June 2011


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Reflections on an Interfaith Dialogue for Peace between Cambodia and Thailand
Paddy Noble

I found that any approach to an interfaith dialogue process on the matter of the border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand, like many other approaches, is not always an easy task. We all harbor some type of suspicion and mistrust about each other that is embedded in each of our worldviews. I too, as a New Zealand Maori who has lived in Cambodia for nine years, come with my own perceptions and views that are attributed to the Cambodian friends and family I have forged over this time. It is from this perspective that my opinions are formulated, but again, I know that I need to try and keep an independent view of things, which is difficult to do after spending all this time in Cambodia.

Many of my Cambodian colleagues, friends and family have a very nationalistic view on the border conflict. Nonetheless, what I have found is that some of my Thai friends have a similar approach but, in some ways, a very partial view of this issue too; alas, some have a very distant understanding of it as well. What I have found is that there is a sense of tension and resistance from each side of the border that is encouraged by the mainstream media, politics and nationalistic pride.

I was talking to a Thai national (a translator from Mahidol University), who shared his experiences in Cambodia when he worked there in the early 1990s. He remarked that Cambodian people tend to always hold onto the past or history of Cambodia without forging some sense of the future, and therefore, in doing so, they limit their worldview. He felt that it is impossible to dialogue when many Cambodian people continue to hold onto their history in such a nationalistic and guarded manner without looking at the possibilities of the future. I had to agree with him on this matter.

Nonetheless, some of our Cambodian colleagues feel that they are always mistreated and misunderstood by Thai people. Because they are a poorer nation, they tend to feel some injustices have been imposed on them by Thailand. They also draw on the historical view of Cambodia as a kingdom that was once part of Thailand, Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia. It is from this perspective that they feel that the Preah Vihear Temple, irrespective of the French or American border demarcation, is on the soil of Cambodia and is thus Cambodian.

Again, what I have found on both sides of the border is that there seems to a sense of ‘winners” and “losers” and that Cambodia would be the ultimate winner in this process. Suspicion, mistrust and embedded attitudes of nationalism stem from varied facets of each of our worldviews. The national media on both sides of the border encourage border divisions and conflict, so much so that it is very difficult to have an independent view alongside the rising political tensions.

Upon an invitation to speak on behalf of Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), I had to consider what it was that I was going to say without feeling as if I had the answers to the serious questions with which people are grappling. Consequently, I spoke of what I know. I spoke of the struggles that both sides of the border face. I found that much of Cambodia and Thailand’s national policies on the border tensions are made in Bangkok and Phnom Penh without any consideration to the local and indigenous people at the border itself. I also noted that each country has their own internal political crises that fuels the conflict across the border. Nevertheless, if we were to have any type of dialogue process, I had to agree with the earlier comments of the Venerable You Hut, who felt that if we were to find true peace, irrespective of border demarcations, we had to find inner peace within ourselves. Therefore, to find that inner peace, we have to learn to let go of all the baggage and precepts we have of ourselves to be able to enjoy this transformation. This journey, I know, is the struggle everyone faces daily. It is a very true Buddhist teaching in concept but difficult, as we know, in practice. Nonetheless, I wondered how the other religious traditions felt about this starting point. Was a sense of peace misguided by their own personal prejudices or not?

I spoke of the School of Peace (SOP) organized by ICF in India and how it is designed to bring people together of different beliefs and traditions from throughout Asia. Although this gathering is designed to bring about dialogue and discussion, sometimes we do not always get the harmony we try to achieve. I used the example from the 2010 SOP, illustrating how both participants from Cambodia and Thailand struggled to understand the problems in each of their countries because of the border problems in Preah Vihear and their nationalistic views on similar topics. Nonetheless, over time, each participant found a new respect and understanding of each other. It was my hope then that, whatever conversations were going to be held on this topic, that our dialogue was based on discussion rather than finding a compromise or solution, for finding a solution was seen as one group winning over the other, which was still in the minds of some participants. This starting point is naturally not where we should be going at this moment.

. . .

Throughout this dialogue, I kept thinking about my Cambodian colleagues of whom their intentions are well intended. They are no different than their Thai counterparts on this issue. Both sides, irrespective of national and personal persuasion, still hold very conservative views about how they, and the rest of the world, should consider the border conflict.

Sometimes I feel that having an outside view on this matter from neither a Cambodian nor Thai perspective can help us reflect upon the larger picture. This issue just does not involve two countries, cultures and various religious traditions, but it also involves international policies, leadership and reflection. The border tensions exist at different levels in both countries—Cambodia with Vietnam and Laos; Thailand with Burma, Malaysia and Laos. Therefore, at some level, discussions and dialogue are not new. What I would suggest is that we need to look at the relationships forged and broken among the grassroots peoples of these areas.

I am reminded that prior to the colonial rule-and-divide concept during the period of French influence in Indochina in Southeast Asia borders were not perceived in the same manner as how we perceive borders today. I actually do not think there were any borders! I wonder then if we can use the traditions that were forged among the local people prior to colonial influences to help us forge a new way toward peace and reconciliation. Has Southeast Asia been homogenized like the rest of the colonial world, or are they still able to hold onto the old traditions of forging communities like they once did irrespective of borders?

Finally, I am reminded of the Montagnard people from Vietnam who fled persecution because of their traditional and religious beliefs. They travelled across the border to the northern indigenous peoples of Ratanakiri in Cambodia to find refuge. It was the indigenous people in this area that provided safe haven, food and shelter for the Montagnard people. It was this fellowship that brought these communities together for a short period of time before the government and police on both sides of the border became involved and took them away. Why then cannot this sense of fellowship be found again, especially in times when it is needed? There is a lesson to be learned from this story.

* Paddy Nobel, a Maori from Aotearoa, or New Zealand, is a staff member of the regional network Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) and lives in Phnom Penh. Prior to joining ICF in 2009, he worked for the Student Christian Movement (SCM ) in Cambodia .