Cambodia is a case study on how good we have it in the U.S. From 1975-1979, ~25% of their population was killed (2 million people) by the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime through a combination of mass murder, disease, and starvation. Along with 2 million people, the Khmer Rouge also killed the Cambodian (also known as “Khmer”) culture – celebrations, religion, family structures, even currency, were all destroyed/ abolished. All educated people, teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, were killed or tortured into making false confessions for having worked with the CIA, and then killed. Families were destroyed through death and forced labor in the fields. It was a horrible tragedy. You won’t see many old people in Cambodia, most of them died in the genocide or fled the country shortly thereafter and never returned. And for those you do see, it’s hard to pass them in the street without thinking about what they must have gone through to still be alive.
Sadly, the country hasn’t really recovered since the Khmer Rouge was overthrown 35 years ago. Cambodia was left to rebuild with hardly any educated people to provide leadership (all killed or fled) and an ill-equipped, corrupt government run by Hun Sen, the man who more or less overthrew the fair elections of 1993 overseen by the UN. Hun Sen is still corrupt and continues to run a corrupt government by rigging elections to this day.
As a result, Cambodia still has very little infrastructure; just a few roads, “public” school systems that are mainly funded by students’ families, and terribly inadequate healthcare facilities. We met a construction project manager from Scotland while in Phnom Penh, who had lived in various countries in Asia for twenty years (including Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia) building hotels and other commercial projects. He said Cambodia has the worst corruption he’d ever seen. A government official was currently holding his nearly-completed project hostage after 10 months until his company paid him $50,000 in cash through an intermediary. He said he will probably pay it, because that’s how things work in Cambodia.
Even the Khmer culture is not as pronounced as it once was and will probably never get back to its roots before the Khmer Rouge stripped it all away. As Alison points out, their most popular music videos are beyond painful to watch and, heck, the ATMs dispense US dollars.
It’s a travesty that the government is focused on increasing the size of their own pockets instead of building schools, hospitals, and a system to help pull the country out of this black hole. It’s not just that people struggle to find food, shelter, clean water, the basics. There do not seem to be opportunities for these people to provide a better life for themselves and their families. While the US is not immune to its own issues, at least there is some structure in place for those who need it – welfare, Medicaid, homeless shelters, and workforce training programs can not only provide food, shelter, and healthcare, but an opportunity for hope and success for under-privileged Americans. In Cambodia, it’s different. The same people who are struggling to make ends meet are working 60-70 hours per week in the factory or the fields for $3/ day trying to fund living costs of $4/ day. A dream for them might be for their kid to have a high school education and become a nurse. But the “public” schools are too expensive, they aren’t educated themselves, there aren’t enough hours in the day to make enough money for living expenses, let alone education and healthcare costs for their children, and the government, instead of taking tax dollars to fund programs to help the economy, are keeping the money in their own pockets. Kids end up dropping out of school to help their parents make enough money for food and shelter. It’s a horrible cycle that doesn’t seem to be rectifying itself.
Despite all of this, the people of Cambodia were by far the nicest people we’ve met on our trip. Overly helpful, thankful that we visited their country, and hoping we would return soon. And they did everything with the biggest smiles you will ever see. Alison and I could not stop talking about how much we liked the people in this country.
I left Cambodia sad, angry, and perplexed. Sad for the terrible tragedies these people endured. Angry at the government for not doing more for their people. And perplexed that despite all of this, the people seemed so happy all the time. Are they concealing emotions? Ignorant of what’s actually happening? Indifferent? My rough conclusion is that maybe they are just past the point of hope and have resigned to accept their helpless place in the world, which makes me even more depressed for them.
Maybe someday things will change in Cambodia. Cincinnati’s own Steve Chabot actually just called for Hun Sen to step down a few weeks ago in the wake of recent protests by teachers and laborers. That would be a good first step.
“We live in the greatest country in the world” – something as Americans we hear over and over. Staring in the face of a country like Cambodia makes this as real as ever, for me at least.
For anyone with an interest, I found this book to be an interesting, albeit depressing, account of the Khmer Rouge regime and recent Cambodian history.