Imran Vittachi and Chris Fontaine recently spent a night with the peace
marchers: 3am starts, and tree planting along the way.
SROK SRE AMBEL, KOH KONG - Should all go to plan, Preah Maha Ghosananda and his peace
brigade will march victoriously into Phnom Penh tomorrow as Dhammayietra V - a 546-kilometer
pilgrimage for the forests, non-violence and reconciliation - draws to a close.
The Post caught up with Ghosananda and company at Wat Kiristungchay in Koh Kong province
- a section of southwestern Cambodia plagued by illegal logging, smuggling, and banditry
- five days before they were due back in the capital.
The saffron robes of his disciples shimmered in the purple light of dusk as the one
they call "The Gandhi of Cambodia" recited mantras for peace from beneath
a canopy of green leaves.
"In Buddhism, peace means to breathe in and out," said Ghosananda, who
has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. "To live is to breathe
- without peace there is no life.
"We walk everyday," he added. "The peace walk is the same. Without
walking you have no life."
On May 25, the marchers were into the eighteenth day of their long journey. Along
the way, they have planted trees "as a symbol for renewal and objection to the
destruction of our environment," said Kim Leng, one of the organizers of the
An ordained Buddhist nun, Leng takes on the ten precepts of Buddhism each year before
the march and teaches the Ghandian principles of non-violence and passive resistance
to villagers throughout the trek. To be actively non-violent, she said one must be
compassionate, persistent and courageous.
"Some people confuse non-violence with being simply passive and not acting with
courage," Leng said. "We train ourselves and others by showing each other
how to reduce their own fears if any threatening situation occurs. We cannot be peace
makers in this society if we cannot face our fears."
The non-violent theme of the peace march has been deeply influenced by the teachings
of Mahatma ("The Great Soul") Gandhi, the Hindu who brought down the British
Raj without firing a single bullet.
Ghosananda himself spent 13 years studying in India. He has incorporated the lessons
of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other champions of the doctrines of non-violent
passive resistance into his quest for peace in Cambodia.
At 3:30 am the following Sunday morning, after they had chanted their morning prayers,
the pilgrims began to walk the 25-km leg of their journey connecting Wat Kiristungchay
to Wat Kompong Seila.
Throughout the Dhammayietra, their numbers have fluctuated from between 400 to 700,
The first stretch of the day's walk lasted 10 km, taking the marchers to a small
village where breakfast was donated by the locals.
Walking in double file, they stepped to the beat of Japanese drums. Male Buddhists
lead the procession, followed by the nuns clad in traditional white robes. An international
contingent of Americans, Australians and Japanese brought up the rear. With the Cardammom
mountains around them bathed in a pre-dawn mist, it seemed as if the Dhammayietras
were suspended between heaven and earth.
Ghosananda used the time after breakfast to speak to the villagers. During the pilgrimage,
he often stayed behind to give long lectures on the five precepts of Buddhism.
"Refrain from stealing, refrain from killing, refrain from cheating and telling
lies, refrain from adultery and refrain from intoxicants."
"To bring about peace, you must be charitable," Ghosananda said. "You
have to make charity to keep the five precepts."
After breakfast, the marchers pushed on for another four hours along Route 4 until
they reached their next destination. They spent the afternoon resting, chanting prayers
and giving lectures on land mines, deforestation and non-violent intervention.
Although this year has been peaceful compared to past marches, the pilgrims were
momentarily seized with panic on the night of May 25 when a rumor spread that a Japanese
marcher "had been taken" by someone near the river.
The panic quickly turned to elation when the woman was found unharmed. She had merely
been grabbed by a local villager before returning safely to the Wat.
Yeshua Moser-Puan-gsuwan, an American and advisor to the organizing committee of
this year's march, put the sudden tension into perspective by explaining the violent
history of past marches.
Moser-Puangsuwan had worked closely with Ghosananda in the Thai-border refugee camps
in 1991 when the original idea of the march was to promote reconciliation among Cambodians.
"Our big hope for this first walk - which was before the UN repatriation program
- was that it would be a chance for Cambodians to meet and understand that, yes,
these people are each others' brothers and sisters and that there is no need for
fear," Moser-Puangsuwan said.
But after the marchers left the camps it quickly became evident that the Dhammayietra
would have a deeper purpose - the reuniting of families splintered by war.
"What began happening immediately was that marchers would come to us and say
things like, 'I want you to meet my mother. I haven't seen her in six years.',"
"What we had hoped would be a light reconciliation just turned into an extremely
deep reconnection for many people on the walk."
The next year, the United Nations effort in Cambodia reached full speed, but an increase
in fighting among the Khmer factions cast a shadow on the prospect of free elections.
In an attempt to avoid another round of bloodshed, Khmer NGOs decided to organize
That Dhammayietra snaked from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, passing through some of the
heaviest areas of fighting.
"We did find ourselves in firefights on those walks, there were even walkers
that were wounded, but for the most part the areas we walked through found peace,"
But on the third march in 1994, disaster struck in Kompong Puey. Caught in a crossfire
between Khmer Rouge and government troops, two marchers were killed and another four
wounded. KR soldiers briefly detained a group of Westerners, but later let them rejoin
Despite these acts and looming threats of violence, the marchers remained undaunted
in their mission, by clinging to the principles of non-violent intervention.
"Instead of letting the violence prevent us from going on, we persisted"
said Leng. "So, rather than being shattered, the spirit of the Dhammayietra
was only strengthened."
Bill Heath, an Australian Jesuit who joined this year's march, said these principles
are the most important to learn and spread to the people of Cambodia.
"For Westerners like me, certain precepts of non-violence like the concept of
reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge is really difficult to come to grips with,"
Heath said. "But we must have courage to accept reconciliation with them although
we do not condone their past acts of violence."
The route of this year's march has avoided the turbulent Northwest. So far, the most
threatening obstacles encountered by the walkers on this route was a small poisonous
snake and heavily blistered feet.
The march began on May 9 in Phnom Penh, headed south to Kam Pot and west to Kompong
Som before turning north to Srok Sre Ambel.
As the walk continued in a northeasterly direction towards Phnom Penh, the power
of the Dham-mayietra and the non-violent principles of Ghosananda were clearly evident
as villagers flocked to the roadside to pay homage to their spiritual leader.
Those who could donated money or food, even soldiers pitched into to the pot. The
atmosphere generated hope that this bubble of peace could one day expand and cover
all of Cambodia.
Traveling back to Phnom Penh by car, the Post reporters were stopped on Route 4 by
an RCAF soldier who fired his AK-47 into the ground and angrily threatened to shoot
unless a bribe was paid to ensure safe passage.
When the Khmer driver informed the soldier that Ghosananda and his disciples were
beating a path in his direction, he waved the car through. As the Venerable would
probably have said, the young soldier had let anger, greed, corruption and violence
get the better of him. But even from a distance, the message of the Dhammayietra
had worked its magic.