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Founding Myths and Peace Building Processes In Post-Conflict Cambodia

©2009 Masterarbeit 65 Seiten


Cambodia has accumulated hundreds of years of repressions, supervision by foreign countries, territorial partitions, insecurities, and conflicts. The last 5 decades, Cambodia has suffered extensive military or ideological wars, undergoing changing political regimes that were neither stable nor legitimately recognized. These passed from absolute monarchy, to communism attached to Maoism, to socialism after Marx and Lenin, to capitalism, and finally to constitutional monarchy based on parliamentary system, (Vannath 2003:49) which have influenced significantly all state institutions from complete destruction to reconstruction based on ideological, geo-strategic interest or political cupidity. Ironically, the country’s experience has remained internationally rather unnoticed, succeeding eventually in the past years to acquire political attention due to the substantial international financial and technical efforts in post-war reconstruction and peace building. (Heijmans 2004:331). With this support, Cambodia is trying to redefine itself and to open itself to the world as a regional equilibrating partner, a corner of cultural and architectural treasures, but also as a traumatized nation in need of foreign aid. In this process, the country has formulated diverse narratives to represent it on the international and domestic scene and to help people go on with a hope for peace and prosperity.

Given being this evolution, the thesis ascertains the contribution of the new Cambodian founding myths in the country’s peace building after having emerged from destabilizing rules, especially the Khmer Rouge regime. In the wake of democratization, Cambodia has started to set a new beginning, this paper searching to understand if these transitional definitions of the nation play a constructive part in the promotion of sustainable peace and security. The issue is still in the process of becoming, since only the end of the Vietnamese administration in September 1989 has opened the way for Cambodia to make justice and recover from the pernicious times. For this reason the victim narratives still claim justice, turning into full founding myths when they would have lost there appellative function. (Münkler 2008:2) Consequently, Cambodia slightly adopted some measures to improve its situation, among which the formulation of new narratives representing the nation’s position in dealing with its trauma in the face of the new international support and its own reckoning with its past.


Table of Contents


1. The theoretical frame of research
1.1. Transitional Justice
1.2. Peace Building

2. Case study: Cambodia
2.1. Historical Background
2.2. The Cambodian Founding Myth
2.3. Does the Cambodian Post-Conflict Victim Founding Myth Promote Peace Building?

3. Critical Perspective on the Role of Founding Myths in Peace Building Processes
3.1. The Potential of Victim Founding Myths to Contribute to Peace Building
3.2. Limits of Post-Conflict Victim Founding Myths in Promoting Peace Building

4. The Issue of Exporting the Founding Myth Analysis Concept in non-European Regions




Cambodia has accumulated hundreds of years of domestic and international repressions, supervision by foreign countries, territorial partitions, insecurities, rebellions and conflicts. The last five decades, Cambodia has suffered extensive military or ideological wars, undergoing continuously changing political regimes that were neither stable nor legitimately recognized. These passed from absolute monarchy, to communism attached to Maoism, to socialism after Marx and Lenin, to capitalism, and finally to constitutional monarchy based on parliamentary system, (Vannath 2003:49) which have influenced significantly all state institutions from complete destruction to reconstruction based on ideological, geo-strategic interest or political cupidity. Ironically, the country’s experience has remained internationally rather unnoticed, succeeding eventually in the past years to acquire political attention due to the substantial international financial and technical efforts in post-war reconstruction and peace building. (Heijmans 2004:331). With this support, after becoming independent, Cambodia has been trying to redefine its politics, its ambitions, and its image, to rehabilitate and open itself to the world as a regional equilibrating dialogue partner, a corner of cultural and architectural treasures, but also as a traumatized nation in need of foreign aid. In this process, the country has formulated diverse narratives to represent it on the international and domestic scene and to help people go on with a hope for peace and prosperity.

Given being this historical evolution, the thesis ascertains the role and the contribution of the new Cambodian founding myths in the country’s post-conflict peace building after having emerged from destabilizing rules, especially the Khmer Rouge regime that was one of its darkest historical phases with an ample impact on the nation’s subsequent national identity. In the wake of democratization, Cambodia has started to redefine itself out of its historical resources to mark a break with the past and to set a new beginning, this paper searching to understand if these transitional definitions of the nation play a constructive part in the promotion of sustainable peace and security. The issue is still in the process of becoming, since only the end of the Vietnamese administration in September 1989 has opened the way for Cambodia to make justice and recover from the pernicious times, and only since the middle of the ‘90s has it begun to perform as a distinguished political voice on the regional scene. For this reason the victim narratives still claim justice, turning into full founding myths when they would have lost there appellative function. (Münkler 2008:2) Consequently, Cambodia slightly adopted some measures to improve its situation, among which the formulation of new narratives representing the nation’s position in dealing with its trauma in the face of the new international support and its own reckoning with its past. Due to the lack of any infrastructure to hold up a dynamic recovery and the country’s dependence on foreign reconstruction support, some of the narratives have not corresponded the people’s perception of the real national identity, since some of them eluded posttraumatic consequences, having thus little effect upon reconciliation. (Morris 2000) Eventually narratives dealing with the sufferings of the survivors have claimed acknowledgement, indicating that peace is to be consolidated not only externally but also pertaining to the social-psychological dimensions that make deep-rooted reconciliation possible.

