Past and present suffering

PHNOM PENH—Despite its tragic past, Phnom Penh remains a lovely city with wide, tree-lined streets, non-invasive traffic, pastel-colored homes, and the small birds that fill the city with their chatter and song in the early mornings. Very much a part of this peaceful setting are the elderly monks walking along under the trees, barefoot and holding their umbrellas against the sun. The traffic moves at 20 kilometers per hour and there are no horns. I asked a Filipina living there, why the traffic went so slowly and she said it’s because of all the motorbikes: the car drivers’ fear they will injure the bikers if they go faster. In return, it seems, for this kindness the passenger tricycles run almost silently and the young women move along gracefully on their motor bikes. All such beauty goes unnoticed in Edsa’s chaos.

It might seem as if this city, which suffered terribly during the Pol Pot regime, had vowed to have a deep compassion for all its people, including the bikers and the poor. If we are compassionate in small things, we may learn to be compassionate in large matters, the people of Phnom Penh might have thought.


Many seem to have learned that lesson, but not all. The last of 4,000 poor families are now being forcibly ejected by the government and Chinese and local business interests from their homes around Boeungkak Lake. This lake, once a favorite recreation area, is filled now with dirt and sand. There will soon be luxury homes there. Right now it looks like the desolate areas near the ruined reactors of Japan.

Recently we met five women from the lake who will be evicted. They have 19 children among them and are indistinguishable from the women of Metro Manila who are also threatened with eviction—along the R-10 Road, the esteros, Manggahan Floodway, Lupang Arenda and other sites. The Cambodian women have the same fears as the Filipino women about their children’s schooling and family jobs. They don’t know for sure what will happen. It is not a pleasant sight to see real fear for their families in these mature hardworking women’s faces. Eviction brings back too easily the fears of the Pol Pot era.


Those were terrible times in Phnom Penh. I may have met the parents of these women in 1980 when I was able to visit Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese army in 1979 drove Pol Pot out of power. When I was there with Fr. Jorge Anzorena and Francisco “Bimbo” Fernandez the people were returning from the rural areas, “the killing fields” of Cambodia. They had been driven there by Pol Pot, and had suffered terribly. Many were traumatized by their experience. We were told not to talk to people about development, even about cooperatives, since such words sounded like words Pol Pot had used. It seemed the people were half afraid that the hated dictator might just be sitting just around the corner listening to their conversations.

Manila has had its own share of suffering. Some 100,000 Filipinos died in the last battle for Intramuros. A small shrine dedicated to the memory of these people stands within easy walking distance of the Manila Cathedral. Compassion for the poor is very often absent; the government still evicts families in an illegal and often violent manner.

Compassion is an Asian virtue. It is cultivated in a special way by Buddhism, but is also at the heart of Christianity.

People who have suffered greatly like the people of Hiroshima, Warsaw, Rwanda, Intramuros or Cambodia should be respected and allowed to get on with their lives in peace. They have suffered enough. To continue to treat them poorly is a form of profanity, for God has taken its place among them in their suffering.

<em>Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is [email protected] net.</em>

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