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Constructive Cambodian

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All photos from Reuters

Tharum Bun considers the tragedy in Japan as it relates to Cambodia and the world

How Japan as a nation bounced back after its defeat in World War II, and more recently the double natural disasters of the massive earthquake and tsunami, followed by the nuclear plant’s continuing crisis, have made me wonder how the Japanese have coped and overcome some of the worst things in the world’s history.

To further understand this, it’s worth delving deeply into Japanese philosophy and literature. The awareness of impermanence has always been a cultural tradition on this country of islands of more than 127 million people. As a widely-regarded Japanese poet simply put it in his poem, To Live: “To live, to live now, means to become thirsty, to be dazzled by the sun filtering through the tree leaves, to unexpectedly remember a melody, to sneeze, to join hands with you.”

Being able to possess an answer to this philosophical question on life has probably helped them get through the numerous major disasters they’ve faced, including this 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the strongest one in its recorded history. The 9.0-magnitude undersea  earthquake off the Japanese coast also triggered the tsunami that killed more than 10,000, despite modern Japan’s infrastructure such as buildings and sea walls that were built to help protect human lives from natural disasters.

Cambodians and the Japanese have been in similar situations where the unprecedented number of deaths should not have happened at all. In Cambodia, this horrific history remains a work in progress for Cambodia as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is helping to explain the regime’s roles in mass murder, whereas in Japan, a quick recovery is high on the agenda. But it’s that great foundation within the Japanese culture and their traditions that can make this nation breath new life, making it an invaluable lesson for people in Cambodia to learn. For instance, during and after the recent tragedy, many people pointed out the stoic Japanese set of core values, honour, dignity, discipline, civility and grace, among other things that can dramatically change the course of consequences this country faces.

While this tragedy was beyond anyone’s control, it’s the Japanese people who are at the heart of this crisis. Their moral code, strong faith in Buddhist philosophy and the Shinto religions, conformity and consensus which are considered virtues in Japanese culture are invaluable for Cambodians to try to understand.

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge atrocity left about two million people dead. In Cambodia’s case, it was the slave labour that worked as a killing machine. Last year, hundreds of people died in the so-called bridge stampede as millions visited Phnom Penh to celebrate the annual Water Festival. The government admitted that it was the country’s second worst tragedy since the Khmer Rouge. It was due to human error. Until we’re able to admit this bitter lesson, and learn from it, we should not be able to build new bridges, satellite cities and the city’s facilities and infrastructure just for the sake of Cambodia’s modern urbanisation.

As we’re able to learn what’s going on as Japan’s crisis unfolds, it’s heart-wrenching to see how a natural disaster took away lives in a matter of minutes. However, we shouldn’t forget how the survivors and those not affected joined hands to get their feet up and off the muddy ground and to believe that each person is not alone and that life is about suffering and revitalisation.

As Shuntaro Tanikawa, the Japanese poet, ended his poem: “To live, to live now, means a bird flaps its wings, the sea thunders, a snail crawls, people love, the warmth of your hands, life itself.”

When we talk to young Cambodians who have spent a couple of years in Japan, they tell us how much they praise modern Japan, while also acknowledging that all this modernity came from nowhere, but the traditions and culture that make up Japan today.

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