My assumption is that if there can be discerned post-conflict narratives to define the new Cambodia, they do not exist disconnected from the rehabilitation processes, but come into sight along with them and influence the framing of peace and the projection of the country’s future stable order. Due to the profound religious character of the Cambodian nation coupled with the persistent subsistence economy of the country and the regional conditions, I deem there are bottom-up and top-down narratives pointing at different development directions and tending to exclude each other, which influences negatively the course of their unfolding and obstructs their positive influence upon post-conflict peace building. The bottom-up victim narrative has not influenced extensively the political strata for at least 25 years, which means it has had a limited reverberation in the consolidation of democratic institutions, having by its political claims further steps to take until its full recognition as funding narrative. The top-down political narratives, as an expression of the power politics, have tried to set the focus on the material reconstruction but disregarded the victims’ voices, because the grievance for the past would have troubled the reconstruction process according to the domestic political agenda. Eventually, the bottom-up victim narrative - the becoming founding myth - could not be avoided any longer, since its intrinsic claims for the fulfilment of the basic peace conditions have hardly been covered by the other narratives.

One reason to look upon this issue is that Cambodia has not yet been analyzed from the proposed perspective, the combination of the post-conflict founding myth, and peace building being still a novelty at international level. Moreover, until the present, the literature on Latin America, Europe and Africa have been greatly influencing the international understanding of peace building and the transitional justice concept, where I integrated the founding myth phenomenon. In this respect, the analysis of the Cambodian case may point to the enlargement of the academic perspective. Coming with a different cultural, traditional and religious heritage, and proving often scepticism towards progress, Cambodia differs from many other countries eager for development and modernism. Because of this, Cambodia may cast a new light upon the normative understanding of founding myths in the wake of democratization.

Cambodia has been quite unexplored in many ways, the omission having had diverse unjust and unsolicited causes, beginning with the geographic position of the country that pulled it into the communist sphere of influence, which kept it isolated. The peak of the conflict (1975-1979) occurred during the détente of the East-West conflict, when the international relations became more complicated, the country being the victim of the international ignorance produced also by the intense preoccupations of the superpowers to limit the nuclear ambitions. Moreover, the genocide was facilitated by the power games (China, Vietnam, USA, Russia, France), especially the Vietnam War, and the continuation of the conflict by the Sino-Soviet split, these aspects turning Cambodia into a sensitive issue in the region. On the other hand, the momentous situation in other territories engaged in hostilities with a great potential of regional conflict spreading and with impact on remote territories[1] caused Cambodia to be treated internationally with less expeditiousness. For these reasons, it has received less attention compared to the other countries in South-East Asia, like Vietnam, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, where the international attention has increased since the late ‘90s, along with the DC Cam activities and the discussions for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal for human rights abuses in Phnom Penh[2].

Another reason to opt for this case study is that I regard expedient the connection of the post-conflict founding myth and peace building, since this may increase the positive effects of the international reconstruction funding as well as domestic measures, because it would highlight important affected areas that have been ignored when making the reconstruction recommendations. The consistent international aid for Cambodia highly justifies this analysis perspective. According to Peou (2007:4) from 1992-2006, the international community spent over $6 billion on Cambodia and the international assistance accounted 50% of its annual national budget alone. The consideration of the potential implications of post-conflict narratives upon peace building initiatives could make the latter more efficient and peace more sustainable, after the withdrawal of the international post-conflict missions.

Regarding the general stage of the research on Cambodia, Western academicians have elaborated most of the anyhow sparse studies, the approaches standing out by the scantiness of Cambodian viewpoint. Most of the analyses have focused on the history of Cambodia, among the most prominent writers being David Chandler who realized careful introspections in the historical evolution, cultures, traditions, social structures, and politics over time, but also Ben Kiernan who realized an accurate history of the Khmer Rouge regime. Since the polemics around the efficiency of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), some lines have flown also on this item, yet too few elaborate studies. Among them are Susanne Dyrchs (2008), Youk Chhang (2007), Cesare Romano (2004), Stephen Heder & Brian Tittemore (2001), and some others who viewed the ECCC in comparison to other international war crimes tribunals, discussing also the socio-political and judicial implications. Kristina Chhim (2000) who made an ample political analysis of the country under Vietnamese domination has scrutinized the political situation; Isabelle Chann (2006) took a social transitional justice perspective on the overall political situation and the handling of the past; Sorpong Peou (2003-2007) realised a structural peace building approach on the latest development of Cambodia. Several other writings completed my image regarding the mentalities of the Cambodian nation, these pertaining to Ilanya Gellman (2007) who analysed the clashes of the western and indigenous culture and values systems in a cross-cultural peace building process in Cambodia; to Fabienne Luco (2002) who gave an anthropologist approach to the local conflict management, but also other names, etc.

Various analyses conducted by several institutes have also supplied information for this paper. Among these are the Khmer-Buddhist Education Assistance Project, which promotes research on Buddhism and its social impact in Cambodia. The non-profit Khmer Institute, which has supplied inside information on other various Khmer-related issues, has also offered precious information. The Centre for Advanced Studies in Phnom Penh, a non-political Cambodian institution devoted to research, education and public debate on issues affecting the development of the Cambodian society, has also contributed to the evaluation of the present evolutions in the country, etc.

