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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Battling to save a lost nation

Battling to save a lost nation

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Members of the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities protest near the US embassy in Phnom Penh this week to draw attention to the continued detention of two activists. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

Almost every Cambodian knows the proverb “Unity survives, division dies”. After the fall of the Angkorean empire in late 12th century, Cambodia became a “lost nation”, and it remains that way today.

Our nation is deeply divided politically. The government and opposition groups are barking at one another and have highly negative attitudes towards one another.

This is impeding the country’s development. Instead of moving forward, it keeps pulling back.

I believe Cambodia is a deeply lost country.

It is plain to see that her citizens have lost the ability to trust one another. They have also lost the ability to believe in themselves when it comes to acknowledging Cambodia’s issues and fixing them.

They have even lost the ability to think of what they can do together to better their country.

Do Cambodians trust one another? The simple answer is no. We have experimented many political systems, but all have failed.

There are many reasons for this, but the absence of social cohesion is one of them.

According to researchers, social cohesion can be defined as “a society’s ability to simultaneously recognise that all its citizens have equal rights and to acknowledge, respect and value their differences”.

This means social cohesion is critical to a country’s well-being. Many conflicts within nations begin in the absence of such cohesion.

Our former king father, Norodom Sihanouk, realised only too well the importance of this crucial element.

For the last few decades of his life, he had done his best to bring political cohesion to Cambodian society.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when Cambodia was mired in brutal conflict, this small, gentle nation almost vanished from the map.

Norodom Sihanouk was able to unify Cambodia. He initiated a move for social and political cohesion, but he is no longer with us.

So who should maintain the king father’s legacy and make Cambodia a cohesive society?

First, the government, our largest and most diverse social organisation, has the power and authority to access all social resources and tools.

It is therefore responsible for building and maintaining a cohesive culture. It is obligated to create an environment in which every Cambodian, regardless of social, political or religious affiliation, is included.

Second, politicians of all groups must know that if they fail to work together, they will be the ones who kill their own nation.

They are the ones who can make their own country a lost nation.

Unfortunately, instead of caring for, loving and respecting one another, many politicians spread the seeds of hatred, anger and divisive ideology for political gain.

Finally, the religion that is Cambodia’s most revered and effective social organisation provides the members of society with a sense of identity and belonging.

Through its norms, codes of conduct and spiritual guidance, it fosters coordination, co-operation and cohesion among members.

What does the government do to bring all Cambodians together? What are politicians doing to create a cohesive culture? And what can religion do to heal and replant the seeds of collective love, compassion and respect, ultimately gaining a society’s trust?

Somnieng Houern, a Buddhist monk, is the founder and executive director of the Life and Hope Association.

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