Cambodia 1993

Maha Gosananda, a true peace maker

Patrick Cusick

When 8,000 people joined the anti-war march through the streets of Phnom Penh last Sunday [23 May 1993] – a day before the first-ever free Cambodian elections – the prophecy of Maha Gosananda was fulfilled.

Twelve years ago the Cambodian-born Buddhist acharn started an international movement to bring peace and an end to the long suffering of Khmer people. He predicted then that ‘peace would triumph over war’ when the ‘peace walkers’ take to the streets of [the] Cambodian capital.

Known by thousands of his followers world-wide as the ‘Gandhi’ of Indochina, Maha Gosananda first made headlines when invited to speak at Sydney University, Australia, on The Buddhist solution to the Khmer Rouge revolution which had resulted in the murder of more than one million people. He stunned his audience by laying the cause of the genocide jointly on CIA infiltrators into Indochina, US Government war perpetrators, Soviet military strategists and the tyrannical Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot who, he said, was driven by a Chinese Maoist inspired philosophy that had led to the killing fields and a horrendous period of modern history.

His solution was a simple one. ‘All wars stop when the fighting stops. That will happen when people can walk down the street with peace in their minds, and that’s the only step by step process that will bring an end to the great suffering of the Cambodian people.’

Resting in Wat Tan near down-town Phnom Penh, after being enthusiastically greeted as the ‘great peacemaker’ by the Prince Norodom Sihanouk at the gates of the Royal Palace, the 69 year old monk continued his message of peaceful resistance to all forms of fighting.

‘The highest form of happiness in this world is peace, and it’s a step by step process that begins and ends with the mind,’ he said while reflecting on his 19 day walk through the war ravaged areas of Siem Reap, Kompong Thom and Kompong Cham before arriving at Phnom Penh on May 21.

United Nations helicopters and ground troops monitored with grave concern as the Buddhist anti-war walkers were caught in cross fire as they marched through Khmer Rouge territory in the tense bloody days before the long awaited poll.

‘I was very concerned that they wouldn’t get through,’ said United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) Special Prosecutor Mark Plunkett from Australia. ‘In the course of my duties I had seen many innocent people shot and battered and, here were this group of passive resistors, walking right into the worst trouble spots. At first we thought they would be added to the list of dead victims but every day they kept on moving towards Phnom Penh. It was really an incredible achievement and earned the respect of UNTAC.’

That same respect, according to UNTAC ground operation monitors, was eventually shared by the Khmer Rouge leaders who decided not to attack or harass the robed anti-war crusaders.

‘If you were attempting to pick a route that was most likely to get to the Khmer Rougher forces then the peace walkers did just that,’ said Plunkett. ‘They seem to have a strong faith in their convictions and death, if it was to occur, was only secondary to their cause.’

UNTAC coordinators were at first sceptical of the peace walkers’ intentions. They feared that the non-armed walkers would fall easy prey to the hardened guerrilla soldiers who had vowed to disrupt the impending election and predicted a violent ending to the pacifists’ march.

And although the walkers themselves tried not to think of the violence that surrounded them everywhere, their task was made difficult by the constant sounds of rockers, mortars and AK-47 rifle shots.

‘Our resolve was first tested two days before our march began while we gathered for meditation at a temple outside of Siem Reap,’ recalls the Maha Gosananda. ‘We could hear fighting going on outside and bullets were fired through the temple walls. Three of our people were wounded – one was shot in the shoulder.

‘But the solution gave us all the opportunity to understand the suffering that surrounded us all. Hatred would only make the suffering worse. Our mission was to end the war and suffering by peaceful means. We all had to overcome a test of our faith before we could begin our march. That was our karma and we all had to see it through.’

The Buddhist leader, who spent many years with Cambodian refugees on the Thai border, observed that as the walk proceeded along the designated route to Phnom Penh, an atmosphere of peace began to prevail. ‘All Cambodians in their hearts want peace. By walking against war we were able to demonstrate that the single step towards peace starts when people stop fighting.’

The peace walk culminated with a huge procession in Phnom Penh which saw thousands of Cambodians, many of whom had lost their families in two decades of war, walk in unison through packed streets and around Independence Square. The atmosphere was electric as armed State of Cambodia security guards watched as the thousands of anti-war protesters lit incense and chanted Pali verses.

The following day, at the palace entrance, Prince Norodom Sihanouk greeted the peace walkers and made an impassioned plea for the Khmer Rouge to lay down their arms.

He acknowledged that where weapons and dictatorships had failed, the power of Buddhism, as demonstrated by Maha Gosananda, was the solution to Cambodia’s suffering.

Prince Norodom’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is one of the front runners to become Cambodia’s next Prime Minister, on the morning flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, said there was no doubt in his mind that the Gosananda peace walk had provided the catalyst for a lasting peace in Cambodia.

‘The huge turnout for the peace march on the day before the election made people understand that they were experiencing a new beginning… lasting peace. They realised that they were going to vote and that they had the freedom of choice.’

The leader of the royalist FUNCINPEC Party said the peace walk had demonstrated that the people Cambodia ‘wanted peace and that nothing was going to stop them voting in a free election.

‘The truth that Cambodians have had enough of violence has put an end to the Khmer Rouge as a major force to contend with. At the end of the day the Khmer Rouge are lead by pragmatists. There’s a new dawn over Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and others who use intimidation and fear are out of step with the times.’

Prince Norodom Ranariddh said that whatever government was elected would, like Thailand, be heavily influenced by the Buddhist viewpoint.

‘Buddhism has a major role to play in the new Cambodia. We are in deep gratitude to what the Buddhist peace walks have achieved. It was an historic occasion on the second day of the free elections when my father met with the Maha Gosananda and made it clear to all that the peaceful way of Buddhism was the way to end our long period of war.’

Reference: Patrick Cusick ‘Maha Gosananda, a true peace maker’ Bangkok Post 30 May 1993.

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