Yet, no studies have I identified on the development of founding myths in the redefinition of the Cambodian identity in times of political transition and their implications for the diverse peace building phases and strategies. I have acknowledged developments and recurrences of the same topics on both political and social level, meant to define who the Cambodians are in the post-conflict geopolitical context, which I apprehended as starting point in ‘a new world’, but I have not identified scientific writings to connect the two concepts. Chhim’s meticulous study on the Vietnamese domination may explain the naissance of the top-down narrative about the delineation of Cambodia’s post-conflict regional position and attitude towards the future development and implicitly on the past accountability. In the absence of any specific studies regarding the bottom-up narrative, the observation of the same author provided some information that helped for the interpretation of the people’s reaction to the destructive state politics. Although the information is rather limited, I consider this narrative most important because it challenges the state to take actions against its will in order to prove democracy, sustainability and reliability in front of the international political partners.

I considered the qualitative research method as the most appropriate one, given being the geographical distance from the region of concern, which has hindered a direct empirical data collection or at least a participant observation. Methodologically, this study employs a combination of normative and explanatory approaches. I have relied on the analysis of the above mentioned studies and further documents and materials concerning the Cambodian transformation approaches regarding the widespread systematic crimes of the ‘70s and the subsequent Vietnamese intervention and domination, since these have highly influenced the formulation of social and political narratives. These have helped me identify and understand the development and the consequences of the narrative beginning with independence. The limited access to the sources has led me to take a closer look on the top-down policies and to regard the bottom-up developing victim narrative from a more general perspective than I initially intended, and which still remains an issue to deal with in place. The bottom-up narrative manifestations I have identified, I have regarded as reaction to the rehabilitation tactics of the new political elite, which has not covered the post-traumatic social-psychological needs of the wide affected population.

The paper explores the research question from two related strands of scientific research: transitional justice and peace building, two notions that often overlap in practice, yet represent two different analytical processes. I do not regard transitional justice as a catch-all phrase, but consider it halfway as a preceding step to peace building, in the sense that the latter goes a step further to reconstruct and consolidate post-conflict societies, whereas transitional justice is concerned mainly with the past in its intention of preparing the present for a more peaceful future. In this concept assemblage, I regard founding myths as a part of transitional justice, a domestic consequence of the ending of conflicts, created as a landmark of a new socio-political beginning in political transitions, with a role-casting and outlook-defining potential, sourced out of the past and directed towards a more peaceable future. I see its relation to ‘justice’ in two aspects. The first refers to the inclusive character of the notion, which creates a common ‘we’ that despite of initially making a distinction, eventually connects perpetrators and victims in one squad, giving the dichotomy a constructive value. The second refers to their normative value in trying to reconstitute a sense of collective rights and responsibility by reprocessing the injustices, which lie beyond religious norms. (Bunselmeyer 2009:8[3]) This indigenous phenomenon meets the external peace building measures, both influencing each other’s outcome as the time they occur in are of social and political rearrangement, the difference being that since peace building handles mainly structural reconstruction aiming further at reconciliation, founding myths work mainly on social psychological level with the potential of promoting structural reconstruction when their value-systems do not collide. Although the aspect of founding myths is difficult to catch in structural peace building processes due to the various variables that come in-between, they play an enormous role in the mindset transformation of the nation, signalizing partly further directions of the domestic politics, which could help orientate international funding also in other directions than economic development.

The main challenges encountered throughout the process of analysis refer to the lack of direct contact with the field, because it is a fact that in Cambodia the reality in the provinces varies from the reality in Phnom Penh. The language that is inaccessible to me has curtailed my access to many primary sources and has caused me to look for secondary sources that focused only on a part of the entire puzzle. Likewise, the prospective and somewhat passive character of the Theravada Buddhism has been a provocation in the observation process, since it considers the present status only as the reward for the merits of previous lives and accepts it therefore submissively, the living looking, as a rule, to create in this present the conditions for an upgraded next life. This seemed to undermine not only the formulation of a founding myth with a victim theme, but also the development of the judicial dimension of the country, which is a major pillar in peace building. This aspect linked also to the subsistence economy of the country that depends on foreign aid and which also influences the peoples’ attitudes, represented a certain problem on account of the fact that the ordinary people may be more preoccupied with everyday survival than with the definition of the new national identity. Nonetheless, this last aspect has determined me to ask whether some highly important post-conflict narratives reflecting serious issues for the people do not develop late in the transition process only because the people are too torn and too preoccupied to assure their upkeep.

The thesis is structured on 4 chapters as follows: the 1st chapter comprises the theoretical part presenting the definition of the terms, the connection between them, and the purpose of their association. The 2nd chapter represents the case study, covering the conflict analysis, the presentation of the Cambodian post-conflict founding myths, as well as an analysis of the reason for the tedious development in the given political context. A highly important part is allotted to the analysis of the extent to which the founding myths may be reliable in the promotion of sustainable peace when faced with external peace building programs and many domestic challenges. The 3rd chapter is a normative-analytical one, intending to transfer the conclusions of the previous chapter on a more general level and to provide a critical perspective on the potential and limitations of founding myths in the promotion of peace. The 4th part comprises an evaluation of the rationale of exporting this analysis model in non-Western, religious countries, in the process of fostering the nation and its identity subsequent to conflicts.

