This thesis examines the ways in which local non-state actors and institutions influence justice mechanisms and reconciliation encounters in post-conflict settings through a detailed study of the work of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cambodia. Often viewed as a successful attempt at engineering peace, Cambodia, while being relatively stable, has failed to grapple with the legacies of its past. Numerous experts argue that justice and reconciliation are crucial elements of peacebuilding, yet these have largely been neglected in the crafting of the peace process in Cambodia. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) did not place justice and reconciliation issues at the forefront of their work, and sustained efforts of the Cambodian government to undermine genuine attempts to seek justice and reconciliation, contextualise this research. Despite the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to prosecute former Khmer Rouge leaders, evidence of the ECCC being stifled and manipulated by Cambodian government leaders suggests that the current government does not wish for people to genuinely process Cambodia’s collective history.
With such a history and current climate, this research was interested in the lessons to be learnt from the ways in which local non-state actors and institutions perceive and act on these issues of justice and reconciliation, which ‘official’ channels seem to underplay. This thesis acknowledges and documents the local cultural processes that Cambodian non-state actors and institutions are utilising to encourage people to reconcile and move forward. Local NGOs, specifically working on justice and reconciliation, were the focal point of this research in Cambodia. Semi-structured interviews, ongoing informal conversations with NGOs, and sharing of policy documents enabled a deep analysis of the work carried out by these institutions.
This thesis builds a case that local NGOs in Cambodia have played a critical role in influencing how transitional justice has transpired to date, and how individuals are reconciling with the past. Local NGOs have shaped justice initiatives by working with the ECCC to ensure its mandate is achieved. These NGOs have also encouraged people to reconcile the past by: maintaining cultural memory places and other mnemonics; creating avenues and spaces for people to talk and share about the past; and allowing young people to be engaged and empowered through critically exploring Cambodia’s history. Collectively, these roles have influenced both the pervasive, government-driven official and localised unofficial discourses surrounding justice and reconciliation in Cambodia. I argue that these discourses have been reshaped, challenged and even countered through the work of local NGOs. Their work, both in partnerships with the official and completely outside the official, has built on the local, relied on cultural resources, and used space and voice to enable their work. Together, local NGOs are assisting communities: overcome amnesia about the past; break down cultures of silence and avoidance; and ultimately, look to the past in order to envisage a peaceful future.