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Denise Coghlan

A Sister of Mercy from the Brisbane congregation in Australia, Sister Denise Coghlan, RSM helped found Jesuit Service Cambodia and now leads Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia (JRS). She has worked in Cambodia for more than two decades on reconciliation, peace, and justice, and the human development...

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A Discussion with Denise Coghlan, RSM, Director, Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia

Denisecoghlan
Background: This exchange in May 2010 between Sister Denise, Michael Bodakowski, and Katherine Marshall explores issues that link women, religion, and peace. Sister Denise reflects on her more than twenty years working in Cambodia and how her faith and her sense of justice motivate her work from start to finish. She highlights the challenges facing people with disabilities, of post-conflict reconciliation, and rebuilding trust. At Jesuit Refugee Service programs, the people seeking aid are asked to outline what they see to be the most valued and helpful forms of aid. JRS then works to make these a reality: for example, knowing that independent mobility went far in ensuring the dignity of disabled peoples, JRS opened its own center to make wheelchairs for those living in rural homes. She discusses how the legacy of the Khmer Rouge affects families and society in Cambodia today. JRS, besides tangible and material support to people with disabilities, emphasizes projects that aim the rebuild trust in Cambodia, trust for fellow citizens that was destroyed under the Khmer Rouge regime. Faith-inspired organizations are an important link between the policy and community levels. Sister Denise stresses that faith-inspired organizations must be experts in their field; faith alone is not always sufficient to make lasting contributions. Finally, she describes her international work on landmines and cluster bombs, which won her team a Nobel Peace prize.

Interview Conducted on May 28, 2010


Can you outline how you came to your present position in Cambodia? What are sources of your personal inspiration?

I joined the Sisters of Mercy in Australia in the 1960s, and from there went to Papua New Guinea, where we established the first high school for women in the northern part of the country. Following my time in Papua New Guinea, I joined the leadership team for the Mercy Sisters in Brisbane. There was a request for a volunteer to go into the refugee service to work in the Thai camps with Cambodian refugees. So, even though I enjoyed my job at the time as coordinator for the Institute of Faith (a program for adult Catholics to refresh their theology and philosophy) in Brisbane, I felt I had to go. When they asked me why I wanted to go to the camps, I said that wherever suffering is present in the world, the cross of Christ is mysteriously present. That was my motivation. It was difficult for many interviewers to hear this, I think, because they thought I should say that I wanted to return to help refugees in Australia, but in reality it did not have anything to do with that. It really was about following the cross of Christ.

In the refugee camps, I found myself confronted with an ethical dilemma. We were at the service of one particular faction of the Cambodian people (the people in the camps), and there were four factions in the country still at war. The bombs and the shells were still falling into the camps while I was working there. We had a major discernment to carry through: we had to ask ourselves, “Does staying in the camps prolong the war? What will be the outcome if we do stay?” The question we had to ask ourselves was, “shall we stay in the camps, yes or no?”

In the end, even though there was mixed opinion, we decided to take three different tracks: some people would remain with the refugees in the camps until they were finally repatriated, another group would work outside, with Buddhist monks, on advocacy and reconciliation, and a small pioneering team would work inside Cambodia with Cambodians who were in the country. I was one of the four chosen to be the pioneer of the Jesuits in Cambodia. Of course, the Jesuits first came to Cambodia in about 1540, soon after the Order was founded, but then they only stayed for a very short time.

So that is how I got here….

We (myself and the fellow Jesuits I was working with) became the Jesuit Refugee Service. But in order to work in the country in those days, you had to strike an agreement with the local authorities. The authorities knew of our work with people with disabilities in the camps, and they asked us if we could implement vocational training for people with disabilities. We said that we did not want to be limited to work in a certain sector, but rather sought to be integrated into a rural community (or as rural a community you could work in at that time because of security). We thus had three strands to our work: 1) to work with people with disabilities as a symbol of the results or war, conflict, and exile. 2) to build a rural development project for the poor in the villages, and 3) to work for peace and reconciliation.