1. The theoretical frame of research

1.1. Transitional Justice

Transitional Justice is a Western concept related to the endeavours of a nation in times of political changeover after mass violation of human rights, to rehabilitate and to promote security and peace among its scared and divided society.[4] (Buckley-Zistel 2008:3) Although human rights movements during the ‘90s first introduced the concept, its practice goes back to the Nurnberg processes at the end of World War 2 and nowadays peace builders frequently employ it. These claim that transitional justice processes may lead to the consolidation of peace, thereby utilizing the term ‘justice’ in a broader sense than the juridical meaning, proposed by Roht-Ariazza[5], covering also social-psychological needs of a society and opening a larger debate on democratization and consolidation of peace in post-war societies.[6] (Teitel in Buckley-Zistel 2008:6) Neil Kritz introduced the term in 1992 in the academic field, the concept defining a double oriented process: it looks at the past and at the future, aiming at uncovering the truth about the massive violations and holding the perpetrators accountable, seeing to rehabilitate the dignity of the victims and to create a sense of justice that makes reconciliation possible[7]. (Bickford 2004:1045) It also seeks to prevent future conflicts[8], searching simultaneously to lay the cornerstone of a new social and political order. (Buckley-Zistel, 2008:6) By doing this, it drives at realizing a multidimensional[9] transformation of the society (Lambourne 2009:30), for which it utilizes juxtaposing judicial[10], semi-judicial[11], and non-judicial[12] instruments, according to the economic, social-political context[13], and to the nature and extent of the conflict, which combination makes each transitional justice case singular and a herald of hope for a more peaceful future. (Buckley Zistel 2008:9)

According to Buckley-Zistel (2008:19), transitional justice is not an apolitical or a technocratic concept, but rather a highly ambivalent political one and the application of its instruments is almost in every case[14] highly debated. The transitional justice framework is attended by dilemmas regarding the appropriate mechanisms, the most difficult issue referring to the opening of trials for the human rights abusers, since this challenges the political and social stability. Judicial measures that promote the remembrance of sufferings are preferred by the victims who want to see the perpetrators punished, whereas non-judicial measures that oversee individual guilt are favoured by the perpetrators, who often pertain to the new ruling class or hold high position in the post-conflict government and seek thereby to escape responsibility.[15] The victims regard the punishment of the wrongdoers as an acknowledgement of their sufferings with positive effects on the healing processes and thus a successful transitional justice measure. On the other hand, the wrongdoers regard the ‘oblivion’ of their transgressions as a successful transition because a final stroke may remove them from the new government, (Assmann 2006:82) representing a break with the past and the possibility to bring forth a new political order that disadvantages them. (Buckley Zistel 2008:11) To this extent, the judicial dilemma and not only this may influence the initiation and development of other transitional justice measures and phenomena[16] among which also the post-conflict victim narrative that comprises the opposition of the perpetrator side and the victim side on a different level, claiming action in a different way than trials. (Bunselmeyer 2009:6)

The founding myths are an integrated part of transitional justice processes as a part of the policy of remembrance[17], being influenced by the various transitional justice measures. (Bunselmeyer 2009:8) Until the present, the academic and field research has not produced a universally accepted explicit definition of the concept, this still being a generic term characterized by a polyvalence that leaves much space for diverse usages and standing out through their highly political, contextual, and fluid character. (Galli 2008:53, Bunselmeyer 2009:8) They are formed of various narratives coined on the socio-political events, emphasizing that which is constitutive for the society at a certain moment (Hein-Kircher 2007:27) and represent the smallest common denominator of a community, (Bunselmeyer 2009:7) being very familiar in times of political turnover after the societies have undergone traumatic experiences that affected their structure and psyche, causing hopelessness. In this respect, the founding myths help nations define new socio-political beginnings in the context of paradigm shifts and orientate in statu nascendi, structuring the past, offering a conciliatory model for it, the understanding of the present, and of the perspectives of the future by the three functions they fulfil - social integration, cultural identity formation and political-symbolical legitimating of authority. (Bunselmeyer 2009:8, Kerenyi 1967:178, Münkler 2008:2)

In the triangle given by the interpretation of the past, the understanding of the present and the perspectives of the future, (Fritz 2008:39) the present is seen as an elusive intermediate level in which there is sought cohesion, stability, and the constitutive meaning of forgetting. (Assmann 2006:42-43) This makes the founding myth integrate in the transitional justice phenomenon because they formulate and bring into the social consciousness the endeavour for stability. They may act as a preparation for a peaceful future and as a preliminary stage to reconciliation, laying the nation’s focus on how to overcome the past and to find a way of communication. In this case, the ontological dimension is not the most important in the founding myth issue but the impact potential on the normative scale. (Assmann 2006:41) This is because founding myths act predominantly on the social and psychological level addressing the minds of the people in a transformative direction.

