Peace before War – Peace after War

 

Unlike friends at university who marched under the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament banner, and who camped outside nuclear facilities in inclement weather, surrounded by police cordons, I followed a more personal path and raised money for Oxfam and went on spiritual retreats with other students. Did I mean to choose personal peace over world peace? Not intentionally, it was merely a result of my safe upbringing.

 

Looking at long-term results of all this, the CND marchers perhaps spent their time more fruitfully – there hasn’t been a nuclear war, and I’m not a priest!

Having never participated in a war, nor started a war (to my knowledge), nor ended a war, my professional experience and viewpoint is akin to one of the sweepers who arrives at the festival grounds the day after the big event, picking up the economic and administrative debris, to help bring the grounds back to normal. The cleanup events were, however, in exotic places like Colombia, Bolivia, Pakistan, and Cambodia.

In Cambodia, in 1996, I led a study regarding approaches for implementing massive reductions in the public sector over two years. The study was located in the Cabinet Office of the Council of Ministers. As consultants, our team worked to design approaches that would mitigate the economic and social turmoil of turning thousands of bureaucrats onto the streets with cash payouts designed to encourage new business start-ups and a new generation of entrepreneurs. Given that the streets of Phnom Penh were full of war veterans, many with missing limbs, already trying to learn to eke out a living in this new post-UN-administration environment, our team and the Council of Ministers did not see eye to eye with the IBRD/IMF field representatives on the timetable for the reductions. But this was the era of Structural Adjustment policies, so the IBRD/IMF took a very hard line on reducing government expenditures as part of the program of peace and reconstruction following the Pol Pot era.

So here we were, part of the cleanup crew long after the Khmer Rouge had been ousted, when an incident occurred, which caused my personal-view and the world-view of peace to collide. A colleague and I had been invited to a dinner, held in the courtyard behind the Council of Ministers building, to celebrate Cambodia’s National Day. The venue had a stone tiled floor, was open to the sky, had round tables seating 10, and more than 100 people in total, everyone in festive mood.

Suddenly there was a loud bang as a litre-sized beer bottle fell onto the ground and exploded. I looked around in amazement. My Canadian colleague and I were the only two people I could see above the tables. Everyone else, including senior officials and ministers, was on the ground or crouched under tables. The message was clear. These people had suffered through war. They had lost family and friends. They had lost their homes. Memories of war were still fresh, even after a few years of peace. Outwardly peaceful, they carried the memories of war inside, along with hair-trigger reactions to sudden surprises.

This was a sobering experience. Not because of my naiveté in the face of potential danger, but because I’d not really understood the continuing effects of the trauma of war on people I’d been close to during the previous months. My Canadian cocoon had sheltered me from the reality in which large swathes of humanity live. I was with them, but I wasn’t walking in their shoes. It made me realize that my personal, confident peace view, needed to be tempered with their worldly, fearful peace view, for me to be an effective colleague or friend.

 

By: Harry Monaghan

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