Peace walks through Cambodia

Buddhist monks' peace march

By Liz Bernstein

Our journey for peace begins today and every day. Slowly, slowly, each step is a prayer, each step is a meditation, each step will build a bridge." In this spirit Samdech Preah (Supreme Patriarch) Maha Ghosananda led Dhammayietra 3-the Third Walk for Peace and Reconciliation.

Despite fighting in the area, participants began arriving a week early. Most had heard of the walk by radio, others via the informal "temple information network." By April 23 about 450 monks, 250 nuns, and 100 lay people had gathered in Battambang. The walkers represented various religions, backgrounds, and ages, from age 13 to a 89-year-old nun, a veteran of two previous marches.

Throughout the pre-walk training, which included nonviolence, mine awareness, and first aid, shelling remained audible. Four weeks earlier the Khmer Rouge had retaken Pailin, which the government had briefly taken-and looted. The Dhammayietra appealed for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations without pre-conditions. During one of the daily training walks the appeals were delivered to the vice-governor of the town. In addition, a delegation of the Dhammayietra visited victims of the recent fighting in the hospital.

Setting Off

The Dhammayietra began on April 24, with over 800 pilgrims accompanied by 1,000 well-wishers, who walked a few kilometers in solidarity. Thousands of villagers lined the roads with buckets of water and incense to receive the blessing of the walk, dousing incense sticks in the water as a symbol of extinguishing the flames of war.

The walk proceeded as planned for three days. Shelling could be heard from further down the road, yet everywhere villagers lined the roads, palms joined together in a greeting of respect. They awaited the water blessing and brought offerings of food to the local temples which housed the walkers. At each village, Maha Ghosananda gave a talk, spreading the message of the walk.

As the walk left Bung Ampil, the fighting intensified and came closer. Villagers were debating whether to flee their homes. Eight kilometres ahead, most villagers had already left. Those kneeling on the side of the road were soldiers, their guns laid on the ground next to them, awaiting the water blessing. One lone elderly man, crouched down after a row of soldiers, with an offering of rice in one hand, held a loft a piece of metal in the other. On it he had written in chalk, "Nanti santi param sokham (there is no greater happiness than peace)."

Kilo 38, previously a bustling village, was now a ghost town. As rockets whizzed overhead, fired out by government troops, the walkers stopped for prayer and meditation, chanting, "May all beings be free from suffering, may all beings be free from fear, may all beings live in peace." Soldiers careened by on tanks and trucks, barely slowing for the hundreds of monks and nuns meditating in silence.

Soon the leaders announced that the Dhammayietra would return to Bung Ampil. The Cambodian Royal Government troops had said the fighting up ahead was too heavy for the walk to continue. Confusion ensued, as some retreated, catching rides on motorbikes and trucks. One elderly nun insisted, "I, for one, came to walk with Samdech, and I will continue to walk with him wherever he leads us."

That evening she and about 200 remaining walkers retreated alongside thousands of families now fleeing. The pilgrims walked alongside the file of ox carts, motorbikes, and bicycles laden with water buckets, rice sacks, chickens, pots and pans, and children. The ubiquitous blue plastic bags signalled a previously hopeful move-the recent United Nations' High Commission for Refugees repatriation-but once again these Cambodians were on the road, silent but for the beat of the Japanese monk's drum and the creak of oxcart wheels. One woman, struggling with four children, said, "It's so late in the day. Where will we sleep tonight?"

The walk leaders sought a quieter route to Pailin, detouring west to Komping Poey, north to Bavel district. Preparing to traverse single-file through a "forest" on the way from Komping Poey reservoir to Bavel, one of the walk leaders asked a government soldier to indicate the mine-free path. Unarmed, but in uniform, he accompanied the walk. Several other soldiers, armed, wove in and out of the line of walkers, claiming, "We're on our own patrol."

Soldiers And Monks

Suddenly, the walkers encountered a group of Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) soldiers, and bullets and rockets flew. During a lull many ran back to a big tree. Bullets rang out again. Venerable Kol Saroth, a monk, was shot in the leg. He later recounted, "I was running back next to a soldier and then I felt pang! in my leg and fell down. Maybe they were aiming at the soldier, not me. If only I'd stayed lying down."

The DK soldiers came upon the foreigners (myself included) accompanying the group. After looking through our bags, they led us into the forest. One of the younger soldiers said several times, "Oh no, a monk died. It's so sad a monk died." He told me he was 27, had been fighting for 10 years, and hadn't seen his mother in 15. "Where are you from?" he asked. "U.S.? Oh, I have a brother in California. What's it like there? Do you think I could ever go visit him?"