Considering these aspects, the term ‘founding myth’ is misleading because in the context of transitional justice it does not refer to the genesis of a nation but to a system of facts (Hübner 1985:359) and ideas that emerge as the nation’s self-image and pattern of thought about its identity in a new socio-political context. Founding myths may stand for the entire nation, but also only for parts of it that want to imprint the nation’s identity with the founding myths’ content. This makes them be established and disseminated selectively by the political elite (Hein-Kircher 2007:29) or by various groups, shaped by the political circumstances, ever changing, updated and reinterpreted in a fight for survival and meaning so as not to loose the sense of orientation. (Buschmann 2003:17,19) As top-down mechanisms, they are enabled by the political will that contrives them to meet the legitimacy desideratum of the ruling parties, the oversimplified casting sketching the efforts to leverage an ideology, (Hübner 1985:364) and the general lines of the policy in reckoning with the past. As bottom-up phenomena, they may be a reaction to or a completion of the top-down post-traumatic policy, representing more or less a claim for a change in the policy with the past abuses. Thus, their content reflects indirectly the new political elite delineating the new politics, its attitude towards the past, as well as the uncovered posttraumatic necessities after the peace agreement.

These are unwritten charters of the social and political order (Probst 2005) and the rapidity with which they are generally accepted reflects the degree of divisiveness in the society and the degree of acuteness in building a national common denominator. In this sense, they succeed to display the appropriateness of the transitional justice mechanisms, on one hand, because they communicate those values that engage in the reconstruction of the past. On the other hand, they strive to form the national identity by becoming part of the ideological and spiritual basis of a nation. (Galli 2008:8,10) Thus, by dissemination they influence the historical conscience of a community (Kerenyi 1967:178) and push the collective identity beyond the social, cultural, and political fragmentation. Thus, myths step out of the poetic and become utilitarian, as a powerful cultural force (Kirk 1970:2) losing their visionary force as they become reality, to be recreated in a different form. (Probst 2005)

As an aspect of transitional justice, founding myths are a local manner of dealing with the past, since they emerge as a local consequence of conflicts, as domestic reactions to objective perceived realities, representing recordings of a special aspect of these realities. Roland Barthes conceives them as secondary systems, which have as a prerequisite another system (Hübner 1985:80), in this case mass conflicts resulted in widespread human rights violations. To this extent, they may be regarded as reflecting a dimension of transitional justice: they apprehend the society’s acknowledgement of overcoming the overwhelming past and the contouring of a new socio-political start. In this sense, they may be included in the non-judicial mechanisms of transitional justice, which serve the needs related to the collective memory, identity, being of the society, differing from the other non-judicial approaches in reference to their complexity and vehicle. These all, especially the item of identity base on the memory oft he past, war, and conflict experiences, which all find their way to the founding myth (Bunselmeyer 2009:7) that exists and circulates in an immaterial form on linguistic or spiritual-cultural level.

For this social-political start, they work with socio-psychological phenomena like inclusion and exclusion by dint of standardization of self- and enemy images, with which they shape or maintain group-identities and develop constructive expectations from the participating actors. (Buckley-Zistel 2008:19, Gries 2005:13) They act as super-ordinate to the legal aspects and the truth seeking necessities, forming a sense of ‘we’ necessary to define the category suitable to judge and the truth to be sought for. Their images of social un-fragmentizing and reckoning with the past from the perspective of reunification depend on the transitional justice mechanisms that determine the debates around the past and the responsibility, establishing whether the dichotomy between certain identities is maintained or reduced. Only if the past is reprocessed and a reflection on the injustice is realized can it come to the integration of the experiences in higher horizons of senses, providing unity endowment through common experience (Gries 2005:13) that would lead to the formation of a collective peaceful identity. (Bunselmeyer 2009:8) Under this condition, the founding myth becomes a reconciling or quiet manner to deal with the conflict parties in order to make a sense out of the coming future and it can represent a symbolic, euphemistic, more indulgent reflection over the traumatizing or offending past that creates also the relation of founding myths to ‘justice’. In this respect, they do not respond to the judicial necessities but to the prerequisite for answering them.[18]

1.2. Peace Building

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The concept of ‘peace building’[19] was introduced in 1992 by the UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali through the ‘Agenda for Peace’, as a recommendation for an increased efficiency of conflict management and the UN peace missions. Peace building occurs after peacemaking and peacekeeping[20] and has initially meant the construction by means of international joint programs[21] of mutual benefit[22] of a new environment, in order to prevent the recurrence of further conflicts. (Ghali, An Agenda for Peace) Nevertheless, academicians argue that “peace building is difficult to define and even more difficult to achieve in practice” (Cousens in Lambourne 2004:3), since the concept has matured and has come to surpass the minimalist approach of post crisis intervention and that of middle ground perspective regarding the building of state structures.[23] In a broader sense of the maximalist perspective, post-conflict peace building is a transitional multidimensional process[24], strategies, and stages meant to address the root causes of the conflict and transform it toward a peaceful state of affairs, to reconstruct fractured relationships in a divided society in which human needs are met and conflicts do not recur. (Boutros Ghali, Lambourne 2004:3, 2009:35, Buckley Zistel 2008:8) It is therefore a concept that comprises a structural and a relational dimension, going in upwards[25] and downwards[26] direction at all social levels, with a non-violent transformative and preventive character through which it seeks to promote the values of democracy and to ‘keep former enemies from going back to war’. (Bryden 2005:11)

