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A Discussion with Kim Vuth, American Friends Service Committee, Cambodia

With: Kim Vuth Berkley Center Profile

August 4, 2010

Background: This discussion took place in Phnom Penh between Kim Vuth and Katherine Marshall in the context of WFDD's review of faith-inspired work in Cambodia. It focuses on Kim Vuth's work with Initiatives of Change and, more broadly, on different approaches of groups working on conflict resolution in Cambodia. He focuses on work addressing conflicts that are primarily about ethnicity, but describes how tightly ethnic, cultural, and religious identities are bound together. He reflects on the implications of the shallowness of Buddhism in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and highlights the potential for conflicts within communities due to conversions to Christianity.

How did you become involved with Initiatives of Change (IofC)? How did you come to know about the organization?

I was born in Battambang, and grew up there. My family was poor, and the years I was growing up, what was in my mind was to work hard and study hard so I could make good money. I finished high school and passed the exams, and went to Phnom Penh for two years to study. I wanted to be a teacher, and came back to Battambang to teach there.

That is where and when I first met IofC—it was still Moral Rearmament (MRA) at the time. They organized a first Action for Life Conference and I got an invitation to attend. That was in July 2002. It was an Asia-wide conference, held in Malaysia. I am not sure why I was invited, and I knew nothing then about IofC or the conference, and there was no one to explain it. But my English was quite good. So I decided to go. There were five of us from Battambang, and we traveled by land, by bus and train, across Thailand to Malaysia. It took us a day and a half.

The conference lasted ten days and it made a profound difference in my life. It was an Asia-wide youth conference, with people from many countries. They were all talking about how they wanted to make the world a better place. This kind of talk was completely new to me, and it led to a personal transformation, a different way of seeing my role in the world. It left me with a personal belief that I wanted to make a positive difference. It helped me to see the goodness in people. Before, I had seen cheating, for example, as unfortunate but a normal reaction if one was poor. I had been jealous and angry at the lifestyles of the rich. But I had not seen that it was possible to change the situation.

At the conference, there was much discussion but also time set aside for personal reflection, quiet times alone. I had the chance to reflect on my own approach and relationships. I realized that my relationships, for example with my parents, were not very good. I had a heavy heart because I had borrowed a book from a professor years before and had never returned it. I decided that changing those things was the place to start in working towards what I wanted, which was to be a better man. I realized that it is possible to make a difference when each one of us chooses and follows a path.

When I got back to Battambang, the first step I set for myself was to return the book to the professor. That was not easy to do. I would lose face, he would probably be angry. I hesitated several times before I called him. His wife was kind as was he on the phone, so I went to see him, with the book, very much afraid. But he was happy that I had taken the initiative to return the book, and thought better of me for it. He talked to me about my life and my plans. I understood from him that what was most important in relationships was trust. I had broken the trust but now had acted to rebuild it. That was a relief to my heart.

My next step was to change my relationships with my family—my brothers and sisters and my parents. I brought something back from Malaysia for my sister, and she was happy. I was kinder to my brothers. I tried to have a better relationship with my father; before I barely spoke to him and sometimes we would not speak for a month. I reached out, and indeed we were all far happier. I realized that it was truly possible to change, but I had to do something, to show them that they mattered.

Then I applied that beyond my family, reaching out and sharing more. I began to work in orphanages where the children had so little hope. I resolved, with some friends, to stop littering ourselves and to try to clean up the community. We planned a program at the school nearby, a place where tourists came. We made announcements and fixed a clean-up day. We each contributed a dollar. We expected just a few people but 130 showed up. Even the orphans and students contributed some money and joined the clean-up. We had banners and trash bins. The local TV station came and interviewed us.

Our small group decided to continue and to have a base, an office. We found a place that was rather dilapidated and empty, and rented it for $20, a cost we shared. We found furniture from many places. It became two classrooms and an office. Many friends came there to teach. We did more clean-up campaigns.

So the Malaysia conference was a real turning point. After that I reduced my work time in teaching so that I could do more volunteering and organizing, with MRA. In 2003, there was the second Action for Life Conference. And then I was part of a nine-month leadership program with MRA, where we spent five months in India, together, then four months where each of us went to different places. I went to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. That was another turning point, and I began to ask what I could do for the region, especially Cambodia’s neighboring countries. So we decided to organize a conference in Cambodia. It took place in Siem Reap in July 2004.

The Malaysia conference had also been a turning point for me in the way I understood violence. There was a focus there (in the tradition of MRA/IofC) on hard apologies. I realized there that I had been wrong in thinking that all Vietnamese were bad. At the conference, the young Vietnamese who were there were upset at what they heard people say about them. A lot of what they were accused of were things they had never heard of. An older Vietnamese stood up and apologized on the stage, in public, speaking about the things she had learned that her compatriots had done. I was the one who was picked to respond for the Cambodians. I realized then how deep my prejudices were. I never bought things from Vietnamese sellers, because I had been told they might poison the food. That realization forced me to rethink how I thought about other groups.

At the Asian Pacific Youth Conference (APYC) in Siem Reap, a lot of Cambodians came and many of them spoke of their hatred. The Vietnamese were upset, and many of them wanted to go home. When they calmed down, we worked to cool the situation. We met in small groups at the guest house, and tried to find ways to continue the dialogue. There was lots that people did not know, for example that the Vietnamese had liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge.

So the dialogue that started in July 2004 continued in November, and AFSC got involved at that point. They recommended and we agreed that we should register as an association. That happened in January 2005, and we registered with the Ministry of Interior. Up until then, MRA had operated as an informal organization.

