Some thoughts on Cambodia

Siem Reap Travel Blog

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It's our last day of relaxation today before moving on tomorrow.  We are coming to the end of our trip in Cambodia, which has proved really interesting, especially because of its recent history.  Everyone of course knows about the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the genocide that took place, but before coming here both of us confess to knowing very little of the reasons why it happened and of what has happened since the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in 1979.  It is shocking for example, to find out that there have been very few Khmer Rouge ringleaders brought to justice for their crimes against humanity. 

When the Vietnamese army invaded in 1979 (due to the Khmer Rouge invading parts of the Mekong Delta, claiming it belonged to Cambodia, and killing hundreds of Vietnamese in the process) the remainder of the Khmer Rouge fled to the jungles bordering Thailand.  Unbelievably, it was here that they were able to re-group and flourish -  given aid by Thailand, backed by America, who relished an opportunity to harass Hanoi, even years after the Vietnam war.  Consequently, the Khmer Rouge were able to operate a guerilla war against the Phnom Penh government right through to the mid-1990's.  It doesn't take much imagination to guess how the population felt, constantly fearful that the Khmer Rouge were still out there, wanting to re-gain power.  It is only in the years since 2000 that some of the remaining ringleaders have been imprisoned, awaiting trial.  It has been suggested that the Khmer people, certainly of the older generation, are suffering a kind of collective post traumatic stress disorder.  They have never been able to talk about what happened, share their experiences or come to terms with what happened.  A leading Cambodian film maker recently commented in the 'Cambodian Daily,' that the need to understand why those terrible events happened was probably more important than seeing the ringleaders in jail.  Indeed, perhaps a truth and reconciliation commision may have proved more effective in healing Cambodia's wounds.

The result is a nation with an underlying current of aggression and resentment.  There are many examples in the newspapers of muggings, armed robbery and killings over seemingly small disputes.  In Phnom Penh, we saw two tuk-tuk drivers arguing about something and one threatened the other with a metal chain.  It seems that the utter corruption of all ranks of government creates an ever increasing gap between rich and poor, and continues to fuel resentment and violence which permeates down through all sections of society.

So what of the future?  Cambodians are now at least experiencing peace after long years of civil war.  Foreign investors are returning, evidenced particularly in the cities, where new buildings and roads are being created.  Tourism is beginning to flourish, with well over 1 million visitors a year.  NGO's have done a good job of getting Cambodia back on its feet.  But Cambodia remains an extremely poor country, with 85% of the population living in rural areas, and very little government investment in health or education (they are too busy lining their own pockets).  It obviously plays to Hun Sen's (the country's 'leader') advantage to have a relatively uneducated electorate.  And consequently, Cambodia will never really flourish until it has built up its human resources - doctors, teachers, nurses, lawyers, engineers, accountants. 

Throughout our visit we have driven through countless villages and towns.  The majority have roadside signs displaying the CPP - the Cambodian People's Party - the ruling party headed by Hun Sen.  But there has also been signs belonging to the Sam Rainsy Party, who have recently won many provincial seats.  This is a good sign, but it remains to be seen in the years to come, how Hun Sen will react if Sam Rainsy becomes a serious challenge to the government.

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photo by: genetravelling