written by Anna Zastrow, 2008.

The Kingdom of Cambodia is a small country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand to the west and north, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east and south. The capital is Phnom Penh with other major cities being Siem Reap (with the Angkor Wat temples where all the tourists go), Sihanoukville (fast becoming a popular beach resort) and Battambang (not much to write home about — except for being the home of Phare Ponleu Selpak where I worked!).

I entered Cambodia via the border town Poipet and proceeded to Battambang. Thereafter my trajectory — which I have traced on the map to the right — is Siem Reap, then Phnom Penh, with excursion to Kampong Cham, and lastly Sihanoukville.

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Cambodia today has around 13 million inhabitants. For some time, the country was known as Kampuchea, which is still what it is called by the Cambodians themselves (Preah Reachenachakr Kampuchea). Of course, to me and perhaps to others, the name Kampuchea conjures up the Khmer Rouge, the brutal regime of the late 1970’s. The people in Cambodia are quite homogenous in the sense that they all speak one language, Khmer (pronounced “Kmai”). Yet there are minority groups such as the Muslim Cham and several small hill tribes in the northwest of the country, as well as many people with Chinese and Vietnamese background. I noticed how different the Cambodians can look from one another – some ‘look’ almost Indian or Sri-Lankan whereas others appear Chinese. But they are all considered ‘Khmer’ whether ethnically so or not.

A little history…
The mighty Khmer empire once stretched across what is now Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The temples at Angkor Wat are a testament to a glorious past, by many considered the eighth wonder of the world. The vastness of the monuments and the intricacy of their design are simply stunning. Contrast that with the poverty of the country today and the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Some of you may know of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 – 1979, essentially converting the entire country into one enormous concentration camp and killing up to 2.5 million people (at the time 2/3 of the population) through execution, mass starvation and generally unbearable living conditions.

Lonely Planet writes: “Upon taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted; its goal … to transform Cambodia into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Within days of coming to power the entire population of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12-15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero. Currency was abolished and postal services halted. The country cut itself off from the outside world.” They renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. They discarded anything considered Western, including Western medicine.

Yet not all had it equally bad. This is what makes the situation complicated – in terms of justice being pursued in today’s Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone who was not ethnically pure Khmer, e.g. anyone of Chinese or Vietnamese descent, as well as anyone who was educated or with trained skills (doctors, lawyers, teachers). They specifically pursued people from the city, with country folk considered “old people” or “base people” and folk from the city (driven out from the cities into the countryside) “new people.” Basically, they turned the poorer country people against the better-off, city people. Manipulating resentments, they were able to easily create their henchmen, the Khmer Rouge Cadres, among the country people, similar to the Kapos in WWII concentration camps. The “new people” were kept separate from the “base people” and treated more harshly: starved, raped, murdered and worked (literally) to death. Many “base people,” however, were not as greatly affected and as a result there is some discrepancy in the experience and memory of that time period among the Cambodian population. Further complicating things is the fact that former Khmer Rouge soldiers and leaders have disappeared into the general population. In fact, the current government includes some former Khmer Rouge cadres, including the prime minister!

Cambodians and their country today
Because of the extent of cruelty inflicted by the Cambodians upon its own people, and having heard of the level of human trafficking and corruption plaguing the country, somehow one may have expected Cambodians to be cold, mean and heartless as a people, if nothing else as an after effect of their recent history. But rather I discover that Cambodians are open, warm and extremely friendly. I find them curious and welcoming to foreigners. They stare at you, as a foreigner, but not in any antagonistic way, rather with great curiosity and interest. The children gleefully shout out “Hello! Hello!” and wave enthusiastically as you pass. Even the adults do. Constantly. It’s funny.

The country is incredibly poor. People earn on average $30 per month. Corruption is rampant. Underpaid public servants demand pay-outs in return for services. If you want anything done in Cambodia, you gotta pay up. This includes teachers asking their students for money and paying the police to receive assistance. Even with such poverty abounding in Cambodia, there are well-to-do Khmers and the gap between the rich and poor is only widening, some say with disdain. This is particularly disconcerting in my view, considering that the whole Khmer Rouge atrocity based itself on the divide between the rich and the poor, the city folk versus the country folk. It’s as if it never happened. Even more disconcerting is the fact that what happened during the Khmer Rouge is not talked about among the people nor in any way taught in school.

The difference in wealth makes for a startling contrast. I saw Landcruisers next to carts with 15 people piled up on it or passing an ox cart eking its way forward or all the cows wandering about everywhere. One might see a newly constructed fancy mansion of a house and right next to it a small hut made out of straw that is barely holding up. The new and modern mixed in with the old and traditional. That is something particular I noticed with Cambodia. People live quite primitively in houses that are more or less shacks with minimum comfort (according to my view: hole-in-the-floor toilet, only cold water, sleeping on a mat on the floor) and yet you’ll have a youngster emerge dressed in style, hair waxed and coiffed and listening to their mp3. Television sets flicker through the glass-less window of a straw hut. Commercials advertise the latest teeth-whitening product, although a lot of people most likely have never seen a dentist.

Human trafficking, especially the sexual enslavement of young girls, is a serious and rampant problem in Cambodia. The organization AFESIP Cambodia runs three centers, one in Siem Reap, one just outside Phnom Penh and a third in the countryside near Kampong Cham. There, survivors of trafficking and sexual slavery are offered a safe home, the camaraderie of each other, psychological counseling, education and vocational training. They are given the opportunity to pursue a viable career track doing either hairdressing or sewing. At the end of their training, assistance is given to set them up in their own businesses. Since many of the girls have lost years of schooling, they have many grades to catch up on and they stay at the center for many years until they have completed their education and are fully trained in a vocation.
Visit AFESIP Cambodia’s website for more information.


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