smells, the heat, and the poverty. I had arrived with the intention to volunteer with a local organization, but once I got there I realized just how big a challenge it was going to be.
It took me about two weeks to begin to get my bearings. I needed something to force me out of house daily, and I needed to feel useful. My first move was to sign up for Khmer language lessons, and I bought a bicycle to get me to and from class each day. After class, I visited the local markets and walked around, just trying to differentiate between the vast array of food – butchered meat hanging from hooks on tiled stands, fish laid out on lotus leaves, freshly pressed tofu stacked in little towers next to plucked chickens, bins of unfamiliar herbs, vegetables, and all sorts of dried shrimp.
I learned to buy fruit from vendors when I first entered the market and to distribute that, rather than money, to the young children who begged for handouts. I began to read the English-language daily every morning to follow the news and keep up on the national elections. And I identified the best places in town to get a good iced coffee and a cheap vegetarian lunch. I was starting to acclimate.
Finally I decided it was time to volunteer. My skills are broad but not terribly specific – I have worked for a teacher network called the National Writing Project (NWP) for many years as the coordinator of technology programs. I primarily support teams of teachers using technology to support writing and literacy in their classrooms. I love my work in many ways, and the writing project has also become an intellectual and spiritual home where I find a great deal of joy working with activist teachers, techies, artists and writers. I have been committed to that work for years now, work that is fairly specific to the thirty-year old network that I support. So it was not immediately obvious what exactly I could offer to Cambodians in three months time. I began my search by just talking to people and visiting local organizations to see what I could find.
The international NGOs I visited didn’t have advertised opportunities for short-term volunteers, and I realized why. It takes a lot of energy for an organization to take on help, even free, at times. But one of them, the American Friends Service Committee, had a paragraph on its web site describing a community network project called Khmer Ahimsa. I knew the AFSC’s work and respected their approach towards community organizing, so I called them anyway, ad or no ad. When I called and inquired about Khmer Ahimsa, they immediately transferred me to office upstairs in the same building.
Khmer Ahimsa, meaning “Khmer Non-violence,” started as an organization called Local Communities Network (LCN), a project of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) office in Phnom Penh. After completing a research project on community vulnerabilities and strategies for coping within several Cambodia communities in 2000,2 LCN/AFSC formed a pilot project to further engage with their findings. By 2002, eight staff members established themselves as an independent Cambodian-run NGO called Khmer Ahimsa. Their mission is to “work to empower individuals and communities to promote peace, reconciliation, democracy, human rights, equality and justice … [through] encouraging the development of nonviolent skill and conflict resolution capacities. …” Additionally, they write “Our approach is to work in harmony with the cultures, traditions and beliefs of the people without discrimination and to be responsive to the real needs and issues facing Cambodian society at this time in history.”
Khmer Ahimsa encourages community-level initiatives, such as building local institutions, developing community capacity for peaceful conflict resolution and collaborative non-violent action, and building coalitions and networks inside and outside of the communities. It does most of its work in a district called Sre Ambel, in Koh Kong province, two hours southwest of the capital city. Ahimsa has offices in Phnom Penh and in the town of Sre Ambel, with four staff members in each.
It was Thong Kakada who answered my telephone call. When I showed up the next morning at eight o’clock, the full staff of eight was already convened around the conference table. After a very collaborative interview process, facilitated by Kakada in both English and Khmer, the group decided by consensus to accept my offer to volunteer and then worked together to decide the priorities for my time with them. It was four men and four women, with two co-directors facilitating through group-decision making processes. I instantly recognized their processes and felt good about the place and the people and happily accepted a position in the Phnom Penh office three days a week in the afternoons.
Ahimsa asked me to edit their English documents and support their Internet use, and also to assist them with their network. After they learned that I worked for a “national network of teachers” they decided I might help them think through questions and challenges they faced as they tried to establish a viable network among other peace-building organizations, and peace-builders in Phnom Penh.
The most pressing question they had was “What exactly is a network?” We all struggled to define the term, which is often used interchangeably with words like “organization,” “alliance” and “working group,” and is used in the dictionary in relation to things like railroads, computers and spider webs. Mr. Bun Vanna, a member of the Khmer Ahimsa staff, asked me to describe what I knew of networks. I began to draw pictures to describe what I could not quite articulate. He would also draw in response as both of us used simple English and images to attempt to create a shared meaning of this elusive term. I was not quite satisfied with my answers, however, and sought to explore this question further.
