Opinion: Peace in Cambodia: Enjoy It While It Lasts

Kok Thay Eng Ph.D. Director of Cambodian Institute for Peace and Development.

I would like to contribute to the debate about war and peace in Cambodia and write this letter to my fellow Cambodians.

I have an extensive background in armed conflict and genocide research, both in my education and work. I would like to say that peace is fragile.

War can happen easily.

Western and Eastern scholars study war and peace and they have never reached any real conclusion on how to prevent war and sustain peace. Everyone should read Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace” to get a better understanding of how difficult it is to maintain peace and prevent war.

A world without war is really a dream, almost like the Khmer Rouge’s agricultural utopia.
For me, what we have today is a luxury, particularly freedom of movement throughout Cambodia, assisted by extensive paved roads.

Cambodia is a small country, but 25 years ago certain corners of our country were great mysteries, simply because we did not have access due to security reasons.

I remember in 1997 when Kulen Mountain in Siem Reap province was opened for the first time and people flocked to it.

This mountain had been inaccessible due to the presence of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone now takes this mountain for granted. Because of peace and infrastructure development we have discovered beautiful places in our country along the coast, in the highlands, in the Cardamom Mountains and in Siem Reap itself, such as Peung Tanon.

We should all try to preserve this peace, embrace it and enjoy it.
Looking at global history, I do not see lasting peace. You do not have to call for war; war will happen to you at some point.

War can happen for many reasons: from fighting for women between princes to ideological, religious, economic, ethnic, racial or territorial reasons.

Normally a polity has the longest-lasting period of peace when it is under a strong, powerful and effective leader off the back of a protracted, concluded conflict.

We should also look at war and peace as cyclical, just like the economy and business. This relates to the human mind.

In the case of Cambodians, younger generations who have never experienced war underestimate the value of the peace we have and view current developments as the default, meaning it does not need maintenance, just like a large fruit tree at the back of the house that requires no fertilization or watering and yet provides fruit every year.

Peace is different. We have to respect it. We have to maintain it.

We must not be complacent while we enjoy it. Throughout its history, Cambodia has not enjoyed a true period where there is no resistance or guerrilla forces in the forest, like we do today.

The global power contest that characterized the Cold War is still at play, and a lot of people have been surprised at how quickly the world is attempting to return to racism, as seen in France and several other European countries through populist political campaigns.

Nobody expected the threat of World War III to be posed only 27 years after the end of the Cold War, which had lasted 50 years.

With the use of Islam as a tool for struggle, the clash between Islamic and Christian cultures is rising. In Burma, nobody expected the harsh treatment some term it “genocide”—we see against the Rohingya Muslims by Buddhists.

The Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot should be a strong lesson for Southeast Asia, but it appears not to be for Burma.

Who would expect politics to be so divisive for Thailand, with so many changes of government and coups in a few years? Thai internal politics spilled over into Cambodia in a surprising way.

Very few people expected Thailand to forcefully attempt to take back Preah Vihear temple in 2008, especially after the temple had been adjudged to be Cambodian by the International Court of Justice in June 1962.

Laos has become aggressive more recently. We have rarely heard of Laos being militaristic. Cambodia is always a variable within larger spheres of influence in Southeast Asia, Asia and Eurasia. What happens in these regions can affect our country, as with the Vietnam War.

Conflicts are all around us in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the Mindanao, the Korean Peninsula, southern Thailand and Burma; there’s the scourge of terrorism and, going further west, we have the Middle Eastern wars.

Please don’t consider Cambodia safe from war. We are not. We are enjoying a period of tranquility where there is “zero” guerilla force in the forest. I do not take our peaceful period lightly and I embrace it.

When there is a power struggle outside Cambodia, there will be many countries or groups who are willing to arm the “guerillas.” That is when internal conflict becomes regional, and regional conflict becomes internal, and eventually things become complicated.

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