The center where we began our work carries much important symbolism. It had previously held many functions, including a base from which carrier pigeons were sent out during the war. The actual name for the center in Cambodian was Banteay Prieb, meaning Center of the Dove. It was amazing for us to have an invitation to work for peace, in the center of peace. However, the center had also been a killing field during Pol Pot’s rule. We dug up many skeletons and bones. It was also a prison during the early years of the Hun Sen regime. Now, through our work, it is a place where people start to flourish into life again.

We tried to work on and introduce the theme of peace and reconciliation through all of our projects. At the Center of the Dove, we brought together people from all four of the different factions of the Cambodian conflict, to train them and then have them serve as teachers to others in society. For instance, in one case former enemies had come together in our vocational training workshop. In our sculpture class, one man who was teaching looked down at one of his students and said, “You were probably the one that put down the mine that blew off my right leg.” This small example shows how reconciliation was at work in the Center.

Later on, starting from our time in the refugee camps (because of the horrific cases that we saw), we became very interested in the campaign to ban landmines. The Cambodia anti-landmine movement has been very influential in the international campaign to ban landmines. It began with a letter from four soldiers in the Center of the Dove. The letter said, “Before we were soldiers that laid the mines that blew off the arms, legs, and eyes of one another; now, we work together in the Center of the Dove and we beg the world to stop making mines, stop laying mines, begin clearing mines, and to work so that our communities and people with disabilities can live a full life once again." One of these former soldiers then went to the Pope and asked him if he would stand by the ban on landmines, which he did. In 1997, this same individual rode his wheelchair onto the stage in Oslo and received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the campaign. He is working with me in Siem Reap, continuing his crusade against landmines. We have the Nobel Prize on display in our office.

Through these stories and my experience over the years, I have witnessed the resilience, hope, and courage of the Cambodian people, who have suffered so much, yet they can still be happy and still go on with their lives….

What do you see as the legacy of the Khmer Rouge for Cambodian society today, and how is that reflected in the work that you are doing?

When I was in the camps for 2.5 years, almost everyone had lost someone from their family, so there was an incredible sadness about what had happened. One friend of mine, who now works for us, upon her arrival at the refugee camp had found that her former husband was married to her sister, exemplifying family betrayal and an example of a horrible trauma that the people had to endure. Other friends had just started their first year in university when the turmoil began, and then they had to leave and run. What I have seen for these women, particularly, is that their whole inspiration and ambition was thwarted. They had lived through incredible starvation and uprootment, and many had missed their chance to marry as well. That is why there are many single women from that era who are extremely talented, yet have not yet fully reconciled with the past. Depression is a major challenge facing these women today.

Another legacy is that during the Khmer Rouge period, in order to survive you had to steal and tell on others. There still remains today an incredible lack of trust between one Cambodian and another. You actually see this mistrust in NGO staff, as people of that era find it difficult to be governed by other Cambodians. Cambodian NGO staff prefer foreign directors in many ways, because of this legacy of mistrust among Cambodians. It will, however, not be the same for the new generation, as they did not live through that difficult time in history.

Also stemming from the Pol Pot era and the period that immediately followed, just after and during the resistance fighting, is a culture that holds that problems are solved by mines, bullets, and guns. You didn’t sit down and try to negotiate; you just popped one another off! There is still an incredible amount of that today. For example, if you want a motor bike, you kill the person to get the motor bike & people go to great lengths to get what seems to be such a small thing.

How has faith- inspired the work you are doing in Cambodia?

From Matthew 25, Jesus says, “When I was hungry you gave me to eat, when I was a stranger you visited me, when I was sick you came to see me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was in prison you visited me.” This has taught me to see in everyone you meet the face of Jesus, and here in Cambodia it is quite easy to do. You have such smiling faces, but also suffering faces. In our center in Siem Reap, we have an image of Jesus washing the feet of a handicapped person, and the handicapped person is saying, “I have no feet to wash.”