In this respect, peace building may be approached on political, institutional/structural and social level, since sustainable reconciliation requires both structural and relational transformations. (Lederach, 1997:20,82-83) Political peace building is translated into agreements, negotiations, etc. Structural peace building refers to the reconstruction of institutions that provide security, just distribution of resources and power, economic activities, representing a correction of political and economic systems, etc, fundamental being (economic, judicial, political, social) justice. Social peace building is preoccupied with the rehabilitation of peaceful, unifying feelings, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, values, and skills (communication, negotiation and mediation) (Cooperation for Peace and Unity 2005:4) since for sustainable peace reconciliation is determinant[27] relationships being probably the most central factor in the entire ‘recovery process’. According to Spence, “the process of peace building calls for new attitudes and practices: ones that are flexible, consultative and collaborative, and that operate from a contextual understanding of the root causes of conflict”. (Lambourne 2004:4) This implies the removal of the real causes of the conflict, restoring security and order, a reasonable standard of living, and the acknowledgement of identity and dignity, comprising the goals of both negative peace (absence of physical violence) and of positive peace (absence of structural violence). (Galtung, Lambourne 2004:3,4)

This concept is highly political, given the aims of creating viable political processes that are able to deal with conflicts without violence, (Champagne 2003:7) and the presence of the international actors. While the national actors[28] undergo a rearrangement with the support of the international community, the latter is not only a simple assisting third party but also an active actor that by its ‘civilizing’ peace-making strategies and norms exportation has the potential to fuel the conflict instead of reducing it.[29] Still, for both blocks, sustainable peace building implies a long-term commitment to processes carefully coordinated, consonant with the features of the affected society in which the latter is actively integrated in order to strengthen locally the new democratic structures that evade the organized military violence.[30] In this respect, the way of interpreting the past in the present context becomes a quintessential factor in the construction of a collective identity. (Buckley Zistel 2008:9)

The link between transitional justice and peace building is represented by the context they act in, their transformative, preventive and reconciling character, and by their individuality for each case[31]. According to Lambourne (2009:34), “peace building and transitional justice involve promotion of socioeconomic and political justice, as well as of legal justice, which combats a culture of impunity, [seeking to set] up structures to ensure ongoing respect for human rights and the rule of law”. Both have as a crucial part in the addressing of past violence while promoting recuperation and rule of law. However, while transitional justice is regarded as an attempt to build a sustainable peace after conflict, mass violence or systemic human rights abuse, having a rather normative commitment than an empirical basis(Zyl 2005:209), peace building surpasses conflict prevention, conflict management and also comprises post-conflict reconstruction. Nevertheless, transitional justice has the potential to facilitate peace building, by its quest to develop a representation of the future and to build a sense of trust in the new socio-political context. (Peace building Initiative[32])

Occurring in the same socio-political context, the two concepts also face the same challenges. There is the political instability, the weak economy, the deficient security, the lack of institutions, the challenge of strengthening local institutions without undermining local ownership, etc. Since the pursuit of democracy can undermine efforts to secure peace, which in turn can undermine the meaning and quality of democracy (Sisk 2008:239), the desire for stability and security may be discordant with reconciliation and conflict management. Both terms have an accentuated peace-perspective that may be in conflict with truth and justice, which may contribute to the division of the already torn society. While the risk of a too emphasized international transitional justice is to fail because of the deficient development of local ownership, the risk for a highly international peace building is to achieve a new form of colonialism out of the same reason.

When connecting founding myths to peace building , the question rises about how the concepts meet on national territory and how they can be complementary and reciprocally supportive, as the clash of approaches may bear destructive risks,[33] since peace building is a mechanism conducted and coordinated mainly by the international community, whereas founding myths originate from a domestic impulse, elaborated on a local base. The connection between the terms lies in several points related mainly to the social dimension. One of these is the basic liberal norm of non-violence, which implies cooperation mechanisms between (former) conflicting parties, and elusion of social fierceness, which may represent a starting point in the symbolic definition of whom the new society is, in order to facilitate the procedural standards required by the emerging democracy.[34] In this process, if peace should be interiorized and to last, this has to develop on a formed identity that has at its base the founding myth on which the nation consolidates and identifies with. (Bunselmeyer 2009:10)

The connection lies especially on the social level, since social peace building deals with feelings, attitude, opinions, beliefs, values, and skills as they are held and shared between individuals and in groups and which are fuelled from the inside the nation. Peace building is also about building a human infrastructure of people who are committed to engendering a new ‘peace culture’ within the social fabric of communal and inter-communal life. (CPAU 2005:5) The preamble of UNESCO reflects this sentiment: “since war begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that foundation of peace must be constructed”. Change in the attitude and behaviour can result through formal and informal peace education that promotes the development of an authentic consciousness that is necessary to achieve greater cooperation and peaceful problem solving. (CPAU 2005:6) After the division of the nation, the founding myths represent a ‘common creation and memory’, which according to Proust, may sometimes be the best peacemaker. (Fritz 2008:127)

In this, founding myths have the power to bear the self-hypnotic tendencies of a nation and emphasize the symbolic side of peace building. They do not have the property to eliminate the underlying causes of conflict but only to alleviate them, whereas peace building can do that on the base of the establishing mental transformation (Lambourne 2009:34). In this sense, peace building stands higher chances of success where a common ‘we’ begins to exist, as an expression of the active reconstruction strategy of the post-conflict nation, as a preceding step for structural and social-psychological peace building. Assmann (2006:115) supports this idea by saying that the common remembrance offers a much better foundation for a peaceful coexistence than the common forgetting. Nonetheless, the exact relation between the normative and the structural dimension of founding myths in the process of peace building is difficult to be empirically attested, since many variables lie in between and the creation of structures and institutions to promote peace building has a very powerful international dimension whereas, founding myths are a national phenomena arisen out of the national spirit.