My first attempt to figure out what “network” really meant outside the context of the NWP was to first learn as much as I could about Khmer Ahimsa and their experience. My very first meeting with Ahimsa, in fact, was to attend a People’s Voices for Peace meeting with Kakada and Vanna. Down a small but crowded dirt road at the office of a local youth organizing group, we took off our shoes and walked into a conference room with a large center table surrounded by people from different peace building groups from around the city.
Traditional greetings of “Chum Reap Suer” (“Peace be with you”) said with clasped hands went around the room until everyone settled in and a few organizing members began to co-facilitate the meeting. After I nervously introduced myself in Khmer, I sat down and paid attention as best I could as Vanna worked to translate in-between his turns facilitating. The idea of this network was to share “lessons learned” about the peace work the participants led as well as to begin a process that would build a more united voice among the various groups doing peace-work. The energy in the room was palpable and interest in the forming a network was high. Though it was only an initial meeting, the facilitators left pleased by the participation and reflected on how exactly to move forward.
I also read through a “peace networking study” done previously by a visiting AFSC member with several of the local organizations doing peace work in the area. It included many case studies and interviews that broadened my understanding of work in this area. It was a fairly comprehensive study of what worked and didn’t work in previous attempts to network organizations doing similar work, yet it didn’t provide answers to the deeper questions about networking for Khmer Ahimsa.
Most importantly, it turns out, I learned quite a bit about the work at Ahimsa by reading and helping to edit and translate their documentation about their work. Kakada wrote reports both in English and Khmer, and asked for my assistance with the English versions. I learned much about how they were already “networking” many of the people they worked with in various ways.
I hoped to learn more about how this worked during my short time left in Cambodia by visiting the site where they worked in Sre Ambel.
Koh Kong province is bordered by Thailand to the west and the Cardamom Mountains to the north. It is also an area that was once rich with resources, particularly timber, and it is on the trade route to Thailand. Until as late as 1996, it was a stronghold for some of the remaining Khmer Rouge guerillas.
The road to Sre Ambel was built by the U.S. and used to transport supplies during the American war in Vietnam. After a slow start in the city that involved stops to prepare the truck, to see family at home and at the hospital, and to gather various things to bring to the monks in Sre Ambel, we headed west from the capital toward the southwestern beaches and port of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. Several hours down the road, we arrived at an intersection where roadside stalls sold goods to weary travelers. I was aware too that this was the site where one evening in 1994, Khmer Rouge guerrillas captured four foreigners who were on the road too late. They were among the last recorded foreign victims of the guerrillas. We ate at a stand where I tried several local delicacies, including prahok (fermented fish paste) and sautéed forest ant with garlic, and then turned onto the deep-red dirt road leading toward Thailand.
The war and long-term presence of the Khmer Rouge in this area had left most communities very divided, Kakada told me. Individuals trusted only their families. Local institutions, such as the Buddhist pagodas, community meeting houses called “salabons,” and traditional schools had been destroyed during the war. Populations were left isolated. As stated in Ahimsa’s brochure, “Individual and community ability to cope with conflict and injustice was severely weakened … and communities had great difficulty working together to improve their situation.”
It was well after dark when I arrived with Vanna, Kakada and another colleague named Ms. Kham Kolap in Sre Ambel. They set me up in a guesthouse across the red, muddy and potholed street from the town’s only restaurant. In the morning I woke up and met my friends there for a delicious breakfast of seafood and noodles with fried bread.
So that I might better understand the communities that Khmer Ahimsa works with, several members of staff including my friend Kolap, generously offered to take me for a boat trip up the river to a small village named Cheuteal Plos. About 20 minutes upriver we docked. Nearby, some men were pulling nails out of the old boards from a wooden boat, I assumed with the intention of reusing them. We walked into the village towards the hillside where there was a small waterfall, passing a simple new school built by the community. A little further on was a house for the monks. Saffron robes were drying in the sun along clotheslines strung between two young trees. Beyond that, up the hill a bit more, was the new pagoda built by the community. A simple square wooden structure, it was decorated with traditional hangings of torn cloth of various patterns and centered by a shrine with various sculptures of the lord Buddha surrounded by offerings left by the locals.
