A museum in Cambodia offers a safe and healing space for people traumatized by war

Cambodia peace Gallery training

A training program organized by the Cambodia Peace Gallery. Source: Facebook. Used with permission

Since October 2018, the Cambodia Peace Gallery in the province of Battambang has been offering an alternative space for local and foreign visitors who want to learn more about the history of war and conflict in Cambodia and the peacebuilding efforts across the country.

Cambodia was heavily bombed by United States forces during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was followed by the rise of the Khmer Rouge who ruled from 1975 to 1979. An estimated 1.5 to 2 million people were killed during this period, or nearly 25 percent of Cambodia's population at that time. Civil war further divided the nation until the signing of the 1991 Peace Agreement.

Battambang native Dr Soth Plai Ngarm, who founded the museum, explained the impact of decades of war on local communities in a media interview in 2018.

When war ended and we lived together again, these identities make us suspect each other, even if we are friends and neighbors. Therefore, reconciliation is very important for young people. If reconciliation is not done right, the divide will infect later generations.

He initially envisioned the building of a space “where people could learn about the recent history by focusing on positive stories of peace building in Cambodia.” His dream became a reality through the Cambodia Peace Gallery which was established with the help of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and Friends Economic Development Association.

The museum became an independent entity in 2023 and its team is now mostly composed of young volunteers and peace advocates. The museum’s current director is youth leader NA Ratanak who shared more information about the peace advocacy through email.

The Cambodia Peace Gallery exists to play an important role in promoting positive understanding and positive nationalism, and to provide a space where people, mainly the young generation, can learn positive history to avoid falling down into past mistakes.

He then elaborates about the role of the gallery in fostering dialogue across generations. 

The Cambodia Peace Gallery is an open space where (everyone) contributes to national dialogue about Cambodia’s history….enabling Cambodians to share and recount their experience without fear and together create a common positive understanding of the past. Furthermore, it can be a place of meeting, storytelling, remembering, understanding, explanations, forgiveness and letting go. It can help to explain to the rest of the world – to tourists and visiting diplomats and politicians how and why such violence comes about, and how they might prevent future acts in other parts of the world. Importantly, the peace education programs provide a place for gathering older generation and younger generation. The youth come to listen and learn from survival stories and experiences. This addresses the issue of enhancing restoration of relationships across generations.

Below is an example of the exhibits in the gallery and an activity highlighting the symbolic destruction of guns.

Some of the exhibits in the gallery like post-war recovery efforts and dealing with landmines are also published on their website.

For NA Ratanak, student and youth visitors can learn examples of “positive history” in the gallery:

They have discovered and known that there are so many positive stories that make them very proud of such as the pathway to peace on how the older generation have tried very hard to end the war and bring peace back to Cambodia, the process of recovery from war, and dealing with impact of war like dealing with landmines, weapon reduction, and healing and reconciliation which is about how we repair our relationships as Cambodians. One positive story that they are really proud of, and is the newest for the young students, is about the Cambodian Peacekeepers who are serving in missions around the world and contributing to peace in other places.

Cambodia Peace Gallery

Cambodia Peace Gallery. Source: Facebook. Used with permission

Asked about the lessons after five years of operating the museum, NA Ratanak emphasizes how the space they built has also served as a model for other communities in Asia.

We have learned that Cambodian young people are looking for meaningful possibilities to participate in their own future. That while they know their past has challenges and even the present they want to engage and try to shape something possible and positive. We have also learned that there are so many perspectives and stories to share and that having a positive dialogue space is a powerful way to imagine the future. The exhibits in the gallery – photos and materials from past peace work – also help older generations to share their personal memories and experiences of those times, and create opportunities for discussion about peace and healing in Cambodia. We have also learned that the Cambodia Peace Gallery is a great way to connect and exchange with people from other countries in Asia, who are exploring their own approaches about the past, so we can support encourage and inspire each other.

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