The Water Festival is a time of great celebration in Cambodia. It is always celebrated around November but the dates are dependent on the moon. Some say it’s a chance to honour the rivers that replenish the soil for the harvest. Others say it’s to honour the spirits that make the river miraculous change direction and flow in the other direction.  Mostly it’s the time where the people from Cambodia’s countryside take over the capital. Phnom Penh is theirs. They sleep along the streets, they cheer on the boat of their district, they stay up all night and enjoy myriad free entertainment from fireworks to concerts and traditional dancing. It’s a grand celebration of life.

The development of a new island in the river, accessed through such a beautiful bridge decorated with a Naga snake,  was this year such a focal point for the celebration. So many went to Diamond Island over the holiday period for the trade show, the fun park, the free concerts, the displays and because so many other people were there to see. Such a focal point of joy and happiness, among Cambodia’s rural poor.

And therein lies the tragedy. Those that died on the bridge on November 22 were hardly Cambodia’s wealthy. They were yet again the poorest of the poor. Garment factory workers, usually young women out for a good time. Sisters from a tiny village disobeying their mother and running to the capitol to join the fun. They were slum dwellers from a nearby slum soon to be demolished. They were moto-dop drivers, garbage collectors, market sellers, rice farmers. And now 395 such people lay dead in the height of the celebrations.

No doubt there will much discussion and debate by NGOs and human rights groups in weeks to come. How the government could have protected them. How safety standards are not enforced. But this is not the day for such recriminations. Today a Prime Minister weeps openly with his people, and the streets are silent. Outside every home, along every street, there are the traditional offerings, candles and incense for those who have passed. TV channels read the names of those who have died, replay the footage of that fateful night and update the death toll hour to hour.

It is hard to watch the images without comparing them to so many of the images long associated with Cambodia. It is not a publicity stunt that so many of those interviewed by the media, including Hun Sen’s address to the nation, refer back to the Khmer Rouge years. Not since then has there been such a tragedy in our history, they say. One woman wept, I lost everyone to the Khmer Rouge, and now I lost my son in this stampede. Who will take care of me now?

Over the past decade the international community has tried hard to persuade Cambodia that an international tribunal was necessary to heal Cambodia’s past, to reconcile the nation, to bring closure. To date the tribunal has seemed an alien legal process, far the from reality of everyday lives and certainly not a mechanism for healing deep seated pains and loss.

But the events of the past few days have felt very different. In every restaurant, in every market, along the street — people go about their business slowly and silently. People watch TV screens in breakfast shops and cry openly. On Wednesday I watched a military truck slowly make its way down the Monivong, the main road through Phnom Penh, filled with coffins. As it past shops and houses, guards, pedestrians, passersby, all stood, almost to attention, to pay respect and honour those nameless corpses going by.

I drove past the hospital and found people giving out water to the many people camped out there trying to find their family members. A huge billboard displayed the unidentified people still indie the hospital, and people clamber over each other to see if they can find their own.

While this has been a deep and great tragedy for Cambodia, something else is going on here. This country has become united in its grief. People are coming together to put right, something which was very wrong. They are standing together to mourn their country people, fully aware that those who died were the least among them, and now deserve the highest honour for their tragic end. And of course all of us looking on wonder how they can bear more suffering, more grief and more pain.

The late Maha Ghosananda, Cambodia’s peace monk often chanted;

The suffering of Cambodia has been deep.
From this suffering comes great Compassion.
Great Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.
A peaceful Heart makes a Peaceful Person.

A Peaceful Person makes a Peaceful Community.
A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
And a Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.

Perhaps Maha understood that it is the yoke Cambodians must bear  on behalf of us all. People who come to Cambodia often comment of the smiles of the children, the happiness of the people. They marvel at the sense of fun, and joy in simple pleasures. They speak of the open-hearted way Cambodians welcome them, embrace them and befriend them. Perhaps this is what Maha speaks of — the joy that is born of suffering. Perhaps Cambodia suffers so much so that compassion can be.

For the past 48 hours  Cambodian television channels have received donations from around the country for the victims’ families and the injured survivors. No amount is too small to announce on the television recognising the contributions of even the poorest people. From this suffering comes great compassion.

One boy told of a man who saw him trapped under the feet of the people on the bridge. He bent down and lift the boy up and put him on his shoulders so he was above the crowd. Later the boy realised he was riding on the shoulders of a dead man. From this suffering comes great compassion.

What we learn through the events of the past few days is that sense of national identity and reconciled togetherness cannot come from outside. It comes from the shared suffering, losses, histories and processes that people experience  for themselves. In many South-East Asian nations those shared histories are days of liberation, celebrating anti colonial struggles and the pride of self determination. Cambodia has no just day of celebration or national unity. Cambodia’s unity seems always to come through her suffering. Piles of shoes belonging to the deceased — in the Khmer Rouge years and again today. The mass graves of the Killing Fields, parallel to lines of bodies along the river bank of the past two days.

Today is Cambodia’s national day of mourning.  Today, one after another Cambodians are laying flowers and burning incense at the fateful bridge. This is their time, where they stand together as a nation and grieve. This is not just grief for those who died in this incident. This is truly a national day of mourning for all the suffering they have endured. This is the time they rally and unite to put right something that went very wrong. This is their moment of national unity. This is the suffering they bear, from which compassion is born. As a Prime Minister weeps with his people, Maha’s words echo over this timeless land;

“Our journey for peace begins today and every day.
Each step is a prayer, each step is a meditation, each step will build a bridge.”

Ironic, yet true. Cambodians will wipe their tears, and continue to build their nation, heal their hearts and show great compassion. Not just to each other, but to the world.