There we ate the lunch that we had brought from town and spoke about the land and the work that people did here. The hillside was mostly covered by small trees and scrub, testimony to the massive logging in this area. Few animals run wild in the woods anymore, I was told, and fishing is now the main means of sustenance for the people here. As we sat and talked and did not talk, a butterfly landed over and over again on Kolap, causing her friends to laugh since her name actually means “rose” in Khmer. We sat at the pagoda taking in the day, and conversing about personal experiences with war, Kolap’s experience as a woman from a small village gaining an education and job in the city, and the work that other staff members engaged in through Ahimsa. I felt worlds away from Philadelphia, but strangely comfortable and at home.
Khmer Ahimsa began its work as an organization by gathering historical documentation of the role of important community centers in Cambodia villages, including the Buddhist monastery and the community salabons. Noting that under the 1991 Paris peace accords Buddhism is the state religion, the staff at Ahimsa wondered, “How much do the people understand the ways of Buddha?” For centuries, pagodas had been the center of community life in Cambodian villages. The community salabon had been a place, outside the pagodas, for the community to meet, learn and celebrate together. Monks and nuns themselves played roles as mediators, teachers, and peace builders. Ahimsa began to ask how the leaders of the reviving Buddhist community could understand and recapture their historical role.
They took these questions to the pagodas in the Sre Ambel area. In a report on their work, Kakada writes, “We talked with some monks about the idea of revitalizing the role of the Buddhist monk to support the community. The monks suggested that Khmer Ahimsa support their idea by creating an opportunity, once a month, for the monks and lay people to meet and to discuss their problems.”
Ahimsa organized transportation, provided snacks, and supported the conversations that had been identified as a need among the network. Meetings rotated between 15 pagodas in the area and issues were raised by the participants. While these meetings were initially facilitated by Ahimsa, a culture of sharing and networking grew quickly among the participants, and leaders emerged to take on the roles of facilitating, note-taking, planning and follow-up.3
At one of their meetings, Kakada told me, the monks were discussing their struggles with violence, both domestic and political, in their communities. Together they decided to support more peaceful means of resolving issues. The monks organized a peace march through their town, for all the pagodas. This peace march is now an annual event. For the 2003 national election, this same committee of monks organized all the pagodas in the area to assist in a peace-banner campaign to advocate and educate for non-violence and encourage people to not be afraid to vote.
Ahimsa also assisted this new network of monks to fulfill one of the historic roles of the Buddhist monastery, that of providing a place for Buddhist education in the community. Young monks throughout Cambodia were again learning the basic chanting and rituals, Kakada told me, but the tradition of learning to use Dhamma and Vinaya (founding tenets of Buddhist study) as “basics for peace building” had been essentially lost. The new network of monks and nuns from the pagodas formed a leadership structure, raised funds, set meeting times and identified priorities, and the result was a new center for teaching, the Mlop Prumvihear Thor Center (or Center for Morality Education) at Wat Angkor in Sre Ambel.
Ahimsa also worked with several of the villages to re-establish salabons to be run and maintained by a committee of local community members. Ahimsa provided the technical assistance to support the salabon’s creation and election of a local committee. The committee’s priorities and how the salabon itself was to be used were determined by the local people. Many salabon communities established rice banks, created funerary sub-committees, and created “pots and pans” committees to make sure there were enough needed materials for large community gatherings like weddings and funerals.
As with the monks, the most important form of assistance Ahimsa provides to these salabons is networking their committee members together, providing opportunities for members to meet and share experiences and challenges. And the challenges weren’t small. Property ownership records are scanty, and the authorities don’t necessarily respect squatters’ rights or ownership based on community memory. The salabons, as well as the homes and farms of local villagers, are at risk of losing their land at any moment to the whims of local officials. As the salabon committee members gained increasing amounts of community respect and support through their work, they also ran into issues of authority with local officials. Balancing these underlying pressures while also moving forward takes perseverance and a commitment to the work, which the network meetings supported.
