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November 25, 2010

Reflecting on Cambodia’s National Day of Mourning

The Water Festival is a time of great celebration in Cambodia. It is always
celebrated around November but the dates are dependent on the moon. Some say
it’s a chance to honour the rivers which replenish the soil for the harvest.
Others say it’s to honour the spirits which make the river miraculous change
direction and flow in the other direction.  Mostly it’s the time where the
people from Cambodia’s countryside take over the capital! Phnom Penh is
theirs. They sleep along the streets, they cheer on the boat of their
district, they stay up all night and enjoy the myriad of free entertainment
from fireworks to concerts and traditional dancing. It’s a grand celebration
of life!

The development of a new island in the river, accessed through such a
beautiful bridge decorated with a Naga snake,  was this year such a focal
point for the celebration. So many went to Diamond Island over the holiday
period for the trade show, the fun park, the free concerts, the displays and
because so many other people were there to see! Such a focal point of joy
and happiness, amongst Cambodia’s rural poor.
And therein lies the tragedy. Those that died on the bridge on November 22
were hardly Cambodia’s wealthy. They were yet again the poorest of the poor.
Garment factory workers, usually young women out for a good time. Sisters
from a tiny village disobeying their mother and running to the capitol to
join the fun. They were slum dwellers from a nearby slum soon to be
demolished. They were moto-dop drivers, garbage collectors, market sellers,
rice farmers. And now 395 such people lay dead in the height of the
No doubt there will much discussion and debate by NGOs and human rights
groups in weeks to come. How the government could have protected them. How
safety standards are not enforced. But this is not the day for such
recriminations. Today a prime minister weeps openly with his people, and the
streets are silent. Outside every home, along every street, there are the
traditional offerings, candles and incense for those who have passed. TV
channels read the names of those who have died, replay the footage of that
fateful night and update the death toll hour to hour.
It is hard to watch the images without comparing them to so many of the
images long associated with Cambodia. It is not a publicity stunt that so
many of those interviewed by the media, including Hun Sen’s address to the
nation, refer back to the Khmer Rouge years. Not since then has there been
such a tragedy in our history, they say. One woman wept, I lost everyone to
the Khmer Rouge, and now I lost my son in this stampede. Who will take care
of me now?
Over the past decade the international community has tried hard to persuade
Cambodia that an international tribunal was necessary to heal Cambodia’s
past, to reconcile the nation, to bring closure. To date the tribunal has
seemed an alien legal process, far the from reality of everyday lives and
certainly not a mechanism for healing deep seated pains and loss.
But the events of the past few days have felt very different. In every
restaurant, in every market, along the street – people go about their
business slowly and silently. People watch tv screens in breakfast shops and
cry openly. On Wednesday I watched a military truck slowly make its way down
the Monivong, the main road through Phnom Penh, filled with coffins. As it
past shops and houses, guards, pedestrians, passersby, all stood, almost to
attention, to pay respect and honour those nameless corpses going by.
I drove past the hospital and found people giving out water to the many
people camped out there trying to find their family members. A huge
billboard displayed the unidentified people still indie the hospital, and
people clamber over each other to see if they can find their own.
While this has been a deep and great tragedy for Cambodia, something else is
going on here. This country has become united in its grief. People are
coming together to put right, something which was very wrong. They are
standing together to mourn their country people, fully aware that those who
died were the least among them, and now deserve the highest honour for their
tragic end. And of course all of us looking on wonder how they can bear more
suffering, more grief and more pain.
The late Maha Ghosananda, Cambodia’s peace monk often chanted;
The suffering of Cambodia has been deep.
From this suffering comes great Compassion.
Great Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.
A peaceful Heart makes a Peaceful Person.
A Peaceful Person makes a Peaceful Community.
A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
And a Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.
Perhaps Maha understood that it is the yoke Cambodians must bear  on behalf
of us all. People who come to Cambodia often comment of the smiles of the
children, the happiness of the people. They marvel at the sense of fun, and
joy in simple pleasures. They speak of the open hearted way Cambodians
welcome them, embrace them and befriend them. Perhaps this is what Maha
speaks of – the joy that is born of suffering. Perhaps Cambodia suffers so
much so that compassion can be.
For the past 48 hours  Cambodian television channels have received donations
from around the country for the victims’ families and the injured survivors.
No amount is too small to announce on the television recognising the
contributions of even the poorest people. From this suffering comes great
One boy told of a man who saw him trapped under the feet of the people on
the bridge. He bent down and lift the boy up and put him on his shoulders so
he was above the crowd. Later the boy realised he was riding on the
shoulders of a dead man. From this suffering comes great compassion.
What we learn through the events of the past few days is that sense of
national identity and reconciled togetherness cannot come from outside. It
comes from the shared suffering, losses histories and processes which people
experience  for themselves. In many South East Asian nations those shared
histories are days of liberation, celebrating anti colonial struggles and
the pride of self determination. Cambodia has no just day of celebration or
national unity. Cambodia’s unity seems always to come through her suffering.
Piles of shoes belonging to the deceased – in the Khmer Rouge years and
again today. The mass graves of the Killing Fields, parallel to lines of
bodies along the river bank of the past two days.
Today is Cambodia’s National Day of Mourning.  Today, one after another
Cambodians are laying flowers and burning incense at the fateful bridge.
This is their time, where they stand together as a nation and grieve. This
is not just grief for those who died in this incident. This is truly a
National Day of Mourning for all the suffering they have endured. This is
the time they rally and unite to put right something which went very wrong.
This is their moment of national unity. This is the suffering they bear,
from which compassion is born. As a prime minister weeps with his people,
Maha’s words echo over this timeless land;
“Our journey for peace begins today and every day.
Each step is a prayer, each step is a meditation, each step will build a
Ironic, yet true. Cambodians will wipe their tears, and continue to build
their nation, heal their hearts and show great compassion. Not just to each
other, but to the world.
Emma Leslie
Phnom Penh, November 25, 2010

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