It is week eleven at the Rotary Peace Center of Chulalongkorn University and the Rotary Peace Fellows have just returned from an unbelievable trip to Cambodia. I have not had time to digest all the things I have learned and witnessed in Cambodia but I still have to write my blog. I started one version but it was way too personal, I thought, so I scrapped it. The second version was all theory and very few relatable events from the trip, so out it went. And the third version was not just right, probably because I have no relation to Goldilocks but also because there was nothing magically sweet about Cambodia. It turns out Cambodia is the equivalent of a country of orphans suffering from PTSD trying to inch its way forward without the help of its own leadership. To use another children’s story analogy imagine you live in the world of Cinderella only there is no Ball, no Fairy Godmother, and especially no Prince!
Cambodia is shocking even to the seasoned traveler for its underdevelopment, its awful government, and its history. It is a country, which almost makes you give up hope. With an average income of 2,361 dollars Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Considering that the average GDP per capita includes the very rich and those taking advantage of pockets of wealth in the country the majority of the population lives on a dollar a day which for a westerner can be baffling. The craziest part of the story is that its capital city, Phnom Penh, is a rather expensive place to live, mostly because of the concentration of NGO’s and other organizations attempting to engage in the reconstruction of the country and, in the process, making things worse for the locals. We at the Rotary Peace Center have talked ad nauseum of the impact of NGO’s in post conflict countries attempting reconstruction and not all the stories are good. In Cambodia the case of the proverbial “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” may actually hold true with all these westerners tripping over each other spending money on programs that may or may not actually help in the end. One thing is for sure, a certain governing elite has become tremendously wealthy over the years through the kindness of strangers, so to speak. So, if the aim was, for all these people to help the country recover from an awful past, it may have backfired.
Governance is an issue in many countries but it is especially an issue in Cambodia. I say governance and not government because pretty much all levels of the administration, the institutional structure, as well as the legal framework need retooling in this country. Unfortunately though, the country is ruled by a vicious nihilistic elite, which understands nothing of democratic rule, good governance or the rule of law. The most popular car in Phnom Penh is the Lexus SUV and is driven usually by people connected and patronized by a government in charge of the country ever since the collapse of the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Meanwhile, Cambodia’s children are starving and are sold to Asian and Western pedophiles steadfastly lounging around in broad view in Monivong street hotels. The Rotary Peace Fellows got to Cambodia a week after the national elections, which were quiet possibly stolen by the ruling party. As we went about our visits we noticed the ink on the first finger to the right hand on all Cambodians, which meant they had voted in the recent elections, and we engaged in conversations about them. Surprisingly, even though we were told that Cambodians might avoid discussing these issues because of the past and present fear of the government, many of the young people were not only willing but also very critical of the government. It seems the generation thirty years after the Khmer Rouge has had enough with their politicians and is ready to bring about change. I only wish them luck and hope that the transition to multiparty rule is bloodless and effective, I do, however, have my doubts, mainly because of the nature and the history behind those who rule the country, which brings me to the historical roots of the present system.
While the Vietnam War raged on in former French Indochina the Cambodians, led by the late Prince Sihanouk, attempted a nonaligned strategy thinking, probably correctly, that after the Americans leave their neighbors are still going to be around. With US help Prince Sihanouk was overthrown by his military led by Lon Nol and the country entered a period of civil war. In addition, the US in an attempt to cut off the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail and put pressure on the Vietnamese, dropped more bombs on eastern Cambodia than all of Europe during WWII, thus driving the country to the arms of the opposition, the Khmer Rouge, led by a little known man named Pol Pot. By 1975 the apparent failure of US foreign policy was reality and Cambodia became ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a band of brigands with unrivalled cruelty and lack of compassion, whose main objective was to create a truly unique agrarian society. By 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were driven from government by a Vietnamese invasion, to a long protracted civil war, more than two million Cambodian had died from disease, starvation, and murder while most of the country’s capacity to rebuilt was erased by the policy of murdering anyone who had been tainted by education. With an entire generation killed of, approximately 25% of the country perished those years, the government propped up by the Vietnamese forces until elections were held in 1993 the new political culture of the country is unfortunately completely nihilistic. Everyone is in search of power and distrustful of his fellow countrymen as well as the government. How can anyone build a future like this? I asked the question to this new generation of activists in our visits in Phnom Penh and I received a variety of answers. The most optimistic was that civil society is starting to work well again and it is a matter of time before the government will follow along. The most pessimistic was that the government is mainly run by old timers which,h split from the Khmer Rouge and dominated with the help of the Vietnamese, does not understand anything but raw power, they are after all the by product of the Khmer Rouge machine and thus the country is heading for some turbulent times, as evidenced by military units moving in from the countryside to the capital a week after the election.
For my part, after I visited the Killing Fields, S-21, the infamous prison were about twenty thousand people were tortured and murdered, and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia trying some of the Khmer Rouge Leadership for genocide and crimes against humanity, I believe there’s a glimmer of hope but it will take time. I just hope the international community will not again forsake Cambodia as it did in the past and it will stand with her in her time of need.
Rotary Peace Fellow
August 24, 2013