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Quest for Participatory Religiosity: performing religiosity in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia



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The violence that occurred in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era of 1975-1979 dismantled the social and religious structures that the nation had in place, left millions dead, and has left Cambodians in a liminal state of trauma which remains unresolved. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge – facilitated by a cooperation between Vietnam and defecting Khmer Rouge forces – Vietnam occupied Cambodia for over ten years, a decade within which minimal efforts were made to re-constitute societal functioning, religious restoration, or healing and reconciliation. In the post-Khmer Rouge era, international agents have emerged and acted as leaders the charge of transitional justice and reconciliation; however, religiosity and societal reconstruction has been largely overlooked in those efforts. The frameworks within which local experiences and worldviews are understood by stakeholders involved in the formal reconciliation processes remain rooted in internationally accepted ontologies on trauma and healing. Historically, Khmer Buddhists have turned to participatory religiosity – the public and collective performance religious belief through ritual – as a means to achieve reconciliation in their communities. Today, they undertaking that work largely outside of the rubric of the formal and internationally sanctioned institutional processes such as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a United-Nations-led tribunal mandated to bring closure to the legacy of terror that the Khmer Rouge has left Cambodia in. Operating within this mandate are two nongovernmental organizations that are undertaking significant work both in rural and urban Cambodia by providing reconciliation and reparations programming to victims of the Khmer Rouge atrocities: The Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, Kdei Karuna. This thesis examines historical implications of Khmer Buddhism as a societal foundation to set the context within which the problem can be explored, describes theoretical considerations that can be applied to the analysis of the problem in Cambodia, and presents two organizations as cases that confirm the quest for participatory religiosity as a means for reconciliation in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. By critically examining the application of both Cambodian as well as non-Cambodian ontological understandings of trauma and healing, this thesis suggests that reconciliation efforts are more effective and sustainable when planned and directed by Cambodian communities.



Participatory Religiosity, Ritual, Cambodia, Khmer Rouge, Reconciliation, Justice, Healing, Trauma, Buddhism, Khmer Buddhism



Master of Arts (M.A.)


Religion and Culture


Religion and Culture


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