2. Case study: Cambodia

2.1. Historical Background

After the end of the 90 years of French protectorate[35], Cambodia has changed five different political regimes that have deeply affected its economic, political and socio-cultural construct to the disadvantage of its population. The first 10 years after independence (1955-1965) ‘ the Kingdom of Cambodia’ endured a democratic period of flourishment under King Norodom Sihanouk, until the region became the ideological battlefield of the cold war superpowers, the Maoist China, the Marxist-Leninist Russian Federation and the capitalist US, represented regionally by the Western oriented South-Vietnam, Thailand, and the communist North-Vietnam. In order to keep the positive political and economical development of the country unaffected by the international political frictions, the left oriented King adopted an international policy of neutrality in which the country was to be a friend to everybody. Nonetheless, in 1966, the pro-American General Lon Nol became Prime Minister, changing the political course of the country, by installing a dictatorship because of which political and economical consequences, corruption, and nepotism, the communist Khmer Rouge[36] led a civil war in 1967-1975. Lon Nol’s policy worsened, and in March 1970, he ousted Sihanouk[37] (Vannath 2003:49), proclaiming the establishment of the ‘ Khmer Republic’, pushing the country rapidly in the centre of the 2nd Indochina war[38]. Yet, when the US retreated from Vietnam in 1973, the Lon Nol forces remained without support, which was to reduce the time of confrontation with the Khmer Rouge communist faction that soon overthrew the government, taking over Phnom Penh in April 1975.

The governmental support of the US war against Vietnam and the hundreds of thousands of deaths as well as the massive destruction of Cambodia by the US air raids, made the Cambodians favour the Khmer Rouge. This would mark the beginning of a new period which would last until 1979 and would lead to the violent death of about 1.7 - 3 million people[39], with the ambition to completely revolutionize the Cambodian society and to rebuild the glory of the great Khmer medieval Kingdom. The Khmer Rouge turned the Cambodian calendar to Year Zero and eradicated all classes and ethnical differences, cities, institutions, religion, professions, and displaced the urban citizens in forced labour camps for the reconstruction of Cambodia as a completely agrarian country. The registered history had to be destroyed by scattering libraries, burning books, closing schools, and murdering schoolteachers. (Kiernan 2004:80) Under extreme conditions[40] people died increasingly of exhaustion, sickness, and starvation. (Gellmann 2008:39) Those who commented on the state policy or showed different political allegiance faced torture, imprisonment, or extrajudicial execution. (Derichs 2001:8) Political rights were not clearly defined in this time, and the respect for human rights never played a part in the political culture of Cambodia (Peou 2004:39,57) the nation emerging “exhausted and emotionally fragile after 1979.”(Frieson 2001:13)

To gain and legitimize the maintenance of power the Khmer Rouge also employed founding myths in order to legitimise their actions, to motivate the people, and to paint a different world vision. They “evoked the era of the Angkor empire in their imagery. In subtle ways, they drew on conceptions of traditional Khmer relations within the family and, perhaps, aspects of Buddhism. They certainly drew on the experience of war in the immediate past. The function of the metaphor is, of course, that of a mechanism to transform the past into something serviceable in the present, not just repeat it’ […] Pol Pot (the leading force of the collective regime) invoked the Angkor Empire religiously, adopting symbols, references in speeches, and in his choice of names.” (Powell 2003:24,26)

This reign of terror, the domestic struggle for survival, and the international situation, weakened the Khmer Rouge and caused them to fall by the hands of their most feared enemies, the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge tied to China were recognized internally, yet externally was recognized Lon Nol (opponent) government that was acknowledged and supported by the Soviet Union that also supported North Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge continued to be recognised also after their fall by ASEAN, USA, and other Western countries. (Vannath 2003:49) December 1978 the Vietnamese army entered in Cambodia with the help of Khmer Rouge defectors, installing a new Vietnamese supported government (Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party) under the former Khmer Rouge Heng Samrin, ending the auto-genocidal period but putting the country under the virtually unrestrained control of the police. (Peou 2007:62) The country became the ‘ People's Republic of Kampuchea’, with a changed presence in the region. It further flamed relations to Vietnam and Thailand showing open hostility towards both neighbours, the aversive relation being employed as a legitimization for various political measures against the Khmer Rouge. Moreover, it continued the policy of severe isolation in international relations by closing the country’s borders.


[1] I have in mind African countries, with political borders separating their ethnic groups, where the conflicts tend to spread along the lines of the ethnical population, causing massive human displacements also towards Europe, in the former colonising powers.

[2] The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia opened in October 2004, after toilsome negotiations.

[3] I would like to thank my colleague, Lisa Bunselmeyer, for her valuable contribution to my understanding of the subject of founding myths. Because of her precious ideas in the mentioned research paper, I considered it appropriate to quote her, even before the publishing of her thesis.

[4] Democracy exporting states apply this concept also on other states, mainly on those with few and/or low functioning institutions.

