When Prince Norodom Chakrapong decreed himself ruler of the eastern third of Cambodia
in early June, his rival half brother Ranariddh vowed to raise an army to fight the
Other observers waited to see how UNTAC would react to Chakrapong's military challenge
but many of the war-weary residents of the besieged provinces looked instead to Maha
Ghosananda, an advocate of Mahatma Ghandi's teachings of non-violence and one of
the few senior monks to have survived the Pol Pot era.
Chakrapong's revolt began unravelling almost before it began but the flood of appeals
to the activist monk highlighted a growing popular movement inspired by his non-violent
teachings and Dhamma Yiettra-cross country walks for peace.
In the past month, Maha Ghosananda, who was relatively unknown in many parts of the
country before this year, has led a series of marches, meditations and rallies calling
for peace. The most ambitious was a 350 km walk from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh through
some of the most hostile parts of the country.
On the first day, a gun battle erupted around the pagoda where the group of 350 monks,
nuns and lay people had gathered to set out for the walk and a hand grenade was lobbed
into a room were 200 of them were staying, although it didn't explode. For most of
the next 17 days, the sound of the walkers was accompanied by the sound of artillery
But despite the dangers and threats from local authorities suspicious of his intentions,
tens of thousands of villagers turned out along the side of the route to welcome
the procession, make offerings for peace and to hear Maha Ghosananda sermons extolling
non-violence and reconciliation
Thousands more lined the main streets of Phnom Penh to greet the procession as the
peace walkers made their way to their final destination --Wat Than, a dilapidated
temple which is refuge to hundreds of amputees and a symbol of the damage two decades
of war and savagery has wreaked on Cambodia.
Maha Ghosananda, who is proclaimed by his followers as one of fractured Cambodia's
five supreme patriarchs, said he would continue his peace marches all over the country.
"Wherever there is conflict, we will walk," he said.
"Cambodians say to me monks belong in the temple. [But] it is important to remember
that one of Buddha's most courageous acts was to walk right into the battlefield
to stop conflict," he said.
The monk's main message is one of the basic precepts of Buddhism: that retaliation,
revenge and hatred only continue the cycle of violence, never stop it.
"We must go to the people. They sustain us and feed us and give us refuge, if
they suffer we suffer," he said at Wat Langkha, once one of Phnom Penh's grandest
temples, but now run down, littered with garbage and a sanctuary for homeless people
and orphaned children.
Followers of the monk say his emergence over the last few months reflects a spiritual
hunger in Cambodia created by the Khmer Rouge's attempts to wipe out all forms of
religious worship, the strict Marxist regime that followed it and the general savagery
that has enveloped the country for the last 23 years.
"Buddhism was dying. It was like a vacuum and Maha Ghosananda came back and
encouraged us to rebuild Buddhism and restore the people's belief in Buddhism,"
said Nou Sambo, who heads a women's rights group which is part of a coalition of
NGOs, human rights groups and student associations that has formed an as yet unnamed
coalition around the monk.
Kim Teng, a fellow senior monk and one of the main organizers of the peace activities
said people were "slowly beginning to rediscover their Buddhist heritage."
"We can see changes in people because of the teachings of Maha Ghosananda. People
are getting on the path of reconciliation. Even the officials who were opposed to
the walks in the beginning are more welcoming of the Dhamma Yietra and Maha Ghosananda
and his teaching," he said.
Maha Ghosananda said he first left Cambodia in 1951 to further his Buddhist studies
in India where he became a devout follower of Ghandi's principles of non-violence
and conflict resolution.
He spent much of the last two decades in exile in the United States, in India, and
working in the Thai border refugee camps. The monk also took his message to the many
rounds of peace talks that were held throughout the 1980s in the various ASEAN capitals,
in Beijing and finally in Paris in 1991 trying to bring the leaders of Cambodia's
warring factions together.
Now that peace finally appears to be returning he said he was encouraged and confident
in the future of Cambodia and Buddhism but said he and his workers could not halt
their quest for peace.
"It is like breathing, in and out, we cannot stop. If we stop we will die. Peace
is life, war is death," he said.
Much of the coalition's current work centers around activities intended to ensure
that a constitution to be drawn up by the newly elected Constituent Assembly reflects
the voice of the overwhelming number of Cambodians who turned out to vote despite
threats and intimidation in the recent U.N.-organized election.
On the opening day of the Assembly, Maha Ghosananda led monks and nuns to congratulate
the new members and also to meditate for a "just constitution."
The group also requested seats as observers at the assembly in a bid to press their
demands for an independent judiciary, a Bill of Rights and safeguards for women and
children to included in the charter.
"We as Cambodians are joined together for peace," said Nou Sambo.
"We don't want to see our sons go off to fight and come back dead or without
legs and since UNTAC has come and we have this chance to organize ourselves we must
take the opportunity to make sure the constitution guarantees our rights and we have
a proper constitution so the government cannot repress the people anymore,"
Kim Teng said the overall aim of the peace coalition was to restore brutalized Cambodia's
"In essence Maha Ghosananda is trying to bring back the things we have lost.
Khmers used to be gentle, honest, forgiving. We would help each other in times of
difficulty, speak respectfully, all those things we have lost because of the war
and violence and destruction."
"It is not just the big things like the killing and the banditry but the small
things like destroying the forests, the rubbish everywhere. You can see it in the
way people drive cars, nobody has respect for any body's rights anymore," he
He said Maha Ghosananda was serving as a much-needed role model for many of the younger
"Socially engaged Buddhism needs guidance, the young monks don't have role models.
They lack training in Pali, and Dhamma. Maha Ghosananda gives them confidence to
But he also warned that Cambodia had a long way to go
"We can't distribute peace but we can teach people about respecting each other's
rights again, that peace comes from each person's heart because although we have
peace now the people are still violent still armed then the peace will not last very
At a festival outside the gates of the Royal Palace attended by Prince Sihanouk on
June 10, Maha Ghosananda gave a speech to bid farewell two decades of war. But it
was one tinged with Buddhist reality.
"Like our breathing in and out, like day and night, war and peace are always
interchanging. Nothing is permanent, one leads to the other. Now we leave suffering
and enter peace,'' Ghosananda said.