After walking an hour we met another group of soldiers. Their commander, who had come to meet us, called us for a "meeting." "I want to thank you all, especially our Thai friend, for coming to help Cambodia. But I ask you to remain neutral and non-partisan. Please remind all foreigners working in Cambodia that all Cambodians, including those of the Democratic Kampuchea, want peace and development. I apologize for the death of the monk. If there had not been any soldiers, we would not have shot at the monks." He then asked about the Dhammayietra, and Maha Ghosananda, who had helped start temples in their refugee camps in Thailand. "We want to meet the monks," he said. "We want to find another way. We, too, are tired of fighting for 20 years."

After talking for over an hour, he then told us we were free to go back to the group, yet he warned us against going to Bavel. Upon meeting up with the walk, we learned that a Buddhist nun had also been killed and five people wounded. They had been taken by oxcart to the local hospital and then to Battambang. At dawn the village of Bavel was shelled.

At the funeral the monks pledged to continue the walk. "This violence is indeed why we are walking." A few frightened walkers left, but others joined. The walk continued north, and people continued to greet it wholeheartedly.

In Phnom Penh, NGOs organized a Dhammayietra Walk in memory of those who had died and in support of the round table talks which King Norodom Sihanouk had called for in North Korea. About 1,000 people joined the walk around the city. At the palace King Sihanouk met them and reiterated his support for the walk. Earlier, after the violence which resulted in the two deaths, he had written a letter of condolence asking Maha Ghosananda to postpone the walk. Maha Ghosananda had replied, "He asks us to stop out of love. It is, however, egotistical love, not universal love. We must go on."

Back in Sisophon, there were 2,000 refugees at the temple where the walkers were staying. They had been displaced from their villages near the Thai border. The Dhammayietra continued toward an area where villagers' serious faces revealed the harder life in this war-weary area. They greeted the walkers with austere respect.

Walking To Angkor Wat

As people were lining the roads with buckets of water and food offerings to the north, the walk turned away and headed back south. Worried least the walk encounter further violence, particularly after King Sihanouk's call to postpone it, the leaders took the safer national highway to Angkor Wat, arriving one week ahead of schedule.

The group spent the night at the ancient temple complex. Venerable Yos Hut said in his final address at Angkor Wat: "Along the route we saw and heard the everyday living conditions of our fellow Cambodians. We witnessed how our fellow compatriots live in constant fear and anxiety due to the endless flames of war, banditry, threats, extortion, rape, and other violations. The suffering encourages us to seek all means to end the violence. Cambodians in every village, in every wat, received the Dhammayietra wholeheartedly. Many Cambodians all over the country join together in support of the Dhammayietra and our call for a resolution to the conflict through metta-karona (loving kindness and compassion) for true lasting peace and reconciliation."

Maha Ghosananda, comparing Cambodia to a boat, said, "If Cambodia sinks through war, violence, greed, hatred, everyone sinks as well. We all live in Cambodia together."

Some marchers returned to Battambang province to visit the displaced people with whom we had walked as they fled their homes. There were now about 50,000 displaced. Many were sleeping in the mud in rice fields under sheets of blue plastic, again, as the seasonal rains began. One woman said, "I have run my whole life. I can't count the number of times. Five times in five years, at least. Are we Cambodians born to spend our lives fleeing?"

When one of the monks asked a woman refugee what message she wanted him to send to the leaders in Phnom Penh, she answered, "Just tell the leaders to make peace. Then we don't need any assistance. We'll plant rice and farm, and make our own living, but let us live in our village in peace." As Maha Ghosananda and the other Supreme Patriarchs traveled to North Korea to attend peace talks May 27-28, those in Phnom Penh organized a public prayer and meditation for peace each day. They hung banners and ribbons throughout the city. When they learned that the talks had led to no agreement, they reminded one another of Maha Ghosananda's teaching, "Peace is always a point of arrival and a point of departure. That is why we must always begin again, step by step, and never get discouraged."

The layman from Phnom Penh who had been shot in the leg instructed us from his hospital bed: "We were wrong to have had soldiers with us. We could have just asked them about the mine-free path. Both sides shot. It is not the DK's fault. I believe they are sorry. I forgive them. If I am injured, or even if I'd died, if it is for peace, so much the better. If my leg were healed I'd walk again tomorrow!"

Postscript: After the walk, the steering committee evaluated Dhammayietra 3. We acknowledged that as we sprinkled water on those kneeling by the road ("May peace be in your heart, may peace prevail in our country"), our hearts were not always peaceful. Many times we were guided more by fear than compassion. Though perhaps our public words were reconciling, often we did not remain mindful, balancing wisdom and compassion. We agreed that serious training in nonviolence was imperative.

Liz Bernstein is director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Pbnom Penb, Cambodia.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1994

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1994, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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