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A moment of tranquility in Phnom Penh

A moment of tranquility in Phnom Penh

F OUR weeks after factional fighting erupted in the capital, non-violence, respect

for human life and compassion were the themes of a peace march Aug 3.

About 1,300 monks, nuns and laypersons walked through downtown Phnom Penh and gathered

for a meditation session, making a statement which organizers hoped would reverberate

around Cambodia in the months ahead.

"Our message is to everybody in Cambodia, not just the people in power,"

said Thida Khus, president of the recently-formed Forum For Peace Through Love and

Compassion, the group that proposed the march. "We wanted to have an event that

would instill the values of love and compassion."

The walk was led by the Venerable Maha Ghosananda, who has been nominated four years

in a row for the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work leading an annual Dhammayietra,

or Buddhist peace march, through troubled regions of the country.

The Phnom Penh march was jointly organized by the Dhammayietra Center, based at Wat

Sampov Meas, and the Forum for Peace. Although Ghosananda was overseas during the

planning of the march, a flurry of e-mail eventually tracked the busy monk down.

"We found him only three or four days before the march," smiled Khus, "and

he arrived only the day before. But he was very happy to come."

The Buddhist patriarch led over 700 monks and nuns and 600 lay persons from Wat Sampov

Meas to the Independence Monument. They walked silently, carrying lotus flowers,

flags, and placards with messages of peace in many languages. Above them, large orange

banners strung across the street bore messages such as "May Peace Come to Everyone

In Cambodia" in English and Khmer. Traffic was stopped, and hundreds of people

gathered along the roadside to watch, although few joined the march spontaneously.

"I think some people were still afraid to join," said one march organizer,

"though they were eager to take our leaflets."

Marshals handed out English and Khmer leaflets explaining the themes of the march

and Forum for Peace principles. The Forum was formed in April of this year after

the March 30 grenade attack on a Khmer Nation Party rally, which killed at least

12 people and injured over 150. The group, a coalition of 20 social and religious

NGOs, exists to uphold the value of non-violence and advocate for peace. But such

a mandate is not uncontroversial in today's Cambodia.

The group was criticized - "by officials and others," said one executive

committee member - when they began to place weekly flower offerings at the grenade

site. "They said we were being partisan," said Khus, "but really our

message is love and respect for human rights, respect for life, not just for any

one party or any one group." The Forum also wanted to issue a statement on television

after the March 30 incident, but no station would carry it, according to group leaders.

They continued to lay flowers, but have done little else publicly.

The battles of July 5-6 prompted the group to take more prominent and timely action.

They had originally planned such a march for August 18, but hurriedly moved up the

date. Most group leaders hoped that holding the march sooner would help empower people,

calm their fears, and raise their spirits after the fighting. But not all the group's

members were happy to have such a public event so soon - some members were afraid

to come to planning meetings, and others dropped out of the group altogether, organizers

say.

Yet the Forum encountered no problems in planning the march or obtaining official

permits. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen even issued a statement urging people to participate,

executive committee members said. However, one Cambodian NGO director did report

that he was "advised" not to attend the march, because "anarchist

forces could throw grenades."

Organizers acknowledged that they had expected many people to be too afraid to march,

and had anticipated possible security problems. They said that they took various

measures, including running security workshops for marshals and discreetly patting

down participants, to ensure marchers' safety. "We wanted to make sure no incidents

happened. If they happened, nobody would be able anymore to do this kind of public

activity," said Ong Vuthy, Assistant Coordinator of the Dhammayietra Center.

"But on the 3rd, the atmosphere was relaxing and peaceful."

About a dozen high-ranking CPP officials attended, including co-Minister of Interior

Sar Kheng and Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh. Although march organizers expressed

regret that no Funcinpec officials came, they were pleased nonetheless with the unexpectedly

large turnout. "It was a relief for everyone to see people come out, to see

that they weren't the only one to stand up for peace," said Khus.

The Forum for Peace is currently trying to decide how to direct its future efforts.

Originally the group had planned several large public events, including rallies for

Independence Day and International Human Rights Day, but the events of July 5-6 have

caused them to reevaluate their plans. "We would like to start a newsletter,

with a message of peace and non-violence, and to make networks, to be able to get

more people to advocate for peace," said Doeurn Nin Nuth, an executive committee

member. "We want to involve more monks, and more of the business sector. If

there is peace, business will prosper, and we want to bring peace and prosperity

to Cambodia."

As the marchers moved slowly down the street, the roars of engines were silenced.

For one early-morning hour, the only sound in downtown Phnom Penh was the rhythmic

scuff of 2,600 feet. The marchers then sat down to meditate on these themes: "May

all Cambodian people, including the leaders, be free from hatred, revenge, vindictiveness,

malice, harming life and property, violence and killing; may all Cambodian people,

including the leaders, be freed from evil and the tragedy of war; may all beings

have serenity, peace and happiness forever."

The serene sea of orange and white, and the theme of love and compassion, did seem

to infuse the conflicted capital with at least a moment of tranquility. And perhaps

war-weary Cambodians gained some hope for the future from the march's simple message.

As Khus says, "All in all, we just want to uphold the value of respect for human

rights and nonviolence, which is the base for a peaceful society. If you don't have

that, you will never have peace."

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