Also I have a very strong belief that the consequence of mercy, charity, and love is justice. I think that the Christian faith is very strong on justice for the poor. If you are working on an issue such as helping the people that have been injured by landmines, justice demands that you also advocate that the cause of the suffering be stopped; that you ban the landmines and call the producers to account. Mercy calls that we serve the poor, the sick, and the ignorant. Some people think the ignorant are the children, but I think the ignorant are the people that make the weapons and don’t know, or block from their minds, the consequences of what they are making money on.

Can you give us a brief overview of the specific work you do today with Jesuit Refugee Service, and why you focus on those specific areas of work within the Cambodian context?

As I said, the three strands of our work from the beginning were 1) a focus on people with disabilities, 2) service to returning refugees, 3) work for peace and reconciliation, and rural development among the poor.

In 1994, we changed the name Jesuit Refugee Service to Jesuit Service as the overarching organization, with Jesuit Refugee Service being a component. I was director of Jesuit Service up until July of 2009, but now have switched to solely manage Jesuit Refugee Service.

Jesuit Service has programs to restore and create a more dignified life for people living in rural communities. People with disabilities devised a 12 point plan that sets out what they think are the things the poorest Cambodians need most, and they cover all of the areas that we are working in: 1) a house that shields them from the weather 2) sufficient food 3) water within a short distance of their housing 4) prosthetics and wheel chairs 5) access to education 6) access to affordable health 7) jobs and income 8) roads to the village and to market 9) clearing of landmines 10) participation in decisions that affect their lives 11) participation in cultural and sporting events 12) land titles.

We also have a center to make wheel chairs, and in the villages we have established 215 farmer solidarity groups. The solidarity groups address their own needs, as well as focusing on the needs of the poorest in their communities. On education, we work primarily in small village schools in grades one and two, and then provide students with access to scholarships so that they can attend government schools. We have a program for deaf people, making hearing aids and administering hearing tests. Also, we have six centers for disabled children that have not had access to schools, where they can stay and study, and then enroll in government schools.

The Jesuit Refugee Service helped people to repatriate and reintegrate into society as they returned from the camps. This had two aspects. The first was the purely physical assistance & providing shelter and material items. The second was designed to build relationships in the villages, so that the people could work together and rebuild trust. At that time, you were a refugee or a non-refugee, a distinction that had grown out of a period when they were throwing bombs at each other. Families accepted returnees for the first year because they brought food rations, but after that time life became difficult for the returnees.

UNHCR also asked us to help them with asylum seekers coming into the country, and that is now a large component of our work. The number of cases is not extremely large, but they are quite complex. We were recently working with a group of Uighurs from China. Previously we worked with the Montagnards from Vietnam, as well as Iraqis, Afghanis, refugees from Chad, Darfur, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iran, and China, among others.

I am also involved in advocacy work. We just finished a research study on home evictions. On 24 January of this year, a development project came into a neighborhood along the river and bulldozed cement houses to the ground. The residents were offered very little compensation, and what was offered is not near enough to buy an equivalent piece of land. The development companies tend to be very greedy, some from Korea and some from Cambodia. I do understand that people coming to the country to do business are looking to make a profit, but I also think that there is a role for faith based organizations to push these companies to uphold an ethical standard in their work. In our efforts, we have been working with the Jesuits from Australia on land title issues. The World Bank’s most recent work on land titling does not address cases in dispute, and those are really the key cases. Our work is called “Untitled,” (done in dialogue with the World Bank) and tries to address the deficiencies in present approaches in a constructive manner.

What aspects of broader Jesuit approaches comes to bear in Cambodia?

Because we came in as the Jesuit Refugee Service, the mandate is simple and clear & to accompany the people, to listen to their stories, the aspirations of the heart (to encourage and console), and to serve and uphold human rights. The aim of the Jesuit Service as a whole organization was to help towards reconciliation, peace, justice, and the full human development of the people hurt by war. Love was the driving force & Caritas & helping the poorest to reflect on their current situation so they can come up with their own constructive solutions.

