Saturday 6 March 2010

"Culture" and how to deal with it

Last month I had the provilege to evaluate an impressive programme, run by the Cambodian human rights organisation ADHOC and its partners, on the Khmer Rouge Trials. While preparing for my research in Cambodia, I came across a few articles written by “Western” observers who raised doubts regarding the appropriateness of trials in the context of “Cambodian culture”. One author, an anthropologist, pointed out that the dominant religion in Cambodia was Theravada Buddhism, which in her opinion favoured a forgiving attitude, as opposed to international criminal justice.
I don't know. Christanism has been preaching universal love for millenaries and still manages to get away with crusades in the Middle Ages, child soldiers in Uganda and war in Afghanistan, to quote but a few major inconsistencies. Why should Buddhism have a stronger influence on people's actions than any other religion?
And then, I tend to feel uncomfortable when people socialised in Europe, the USA or other “Northern” places, make pronouncements as to what is appropriate for a “culture” they know only from books and more or less brief “field trips”. What is it that makes outsiders lump an entire faraway nation into a single, immovable concept of “culture”? And why do they only interview monks and village elders to find out what the country's “culture” is like, and not office workers, school teachers and other people who live ordinary lives full of culture, and who make up the majority of the country's population?
Fortunately the exotic perspectives of “Northern” observers exert an extremely limited influence on the way people construct and explain their realities in Cambodia. Listening to the women and men I interviewed, I was delighted to observe how Buddhism could be bent to fit everyone's needs. A few telling quotes: “The Khmer Rouge Trials follow Buddhist principles – you do good, you get good, you do bad, you are punished.” Or: "Forgiveness? That's the monks' business; they are not allowed to get angry. I am angry and I want these genocide criminals to be punished." Or else: “I have become a civil party to the Khmer Rouge trials because I must obtain justice for my relatives' deaths – otherwise I'll be reborn as a cat or a dog!"
This is how I like culture - as a whole menu of ideas we can pick from to support what we're doing.

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