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Emma Leslie (L) with Australian Ambassador Angela Corcoran and husband Soth Plai Ngarm at Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondents Club celebrating the opening of the RESILIENCE exhibition on December 15, 2015. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Capturing Cambodia’s past for a better future

Dr Emma Leslie is the executive director of the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, a Cambodian-based organisation whose aim is “strengthening strategic interventions into armed conflict with the overall goal of reaching sustainable and positive peace in the Asia region.”

Originally from Australia, she has lived in Cambodia since 1997.

Among her impressive list of academic achievements and her valuable conflict resolution work in Cambodia, the Philippines and Myanmar, in 2005 Leslie was one of the 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And last year she became a Member of the Order of Australia for “significant service to international relations through the facilitation of a network of conflict transformation and peace practitioners in the Asia-Pacific region”.

But what brought Leslie to Cambodia in the first place? “I had been interested in Cambodia since I was a young child, when I remember seeing the 'starving Kampucheans' on my television and couldn’t understand how children the same age as me were starving while we had plenty to eat in our house.”

She credits her home country with helping to foster her love of the region: “In school part of the curriculum in Australia was to learn about the Asia Pacific region, so I was able to pursue my interest in learning more about this country.”

Leslie says Cambodia is unique in the field of peace and conflict studies because of the nature of the people here. “Cambodians are incredibly resilient. This country has seen some of the worst kinds of conflict in the world, and yet people didn’t give up hope that peace was possible.”

She says that the people of Cambodia began to bounce back from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era remarkably quickly. “In the refugee camps in the 1980s, almost immediately people began reconnecting with the culture that had been stripped away by the Khmer Rouge by making instruments, teaching children traditional dances and reconnecting with the Buddhist faith,” she says. “People here have an amazing capacity for forgiveness and compassion, to heal their families and communities so that the society can move forward.”

To help with the positive momentum of Cambodian society, Leslie is proposing to build a Peace Museum in Siem Reap. “The Cambodia Peace Museum is envisioned as a place for Cambodians to learn, share and reflect on the past. The main focus is to highlight the many innovative approaches to peace-building in Cambodia, for example the work on weapons reductions, landmine clearance and victims’ assistance.”

Leslie believes it is crucially important for people to understand how and why conflicts happen, to prevent their reoccurrence. “In addition to the exhibit space, we will also host peace education programs that are designed for university-aged students to go deeper in their learning and reflections about their country’s history,” she says.

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Emma Leslie, executive director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The museum is planned for Siem Reap, and she says the Centre hopes to have land secured for the project later this year.

Asked if there is an obvious generational gap in Cambodia, between those who want to forget the past and those younger people who know little about it, Leslie is very honest: “We’ve heard that people are tired of the emphasis on the Khmer Rouge and the focus only on this period of time in the country’s history, when there is so much more to Cambodia and to Cambodian society.” But, she goes on, “Many of the people we talk to about the Peace Museum find the approach refreshing. What the Peace Museum will do is to shift the narrative from Cambodia as victims, to be a celebration of resilience and survival of Cambodia and Cambodians, as evidenced through the different peacemaking approaches.”

So how does Leslie envisage the years ahead?

“We are optimistic about the future of Cambodia,” she says. “Young Cambodian people show us hope for the future because they are insisting on a higher quality of life, continuing to move forward and build on the stability that has been achieved following the decades of violent conflicts.”