LAST week I was in Cambodia as part of the Philippine delegation to the “Phnom Penh Dialogue 2008 on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace and Harmony.” Along with some government officials, we were religious leaders representing several faith traditions—two Protestant bishops, a Muslim scholar from the Ulama League of the Philippines, a Muslim woman officer of the provincial government of Sulu, and myself as a Catholic archbishop. We were all there to share our experiences on interreligious dialogue for peace and development in Mindanao and other parts of the country.
This was part of a larger effort started four years ago to engage the 15 countries in the Southeast Asia–Pacific region in interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The convening countries of Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand have by now each hosted a conference–the first in Jogjakarta in 2004, followed by Cebu in 2006, Waitangi in 2007, and the most recent one, with the support of Australia, in Phnom Penh.
The cultural and historical setting of Cambodia for this fourth dialogue-conference was to me a highly significant choice. For perhaps nowhere else in this part of the world can we find such stark contrast between the lowest depths and the sublimest heights that the human spirit can reach.
While in Phnom Penh, a number of us, delegates, had a chance to visit the Genocide Museum, named Tuol Sleng, which was the most secretive prison of the Khmer Rouge regime during its reign of terror in 1975-78. This was located ironically in the downtown area of the city. The prison compound was the original site of a high school. Its four three-story buildings with their classrooms were converted into a high-security detention and interrogation center, complete with barbed wire fencing and torture chambers. The classrooms were partitioned into individual cells or dormitories where detainees were chained and isolated for two to four months before being executed.
From accounts of a few survivors, everything was taken away from the prisoners. They were stripped to their underwear and slept directly on the cement floors without any mat, blanket or mosquito net. There was little food, less water, and no medicine. Among the ten regulations posted on each cell were instructions like:
“Do not try to hide the facts by making pretexts of this or that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.” “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” “Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet.”
A distinctive feature of Tuol Sleng prison was its documentation office which photographed all prisoners and kept detailed biographies of each one from childhood to the date of arrest. It is these ID photos that have now been enlarged and displayed on the walls – blank faces of men and women, including some children, who for the most part were innocent of any crime except for their protests against the excesses of an abusive regime. Interviews and confessions of some of the prison staff, with pictures of their family background, only reinforce the horror of how the spiral of evil can reach down to the humblest of rural households.
At any time, the prison held from 1,200 to 1,500 prisoners. During the three years of its existence, records indicate that there were about 10,500 prisoners, not including another 2,000 children, who were killed in the same place. The numbers themselves are but a microcosm of the estimated one to two million Cambodians—a fourth of the population—who lost their lives under the harsh conditions of the Pol Pot regime. The Khmer Rouge cadres targeted the educated and bourgeois class and “anyone with eyeglasses.” They forced all city residents, young and elderly, to go out and work in the countryside. This was the case of an ideologically-blinded regime that wanted to turn the clock back to an idyllic past where everyone was treated equally—but without human rights nor the freedom of the human spirit.
Symbols of religious faith
In contrast, this idyllic past and the achievements of the human spirit were perhaps best enshrined in the northwestern region of Cambodia. Instead of a third day of conference proceedings, all the delegates traveled to Siem Reap, 300 kilometers away from Phnom Penh. Upon arrival, we visited and walked through the largest outdoor religious monument in the world—Angkor Wat and its surrounding complex of temples constructed from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Built by a successive line of Hindu and Buddhist kings over five centuries, Angkor Wat and the nearby temples of Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom represented sacred space and the symbolisms of religious faith.
With its awe-inspiring landscape, Angkor Wat itself is a microcosm of the Hindu universe. Its surrounding moat and outer walls lead inwards onto three levels of concentric galleries and towers. The towers represent the mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods. The pilgrim’s upward climb over the massive laterite and sandstone blocks and brick walls is virtually an ascent to the sacred mountain.
In all, Angkor Wat with its intricately-carved figures of gods, warrior-kings, apsaras, and Buddha statues evokes an atmosphere of contemplative prayer, detachment from worldly pursuits, and longing of the human spirit for the divine. These are perhaps best portrayed in the four faces of the Buddha pointed towards the cardinal directions of the compass, and carved repeatedly on the towers of the nearby Bayon temple. These represent the human-divine qualities of Charity, Compassion, Sympathy, and Equanimity.
Multifaith dialogue and cooperation
In many ways, these are the same qualities that our interfaith dialogue hoped to evoke for the Asia-Pacific region. For our troubled world today, the final statement of the Phnom Penh Dialogue stressed the urgency of multifaith dialogue and cooperation, peace as a sacred priority, increased participation of women and youth, and interfaith cooperation addressing community concerns in our region—such as poverty, human rights, and environmental issues.
For the political prisoners of the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng literally meant a “poisonous mound.” But for the builders of Angkor Wat, the temple-mountain represented man’s ascent to God. And for all of us today, pilgrims in interfaith dialogue for peace and harmony, the same invitation to climb the Lord’s mountain is perhaps best echoed in the prophet Isaiah’s summons:
“In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
Shall be established as the highest mountain
And raised above the hills.
“Many peoples shall come and say:
‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain,
That he may instruct us in his ways,
And we may walk in his paths.’
“He shall judge between the nations,
And impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another,
Nor shall they train for war again.”
Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