While Buddhist, Christian and Muslim NGOs have been active across virtually the entire spectrum of Cambodia’s rebuilding and development, the unique role of spiritually oriented groups is to infuse development, and the reconciliation needed for development, with the ideology and understanding to build or rebuild communities in the face of a legacy of hatred and fear.
When Cambodian Buddhist leader Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda died three years ago, condolences were offered by religious and secular organisations around the world. In 1992, in the first year of the United Nations-sponsored peace agreement, Maha Ghosananda led the first nationwide Dhamma Yatra, a peace march or pilgrimage, across the Kingdom in an effort to begin restoring the hope and spirit of the Cambodian people.
The 16-day, 200-kilometre peace walk passed through territory still controlled by the Khmer Rouge. Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike joined this and successive peace walks across Cambodia, accompanied by as many as 200 people each year.
Buddhism for Development (BFD) is a domestic NGO founded in 1990 in Site 2 Refugee Camp on the Cambodian-Thai border by a group of Buddhist monks who saw the value of Buddhism as a tool for peace restoration, reconciliation and socio-economic development in Cambodia.
BFD’s “Put down the gun, take up the Dharma” launched in 1996 drew in political groups agreeing that weapons could not solve any problem, while discussion and negotiation were the options. A follow-up campaign, Volunteering for Peace and Development, is now in place, planted by village Peace and Development Volunteers in over 1,200 villages and communes, with related prevention and management of human rights violations in 24 districts of seven northwestern provinces.
Former Site 2 monk Heng Monychenda, BFD’s executive director, represents in some ways the bridge between traditional culture and religion and the Cambodia of the future.
In the decades to come, the Buddhist organisation sees itself working towards a so-called “Dharmacratic Society”, Cambodian with tradition-infused democratic culture in which people learn to live together in harmony, respect human rights, uphold social justice, foster and submit to the rule of law, and help foster the building of generous human communities and respect for the natural environment.
Im Sophea of the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation believes that traditional religion and values can thrive in conjunction with contemporary international ideals of democracy, justice and human dignity.
Christian organisations, some teaching religion, others leading broad-spectrum development efforts, such as World Vision, a Christian relief and development group helping empower children and their communities by tackling the causes of poverty, serve the world’s poor regardless of a person’s religion, race, ethnicity or gender. The Heifer Project, an animal husbandry-focussed agency, currently runs a programme called Life after Peace in Anlong Reap commune, a forested highland area some 120 kilometres from Pursat in the northeast, a former Khmer Rouge town during the civil war in the 1990s, only rejoining the rest of the country in 1996, after KR troops reintegrated with the national army.
Rejoining, rebuilding, renewing, forgiving, reconciling are all terms where religions overlap with development. And while religious ideals don’t in themselves lead to development, they may be the base from which true national development follows.