During my visit to Koh Kong I was invited to a meeting of salabon committee members at the Mlop Prumvihear Thor Center. Inside, three committee members from each local salabon shared their work and local experiences with the larger group. Sitting in this room over the two days of the meeting, I was brought back to meetings I have at the writing project, although this time writing was replaced by meditation, oranges for snacks were replaced by pomegranates and lychee fruit, and the language was Khmer.
The issues too were different. In the face of violent outbreaks around difficult issues – many that involved life and death struggles – and in the context of a very weak rule of law in the country, non-violent methods of conflict resolution were taught and practiced, as well as personal meditative processes, such as one called “Peaceful Heart.” These shared tools allowed groups to find new ways to work with one another and reflect individually on their own role within struggles for peace and justice.
For instance, in one case, commercial fishing boats were fishing too close to the shoreline, destroying the nets of local fishermen. The fishermen were using non-violent techniques to negotiate with the commercial boat operators and establish shared by-laws. Other communities engaged in collaborative processes of writing local constitutions to establish basic rules to keep order within each village or larger town. While these were certainly not quite the same experiences that American teachers might engage each other about at a writing project meeting focused on writing and technology, the way that the Khmer Ahimsa and the salabon leaders shared case studies, asked each other questions, and communicated about challenges with their colleagues who share a similar practice, was the same.
Spending time with Khmer Ahimsa and seeing their work, I begin to articulate what I had previously struggled with about the organization that I worked for at home — that the most powerful aspect of the writing project’s network that I had come to learn over the years is that we bring together individuals within a shared practice (the teaching of writing) in local communities to share their tools, resources, questions and lessons learned. And therefore my reflection back to Ahimsa was simple: They were already doing sophisticated networking among their constituencies, and therefore should look towards these same practices to help them think about making a network for themselves as practitioners within their field of practice of community organizers and peace-workers.
Kakada understood that. During a break in the meeting, after the various groups from the different salabons had shared their work and their challenges, he said to me “This is what you were talking about, right?” It was.
I left Sre Ambel on a Sunday, leaving the staff of Ahimsa to another full day of networking with the salabon committee members. I was due to leave Cambodia within the week. After a lovely ceremony where the staff said goodbye and thank you, and many tears were shed on my part, I set off to grab a shared taxi back to the city. Back out to the main intersection where we had turned off to Sre Ambel just days ago, I waited out of the rain with Vanna at a small wooden stand where an elderly man sold cigarettes, gum and fresh coconuts to drink from. The shared van came flying along with the attendant holding his head out the window to indicate that there was space for more customers. I hopped on and we drove off. I was both sad to go and also a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to hold on to the seatbelted space I had been fortunate to obtain.
Over three months I learned more about Buddhism, continued to reflect further on non-violence as a means of life, learned to shop comfortably in the local markets, and get myself around Phnom Penh on my bike. And I also learned quite a bit of Khmer – it turned out that all that time the radio repeated “Kakada” they were talking about July, the month that the 3rd national parliamentary election was being held.
I departed Cambodia with sadness about leaving but with many of my own lessons learned. Lessons about about healing and networking, about the potential of community-led vision, about the need for local voices within struggles for local and well as international justice. Lessons that I think about each day, listening to the news from Iraq, and watching local politics close up in my own city.
It was exciting to me to end up on the other side of the world, and to watch people engage in similar work in different contexts. The importance of examples that slow, deliberate, practitioner-centered and community based cannot be underestimated. The power of that focus and that pace takes me back to a poet’s line quoted by Paulo Freire “…that we make the road by walking.” And the road that the writing project has made over its thirty years shows that walking itself can create indeed create paths of knowledge and change within a community.
I wish Khmer Ahimsa the best of luck – “som jup samnang la-or” – in the forging of their own path and encourage them to keep walking in the direction they know best.
1. UNDP Report, 2003
2. American Friends Service Committee (2000) The Socio-Cultural Vulnerability and Coping Strategies (SCVCS) Research Project, Phnom Penh, April.
3. From a report to funders written by THONG Kakada.
Election Bait for Koh Kong Fisheries, Phnom Penh Post, July 2003.
AFSC resources, Cambodia
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(Previous last update 01-20-06 at threefloors.org)