That was the basic drive and impetus from the beginning, & but now for me, I see a need for interfaith work. The binding force and core value in both Buddhism and Christianity is compassion, Meta Carina, as it is called in Cambodia. It means to find the core values and work together. It is not about proselytyzing (such as the Christian Groups that give out rice to their members). Myself, I try to work to make Cambodia a country that is happy and just. There is a need for people to reflect so that the leadership of the country includes compassion, wisdom, and justice among their core principles.

We do most of our work through our reflection center, to get people to work towards a more just, reconciled, and happy Cambodia. One of the things that is affecting me deeply is the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

With regards to faith, we do not proselytize, but if someone is attracted to Christ and his teachings, I rejoice, because for me Christianity properly lived gives great freedom. Improperly lived it can be a total burden, but the real message of Christianity is freedom.

What are highlights of the landmine advocacy work you do?

We became deeply involved in the landmine campaign in 1994. The three pillars of the landmine campaign are first, to ban the production use, export and stockpiling of landmines; second, to clear the mines; and third, to help the victims/survivors.

We have worked hard around the world, visiting Popes and Princes and Emperors and Governments (including Princess Diana and Desmond Tutu), and got the treaty ratified in 1997. Now, it is very good that we have the treaty, but it needs to be monitored. We are involved in landmine monitoring in Cambodia. Every year, a book on the progress of 110 countries is issued, and every five years there is a review of the treaty. The first review was held in 2004 in Nairobi, and we just finished the 2009 review in Cartagena, Colombia. From the review meetings, specific action plans are set forth. The 2004 action plan was to get governments to make a national plan on landmines. In 2009, the action plan is implementation, implementation, implementation! & get the mines cleared! Cambodia is in the middle of a ten year mine clearing program, and it is working to ensure that the money earmarked for landmine survivors actually gets to the people, and is not just caught up in plans on how to get the money to the people.

In 2007, we also began another campaign to ban cluster bombs. This process was energized when the Israelis dropped bombs in Lebanon in 2006. The Cambodian government was one of the leaders in this campaign. The treaty was passed in December 2008 in Oslo, but it is yet to be ratified (we have 25/30 signatories required for ratifications). Cambodia did not sign, so we have a lot of work to do with them as well.

Related to this is a new convention recently signed for the rights of people with disabilities. We are trying to connect the dots between the three treaties I am working on.

Monitoring, working with government on implementation, and direct service to the survivors is key to our work on all three treaties. Particularly, we have survivors and victims running seminars for others, including one recent seminar on women with disabilities. Next we will be working with youth.

Faith is often a topic that is not on the official agenda of development organizations, yet it is a crucial factor that should be given ample consideration, especially in Asia. What, from your view, is missing on the development agenda with regards to faith, and what should be added?

Many faith-inspired organizations probably steer away from advocacy and policy work. JRS, however, does not - we are quite involved in policy action about landmines, disabilities, and contributing to the NGO forum, which makes a report card on how the government is progressing on specific issues, including governance, health, education, judicial reform, land issues, etc. We are working now through the Australian Catholic University, Father Frank Brennan and the Australian Ambassador on judicial reform here in Cambodia.

Perhaps some faith-inspired organizations could pay more attention to advocacy, but they have to know their stuff! If you are going to advocate you have to be knowledgeable. It is no use saying faith based organizations should do this or that if they do not know their topics. They need to be prepared to work diligently on the subjects they choose.

Another thing faith-inspired organizations can help on is aligning the interests of the people with the political interests of the leaders. We have to be shrewd as well as spouting. If the government keeps evicting and does not pay a just wage to teachers ($38 month), it will continue to enlarge a blind spot in the people who are amassing fortunes for themselves towards the well being of the people. If we continue down the road we are on, it is not going to lead to a stable country. Cambodians do not need much to be content, but a minimum is required. Faith-inspired organizations can work to see that politicians realize this and provide a basic standard of living to the people.