This being the rainy season in Battambang, dark clouds suddenly gather and release a tropical downpour. The forumZFD team and the Buddhist monks from the University of Battambang quickly interrupt the preparations for a party the next day, and the provisional roof of the courtyard can barely withstand the rain. Tola Phumchhon, a 33-year old lecturer, is worried: "Tomorrow is World Peace Day, and I very much hope that we don't have to move the whole programme indoors, which would really be a shame.” Phumchhon wears the orange robes of a monk, but that doesn't stop him from moving the tables and chairs himself before checking that everything is in order. "I also composed a song for the event, which we are going to rehearse one last time tonight," he says with enthusiasm. The rain stops as suddenly as it started. There is thus a sense of hope that the weather might cooperate after all.
A young country
Cambodia has a very young population. Ven. Sovechea Vy, rector of the university and thus a respected authority figure, is a mere 40 years old. He was born in 1979, the year the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew Pol Pot, Cambodia's dictatorial ruler. This was followed by two chaotic decades during which virtually all the institutions of a modern society, including schools and universities, had to be reinvented.
Ven. Sovechea Vy, the eighth son of a family of rice farmers, already became a monk at the tender age of 14. "There is no war in our country today, but this does not mean that we have also achieved stable inner peace," the young rector notes. For more than ten years he has been involved in the international campaign for a worldwide ban on landmines. "But there is still so much to do in this country. In Buddhism, ignorance is considered one of the main causes of conflict. In my opinion, this is a very modern doctrine, because it is only through education that we can achieve peaceful coexistence and a society that offers better opportunities in the long run." Given his belief in these ideas, the rector decided some years ago to enter into a long-term cooperation with forumZFD. The organisation helps the university to develop new courses based on conflict analysis and non-violent communication. The university is integrating insights drawn from these fields into its curricula in order to disseminate them among its students. The second textbook is currently in preparation, and lecturers like Tola Phumchhon will also receive further training as part of this project.
World Peace Day in Battambang
The following morning, almost 200 people gather in the courtyard in front of the magnificent pagoda to celebrate World Peace Day. They're lucky with the weather: the sun is shining and it's not too hot. An artist is already tinkering with an installation that is supposed to represent Earth and the unity of mankind. The governor of Battambang opens the event together with representatives of various religious communities. Afterwards, the students are asked to reflect on the meaning of peace in the context of their own lives. During this discussion, they make frequent reference to concepts such as "intercultural dialogue".
While this may sound natural to Western ears, such language is comparatively new in the Cambodian context. Although the country officially opened itself to the world in 1991, the vast majority of the population lacked the resources to make use of their new freedom to travel. Today, however, members of the young, educated middle class can afford the occasional short holiday in neighbouring countries, and people in the larger cities often have enough English skills to attempt brief exchanges with foreign visitors. Nevertheless, Cambodian society continues to be much more homogeneous than is the case in Europe, for example.
"For me, it is very important to get involved and to engage in dialogue," says Enrique Figaredo, the Catholic Bishop of Battambang, who is present at the event and maintains excellent relations with the Buddhist university. While the diocese of 'Father Kike', as he is known, may only comprise a few thousand people, he is committed to ensuring fair access to resources for all the city’s inhabitants, regardless of their religion or the district in which they live. Shortly before lunch, he and the other guests plant several trees together in the courtyard. "Today, protecting the environment is an essential element in conflict prevention," says the bishop. "How can we live together in peace if we wilfully destroy the material foundations of our existence?"
Peace and environmental protection go hand in hand
"At this year's World Peace Day event, we are focusing primarily on environmental protection, because this is currently a very important topic in Cambodia," explains Chandara Phann, a member of the project team at forumZFD's Battambang office. In fact, the country's accelerating development in recent years has brought ever greater challenges: the number of cars is growing rapidly while plastic waste is polluting the rivers, endangering the habitats of the numerous species of fish on which many Cambodians still rely for their diet. And ever larger areas of land are subject to human intervention in the form of deforestation and rapid development.
But it is not too late to reverse this trend without having to forego economic development, given the country's enormous untapped potential. For example, the protection of clean rivers and unspoilt forests would likely attract more tourists. This would also make it possible to avoid conflicts over scarce resources. After listening to a short presentation on "plastic-free Cambodia" in the morning, Sreypow Bet has a better grasp of these complex issues. "I think we need to realise that the nature around us also belongs to our children and grandchildren," says the 20-year-old woman, who is studying English at the local university. "If we don't, they'll inherit the problems that we're causing today."
Around 3 p.m. dark clouds again gather, but lecturer Phumchhon's ode to peace has not yet been performed. "Now we need to be fast," he says. Meanwhile, the forumZFD team is preparing for plan B. It starts to pour, and the newly created art installations have to be quickly brought to safety. Only the old statues of the military leaders remain outside in the rain, while the young spectators gather inside the large lecture room for the closing words of this World Peace Day event.
Cambodia - a young country with a difficult legacy
The massive clashes between the Khmer Rouge and the government forces ended in 1999, when most members of the infamous totalitarian militia surrendered. Once the war had ended, Cambodia started to develop rapidly.
According to the latest estimates, the population has grown to around 16.5 million people. Approximately half are young people under 22 who experienced neither the Khmer Rouge reign of terror nor the subsequent military conflict.
After Phnom Penh, the capital (whose population is around 2 million), Battambang is Cambodia's second largest city with a population of more than 200,000. Almost 95 per cent of Cambodians follow the Theravada school of Buddhism, but there are also Muslim and Christian minorities (which make up two and one per cent of the population, respectively), as well as other, even smaller religious groups.
Internationally, the country is primarily known for the magnificent temples of Angkor, built around the year 1200 during the heyday of the old kingdom. Between 1867 and 1953, Cambodia was part of the French colony of Indochina. After independence, it entered a brief phase of liberal modernisation, which came to an abrupt end in 1975 when Pol Pot seized power. Following the eradication of the educated elite at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is only slowly rebuilding a culture of tolerance and open dialogue, which even before the conflict had only existed to a limited extent. And yet this type of dialogue is exactly what's needed to address the country's political and social problems and to consolidate the hard-won peace.
The Buddhist University in Battambang
Shortly after the country's independence, King Norodom Sihanouk founded a university in Phnom Penh to train Buddhist clergy, which soon gained a certain spiritual prestige. The political unrest of the 1970s interrupted this tradition, and the university only reopened its doors in 1999, after the Khmer Rouge had finally been defeated. Since 2008, a branch in Battambang, the country's second largest city, has welcomed Buddhist monks and young lay people of all religious backgrounds. Currently, about 150 students are enrolled in subjects such as literature, philosophy, foreign languages, law and computer science. The collaboration between forumZFD and the Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University in Battambang (SBUBB) began in 2016 and focuses on conflict resolution, non-violent communication, and issues surrounding national stereotypes. To this end, the forumZFD team organises training sessions for academic staff and produces textbooks.