In an unprecedented move, Chea invited Khmer Rouge intellectuals and people who had lived under them to speak their minds. Some observers were critical of the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge, as many Cambodians were unable or unwilling to confront their former oppressors.
‘The forums provoked a huge response across the country. The first was broadcast on television,’ Chea reported. Up to 82% of those participating felt the trials would be advantageous. ‘But for us, the key thing was that public debate had taken place. Cambodians were beginning to deal with their past.’ Ten years before trials began, she told the forums: ‘You can’t just achieve reconciliation when you want it. You have to go through all the steps: (finding) truth, justice and then reconciliation.’ In a moving statement of personal forgiveness she told the Sydney conference how, four years after Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1998, she went to visit the place where he had been cremated, at the top of a mountain on the Thai-Cambodian border. ‘With equanimity, with no sadness, no joy, no hard feelings, I burned incense sticks for the liberation of his soul.’
Indeed, equanimity and inner poise in the face of external turbulence have been hallmarks of her personal credo, even as her country has struggled through radical changes in its quest for peaceful and effective government. The transition from totalitarian control to a modern constitutional monarchy has not been easy, and a free-market economy has provided more chances for corruption on a grander scale.
Chea identifies as critical the need to fight corruption and to steer Cambodia towards democratic accountability and transparency. Transparency International ranks Cambodia at 158 among 180 countries in its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Under her leadership the Center for Social Development (CSD) produced the first national survey on corruption. A disturbing find was that young people had little awareness of the dangerous impact corruption has on education, health and social welfare. In cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, the CSD developed the first national curriculum on transparency, integrity and accountability. Forming a Transparency Task Force, CSD trained 6,000 teachers to deliver it in public schools across the country.
Chea and the Center for Social Development have been at the forefront of campaigning (unsuccessfully so far) for anti-corruption legislation to crack down on offenders. But ‘to work for a legal framework against corruption is not enough’. CSD formed a ‘Coalition for Transparency – Cambodia’ drawing more than 200 members from government, military, police, students, NGOs, the media and Buddhist monks into a campaign to ‘sensitize the public on how corruption affects family, society and country’. A series of seminars, also using art and literature, have followed.
‘There is good and evil in all things, government, society, everywhere,’ she says. ‘We need to mobilize a force for reform greater than the force resisting reform.’
Chea has gained numerous national and international recognitions, and was one of those nominated among the ‘1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize’ in 2005.
For her the way ahead is clear – following the Buddha’s eight-fold path of right views, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right efforts, right mindfulness, right concentration and right livelihood.