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Empathy and Peace: Lessons Learned in Cambodia

by Pushpa Iyer

It was close to 8pm on a Saturday two months ago. I was walking down a big, busy street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with a colleague, returning to our hotel after having dinner. As we passed a poor section of the city, I felt a slight movement behind me. When I turned my head, someone put their hands around my neck, strangling and almost choking me. In those few moments, the only thought in my head was: someone’s trying to kill me! Seconds later when I screamed, I felt a tug at the gold chain around my neck as my assailant let go. I was being robbed! The realization was a relief, and more so when I found my chain in the collar of my shirt – broken but still there.

Walking hurriedly back to the hotel – in the minutes afterwards and even now – I don’t feel lucky or relieved. I am traumatized, angry, afraid and highly emotional. As the incident keeps flashing before my eyes, I know what troubles me most – not the tight hands of this man around my neck, but the exact moment when I felt him let go and opened my eyes to see his back as he ran away from me. In that moment, I saw the hundreds of people who stood around watching me. Not one person moved a foot, not one person walked up to ask if I was okay. The feeling of ‘being alone in a crowd’ is something I have experienced before but the spectacle of all these mute observers who did nothing to help when I was most vulnerable, disturbs me immensely.

I stayed for another week in Phnom Penh. I was there to teach conflict resolution courses in a Masters program for practitioners from all over Asia and had no intentions of quitting and returning to the “safety” of home. Of course, this attempted theft could have happened anywhere in the world. The lack of reaction from the crowd was, however, unlike any experience I had ever had before – why didn’t anyone help me in Phnom Penh that day?

Studies on Bystander Effect and intervention during crime conclude that the greater the number of observers, the lesser the chances of someone intervening to help as most will simply wait for someone else in the crowd to step forward. These studies, also known as Diffusion of Responsibility theories, suggest that if the victim seeks help from a particular individual, there is a greater chance of intervention. I did not ask anyone for help that day in Phnom Penh.

It was the topic of conversation for the whole week as my colleagues, who came from different parts of the world, debated the issue. We discussed how south and south-east Asian cultures, as collectivist, value people helping one another. So, was Cambodia different? Did the Cambodian genocide impact the way Cambodians react to attacks on one another, to the violence around them?

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, a communist party led by Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge forced mass exodus from Cambodia’s cities to the rural areas, making everyone work in collective farms; they abolished political and civil rights, especially targeting intellectual and educated people whom they did not consider useful and saw as a threat to their extremist ideology. Over two million people lost their lives. Many of them died because of starvation and illnesses; but an equal number was tortured and killed, and society as a whole, suffered immense physical and mental trauma.

Plenty of studies point to this psychological trauma that has still not been adequately addressed in Cambodian society. Not only does trauma create fear, insecurity and lack of trust, but it also leads to avoidance, denial and a lack of responsibility – in this case, any kind of collective social responsibility. Many scholars have discussed the lack of individual accountability for actions or inaction in Cambodian society, which often assigns blame or credit to supernatural forces outside the realm of the individual.

Sadly common for a society that is trying to rebuild itself after decades of war and violence, crime in Cambodia is on the rise. According to the 2007-2008 Human Development Report, Cambodia ranks 131 out 177 countries on the Human Development Index. The Human Poverty Index for Cambodia is 38.6 – it ranks 85th among 108 developing countries for which the index has been calculated. Poverty and crime are invariably linked, which when coupled with high levels of corruption, fosters impunity, fear and a sense of helplessness. Having worked extensively with the very poor in India, I deeply sympathize with those who resort to extreme measures and are often forced to engage in these acts of crime to feed their families. As a social activist, I was – and still am – driven by a need to face this “chain-snatcher” and chide him for what he has done, while also giving him a sympathetic ear.

I never went back to that area of Phnom Penh to go find my assailant partly due to a language limitation and an overwhelming sense of fear from this physical violation. I returned to Monterey to tell my story to colleagues, friends and students, and once again, I was taken aback by the response. Most often it seemed as if people were desperate to avoid the topic and my tears (which flowed in the initial weeks after returning home), or they inevitably offered a suggestion to go see a therapist. I did get support from close friends and a few others who had gone through similar experiences, and interestingly, I heard stories of those who had been victims of crime in Mexico, New York and elsewhere where ‘no one came’ to help.

I study and teach the sources and origins of conflicts and the various strategies we can develop to stem further conflicts. I invariably drew parallels between this incident of crime and the violent, conflicted world we live in today. It is simply amazing how paralyzed we can become as a population. Whether it is because of shock, apathy, fear, or just feeling incredibly overwhelmed, the inability or unwillingness to act is becoming more common. What is most disturbing is to realize how desensitized we have becomes to the horrors of the world.

Have you ever caught yourself picking up a newspaper and reading the headlines about the terrible violence in Congo, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka, sighing deeply only to turn to the next page with just a shrug? We certainly can’t walk around all day exclusively focused on these tragedies, because if we did, we simply would not be able to function “normally”. Yet sometimes I wonder if in the need to function “normally” or to be “happy”, we forget to, or avoid expressing our moral outrage, from speaking out and taking a stand.

In the days following this incident, I was consumed with anger, sadness, fear, outrage, and on a good day, amusement – at what had happened to me in Cambodia but more so with the reactions I received here in the US. I laid it all out in my class lectures on empathy – the need to put oneself in the shoes of another – because it’s important to learn to be comfortable when others express their emotions. I told my conflict resolution students that this simple act is, in itself, a huge step forward in bringing a resolution to conflicts.

I also talked to my students about social justice and social activism. We discussed the need to understand where different people (including the guy who strangled and choked me) are coming from, and the need to create social change. Just standing by and watching is a crime – one we try impossibly to justify through our fear and helplessness – but a crime all the same. What the world needs today is our outrage against violence, our willingness to take a stand, to speak out and take some action, so that ultimately, we don’t just get away by pointing blame at someone else.

These past two weeks, I have been back in Cambodia, leading a course titled “Challenges to Peacebuilding in Cambodia” – the underlying objective of which is to learn to develop empathy and understanding for the wide variety of actors who are trying to rebuild Cambodian society. Thirteen graduate students from the Monterey Institute for International Studies where I teach were travelling with me. Our field research took us to three cities – Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh. We met with a variety of people, visited NGOs, talked to government officials, visited the genocide museum and observed the ongoing Tribunal in Cambodia that was set up to bring justice to the victims of the genocide. While we had many questions, we focused on listening to the people on the ground – their frustrations, their challenges and tried to empathize with their feelings of the past and their hopes for the future. For it is only in understanding their world view that we may be able to support them in their struggle to find peace after years of devastating violence and divisive suppression.

About the Author
Pushpa Iyer is Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Conflict Resolution at the Graduate School for International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. Before coming to the United States for her Ph.D. studies, she worked among the poor and marginalized through a local NGO in her home state of Gujarat, India. With that, she began her passionate and deep involvement in issues related to the empowerment of women and human rights. She also worked to bring peace between the divided Hindu and Muslim communities of Gujarat.

In the US, she has continued her work through her involvement with women prisoners and the victims of domestic abuse. She remains a strong advocate for the rights of the girl child, the women and other minorities in India. She has consulted for different NGOs and institutions including the World Bank, which took her back to India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

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