[5] "The conception of justice associated with periods of political change, characterized by legal responses to confront the wrongdoings of repressive predecessor regimes…” (2006:1)

[6] Due to the abundance of transitional justice measures, the concept runs the risk of being considered a collective term for post war intervention. (Buckley Zistel 2008:9).

[7] Kritz (1995:33) argues, the truth finding and the prosecutions should be followed by a process of healing that draws a line between the unfree past and the democratic future. Reconciliation may not be about forgiveness but about release, so that people may have the possibility to look together into the future.

[8] According to Laplante (2008:333) in terms of prevention, transitional justice aims for sustainable peace by seeking to establish the rule of law, democracy and a culture of rights.

[9] Psychosocial, political, economic, legal, etc.

[10] International, national, hybrid tribunals.

[11] Truth and Reconciliation Commissions/TRC, amnesties.

[12] Museums, historical writings, remembrance days, compensations.

[13] Stability, resources, the policy and the political will of the government. (Buckley Zistel 2008:9)

[14] Exceptions are South Africa (TRC), Spain, where there was a conscientious agreed upon decision to waive judicial measures and to grant amnesties. (Assmann 2006:74)

[15] i.e. Cambodia, Poland.

[16] This refers not only to the trials, but also to the TRC, which may reveal truths which hurt, like in Guatemala, South Africa, or in East Timor where the TRC reflected the real extent of the atrocities. It refers also to compensations.

[17] The term policy of remembrance is my personal translation of the German concept “Erinnerungspolitik”.

[18] This may explain why trials start after long time after the end of conflicts or why they unwind with great difficulty and many impediments.

[19] Image taken from Beyond intractability

[20] It becomes necessary after preventive diplomacy fails to avert armed hostilities, after peacemaking has established the framework of a negotiated settlement, and after peacekeeping has monitored an agreed ceasefire and presumably facilitated the restoration of a threshold of order. (Hanggi in Bryden 2005:10) Peacemaking refers to political, diplomatic and milutary interventions which seek to bring the conflict parties to an agreement.

[21] Peace-building is usually supported by the international community because after highly spread violence the society’s pillars are destroyed, this having only limited resources to manage the situation in a stabilising manner.

[22] The restoration of order, the custody and possible destruction of weapons and landmines, repatriating refugees, advisory and training support for security personnel, monitoring elections, advancing efforts to protect human rights, reforming or strengthening governmental institutions and promoting formal and informal processes of political participation. In this process, the UN would play the role of assuring technical assistance.

[23] The issue of peace-building has led to the creation in 2006 of a permanent institution at the UN, the Peacebuilding Commission, to advance the aim of preventing the recurrence of war. (Sisk 2008:239)

[24] Bryden proposes 3 structural dimensions: a security dimension (basic security, mine action control, disarmament, demobilisation, etc), a political dimension (rebuilding of national political authorities; good governance, democracy and human rights; civil society empowerment; restorative, economic justice, etc.), and a socio-economic dimension (repatriation and reintegration of refugees, the reconstruction of infrastructure and important public functions, the development of education and health services; and private sector development, employment, trade and investment). (2005:12,13)

[25] Build confidence in people.

[26] Peace mediation, negotiations, etc.

[27] The two mechanisms may exclude each other while justice may also be determinant for reconciliation.

[28] The civil society, the political elite, the grassroot leaders, etc.

[29] By influencing the peace agreements, by recommendations and conditionality, by state building missions. (Champagne 2003:11)

[30] Like transitional justice, peace building is also a western concept that risks becoming counterproductive when it ignores the fundamental worldview of the society in question or tries to impose western models and standards of democracy just because these function in stable democracies. (Lambourne 2009:35)

[31] The limitation in the application of the experience of one country on another one makes the definition of the term very vague.


[33] Founding myths have deeper roots than peace building and they break the bonds of the western world-view that accompanies the latter.

[34] This is visible especially in the country’s orientation towards the international scene.

[35] 1863-1953. The Thai installed king Norodom asked France for the protection of the country’s border against Thailand and Vietnam.

[36] Three political orientations coexisted, classified by Prince Sihanouk as follows: White Khmer (the nationalist and the independent, neutralist and Buddhist), Blue Khmer (Lon Nol, the pro-Americans, the reactionaries, pro capitalism, pro the so-called free world), Red Khmer (the leftist and the Communists). (Schier 1985:7)

[37] He was allegedly involved in the ousting of Sihanouk when the latter was on a trip to Moscow and Peking.

[38] It took place late 1950-1975 between the US and Vietnam.

[39] There are no exact figures regarding the casualties.

[40] More than 12 working hours a day, some spoonfuls of rice the daily food portion, nightly education sessions, separation from families, forced remarriages, no proper medication etc.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Paperback)
1 MB
Institution / Hochschule
Philipps-Universität Marburg – Gesellschaftswissenschaften und Philosophie
2010 (Februar)
14 points
Peace Building Cambodia Founding Myths transitional justice Khmer Rouge UNTAC narrative democratic institution victims’ voices Khmer-Buddhist Education Assistance Project Vietnamese intervention psychological needs Lon Nol Angkor Empire killing fields Tuol Sleng Victims Unit genocide

Titel: Founding Myths and Peace Building Processes  In Post-Conflict Cambodia