At this point, I was working full time for MRA/IofC, and we were focusing on the Cambodia-Vietnam dialogues. We had a third meeting in Vietnam, a fourth in Cambodia. But since then, to the present, we have been a bit stuck and not clear where to go next.

What else were you doing during this period?

We were involved in many other charitable activities. We cooked food for patients at hospitals, and worked with HIV/AIDS and TB patients. We did teaching and collected books and old clothes. We did tree planting also. We held meetings and did outreach to communities. We have also been trying to have a dialogue with Thailand.

In 2007, I began to work for the Peace Corps full time. Up until then I had had a part-time job to support myself, but I needed to have a more regular position at that time. I left IofC in 2008, came back a year later, and left again, for good, in January 2010. That was because in my new position at AFSC there was a conflict of interest since AFSC is a partner of IofC. I joined AFSC in December 2009, and on a permanent basis in 2010.

How does IofC work here in Cambodia?

IofC is registered as a Cambodian NGO and is affiliated, informally, with IofC international. We have not yet fulfilled all the criteria for formal affiliation. We have two offices, in Phnom Penh and in Battambang. There are two full-time staff in Phnom Penh and one in Battambang, and about 500 members. Everyone is a volunteer (no one is paid). There are about 50 core members.

What does it mean to be a member? Do you have a card?

No, it is actually quite informal.

We have organized quite a few events. I have described most of them. The organization here really got started after the 2002 conference, and was most active in Battambang. In Phnom Penh, not much was happening. A group of young people met in the offices of the Khmer Youth Association. Then Peter Hayes, from Canada, bought an office in Phnom Penh for IofC. We are still there.

I had understood that MRA had a longer history in Cambodia?

There really are two organizations, one of the older generation, and the one that I represent, which is a different and younger group. The older generation has continued to work in Cambodia, quite informally, over the years. Son Soubert [a well known Cambodian political leader] was very much involved. During the period of the camps, MRA came to work on the border, in the camps. They held some seminars there, and people from other countries came to visit. It was not a very structured organization, rather a network. The former King, Sihanouk, as well as the present king, have known IofC well, and gave money twice to IofC.

And how did IofC come to work with what is now ICfC (International Center for Conciliation)?

When Adam Saltsman from ICfC was exploring areas of conflict resolution, he ran a training that focused on historical memories, and he heard of our dialogue work between Cambodian and Vietnamese youth. We did a training together. I considered working for them full time, and indeed worked on both the Cambodia Vietnam dialogues and on the Youth Leadership program.

How is religion relevant for the IofC work?

In all our work, we were very much aware of the importance of religion and some of the potential of religious beliefs and identities as a source of conflict. As we have done training with people from different religious traditions, we are aware of the different ways of communicating, and significance of respect, that can be understood very differently. We need to be sensitive if we are to gain the respect that is essential.

IofC has organized events that brought monks, Christians, and Muslims together. The objective was just to understand one another better. We need to get beneath the surface, where people have shallow interaction, to some of the deeper issues. There are deep prejudices around religion as well as ethnicity.

The different identities are all related, and it is difficult to separate what is ethnicity, faith, and culture. People hold strongly to their identities and these are volatile. But the Cambodian people are not very expressive. They try to hide their feelings. And the divisions are everywhere. Look at one village in Cambodia today. It used to be a village, a coherent community. Today it is still called a village but there are different communities: Christian, Buddhist, Vietnamese.

There are some deep prejudices around conversion to Christianity. People are afraid that if a member of their family converts to Christianity they will run afoul of their ancestors. The ancestors will curse you. People are supposed to take food to the monks at holidays. That is seen as feeding ancestors. If a convert does not take food to the monks, the ancestors may curse the family. The simple view is that Buddhism is good, and it leads people to love their family, their mother, and to respect each other. If you become a Christian, you do not respect your mother and father any more. People see confusion.

But we see much less tension around religion than around nationality now, especially with Thailand. I just returned from a village on the Thai border, Oddar Meanchey, which has seen a lot of violence. We are supporting peacebuilding with Thailand. Part of the event was a religious ceremony for the soul of the dead. Thai soldiers shot and killed a young Cambodian, 16 years old. When we were there it was the first time that the Thai people had known about the incident, that a young person died. A Thai NGO, People Empowering Foundation, worked with us.

How do you see the attitudes of your generation towards Buddhism as an organized religion?

It varies. In the rural areas, there is still strong respect for the pagodas, the monks, and the rituals, though it varies from place to place. People give a lot of money to the pagodas, and some of the monks are leaders in the communities. The monks often support the community as much as they can.

In Phnom Penh, there seems to be less respect for the monks. They are very visible, with so many asking for food and support that it is easy to lose respect for them. It does not seem to be a deep commitment since so many monks come to study and are monks only for a short time. There is an image that monks study, beg, and leave.

But there are no schools or places where people can go to learn about Buddhism. Very little is taught about Buddhism in the schools. Buddhism should provide a spiritual foundation for life, for social development, but it simply is not providing that today. People therefore have little to help them to cope with what happens to them, the normal troubles that come with life and difficult choices. It is like a tree: the tree has a trunk and branches, and roots, but the roots are not deep and are not well connected to the ground. So the tree tilts in the wind. We need those kinds of schools for Buddhism. The Christians have more of a structure, with Sunday services and Sunday Schools for children. The Muslim children learn the Koran. But the pagodas are quiet. There is little teaching that goes on there.

And new leaders? I do not know of many. There was a Buddhist from Cambodia (formerly with UNESCO) who came to a workshop. He is troubled by the deep divisions between rich and poor in Buddhist countries. For him, Buddhism means to share. He was asking how much the rich in Buddhist societies share with the poor. If we are to have harmony and peace, we need to go and help where we can.