Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Cambodia Today: The Slow Road Back from the Inferno and Killing Fields Revisited

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Cambodia Today: The Slow Road Back from the Inferno and Killing Fields Revisited

Article excerpt

Cambodia Today

When my students in Asian studies think of Cambodia, two names quickly come to mind: Angkor Wat and Pol Pot. Angkor Wat brings images of the incredible ruins of huge, ancient temples and palaces only recently recovered from the jungle, while Pol Pot casts horror scenes of killing fields, genocide, and the virtual death of a nation. Ironically these two images today are annually drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists to Cambodia (a million are expected in 2006).

Despite the reluctance of many older Cambodians to talk about their horrific experiences of the late twentieth century, it is clear that Cambodia is still a nation in shock, only barely struggling to get back on its feet. Three decades of civil war, intense genocide, and international isolation have left the country in total ruin. The murderous spree of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and early 1979 led to the deaths of an estimated two million Cambodians, or roughly 25 percent of the population, including virtually every educated professional. I was told anecdotally that there were only ten doctors in the country after the fall of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. There were no teachers, health workers, or any functioning schools or hospitals. The national infrastructure was in total ruin.

Cambodia today is gradually starting to recover, but it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. GDP per capita in 2006 is a meager $380 per annum, the second lowest in Southeast Asia after Burma. More than-one third of the population is living under the nation's already exceedingly low poverty line. Cambodia ranks 130th on the Human Development Index. (7) But there are signs of progress. For Cambodia, the number of people living on less than one dollar a day has declined from 36% in 1998 to only 28% in 2005. Even now there are virtually no major industries except for tourism and a few garment factories near Phnom Penh. Foreign-derived national income comes from tourism and purchase of Cambodian-made textiles. (8) But since tourism is largely confined to the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, national income is very unevenly distributed around the country. The country is to a great extent dependent on foreign aid and the on-the-spot efforts of many NGOs, but tragically a great deal of this aid is siphoned off by corrupt officials, with perhaps only half of the dollars donated reaching their intended targets.

The fact that Cambodia is poor is evident the minute you stray away from one of the national highways and travel on some badly rutted dirt road to the endless small rice villages that make up the bulk of Cambodia. Most Cambodians today remain in small villages where life centers around the war--or pagoda, as Buddhist temples in Cambodia are known. Most are rice farmers and are by any standard extremely poor. (9) The villages have no electricity or running water and are connected to the outside world by poorly maintained (very bumpy) dirt roads. The majority of inhabitants are very young--the genocide of the Khmer Rouge decimated the older population; but I found anecdotally that younger couples today are having 4-6 or more children, bringing about a population boom. Today the population of Cambodia hovers around 13 million, up from 7 million at the end of the Khmer Rouge era. According to British anthropologist Anne Best:

   The majority of families are involved in the production of rice.
   Other small enterprises include family trading stalls, "taxis"
   offering transportation into town, a women's clothing workshop and
   so on. All family members are commonly involved in some form of
   work and children start helping out with the animals or crops from
   a very early age. Education and health are key factors in the
   improvement of future prospects for the youth of the village. (10)

Adequate education and health care are essential if Cambodia is to attain some degree of prosperity and modernity, but today both remain woefully inadequate and play a major role in keeping Cambodia poor. …

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