Cambodia Essay, Research Paper
The Impact of the Past on the Present
Cambodia, then, like so many other nations in the developing world, is an agricultural country, and, in terms of the cash incomes of its people, desperately poor.
In the past, Cambodia was able to earn foreign exchange to pay for imported goods by selling agricultural surpluses-of rice and corn, for example-or plant crops, such as pepper, rubber, and cotton. Its normal patterns of trade were broken up in the wars of the 1970’s. When the fighting died down, Cambodian trade became lively again, but more informal, which benefited many individual traders but deprived the government of money it needed to pay for essential services, like electricity, schools, water, and highways. There was some question at the end of the 1980’s if Cambodia would ever be able to trade its way back into the kind of prosperity that it had enjoyed in earlier times.
Of course, the word “prosperity” is a relative one. Even in the peaceful 1960’s, Cambodia was one of the poorest countries in eastern Asia, at least in terms of individual income. It is hard for even a relatively poor Westerner to imagine just how poor-in terms of cash, choices about the future, and possessions-a Cambodian farmer or unskilled laborer has always been, or what an annual income of less than the equivalent of two hundred dollars means in terms of the everyday life of farmers and their families. In nearly all Cambodian families, everyone works hard to grow the food and earn the money needed to survive. Even so, by international standards most Cambodians are very poor.
Being poor in Cambodia means eating less than a pound of meat a month, and a family’s earning less than six hundred dollars from a rice crop that has occupied most of its labor, intensively, for the equivalent of three months. For most Cambodians, there is a little question of new clothes, gadgets, or vacations. The money from the rice crop has to last the farming family for an entire year, unless the husband leaves home to find another job-as a laborer in Phnom Penh, for example-or the wife manages to supplement their income by selling fruit, cloth, or cigarettes in the local market. Most Cambodians live below the poverty line and struggle hard to find enough food for themselves and their children. The difficulties are intensified because in the late 1980’s a large proportion of the rural population-statistics are not precise, but perhaps as many as one in four-consists of families headed by women widowed in the wars of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Women have always worked hard as or harder than men in agricultural tasks, but usually alongside them, and today Cambodia suffers from a shortage of able-bodied men. Tens of thousands of other men are drawn away from productive work by service in the army and in labor battalions along the Thai-Cambodian frontier.
In some ways, of course, it’s easier to be poor in Cambodia than the West. First, there is the warm weather. Houses are not expensive to build, heating isn’t needed, as people don’t wear heavy clothes. In the second place, rice is cheap to buy, and for much of the year supplementary foods-fish, fruit, and vegetables-are easy to grow, catch, or barter. Third, the country is not yet overcrowded, at least in the east and the northwest, and there is still unoccupied fertile land that can be brought under cultivation.
If it is difficult for Cambodians to freeze or starve to death, it would be wrong for us to think of Cambodia as a tropical paradise. A Cambodian farmer, a widow living in Phnom Penh, or a day laborer usually has no savings or any valuable property. The state has almost no way to help them. In an emergency-an accident, a sudden illness, or a fire-death is much closer for such people than it would be for most North American, and the possibilities of their raising money, or receiving proper medical care, are much more remote. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians live on the edge of survival, eking a bare living form the soil or from poorly paid casual labor. Most men and women in Phnom Penh have two or even three competing jobs. They are uncertain about the future and what it will bring for their children. This uncertainty, of course, has increased with the fighting and disorder of recent years.
In material terms, Cambodia, even with its agricultural resources and its potential for development, will probably always be very poor in comparison to countries like Japan, Canada, and the United States, or even to nearby countries like Thailand and Malaysia. It has two riches, however, that make it very interesting to study. These are its people and its history.
Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy. King Sihanouk is head of state, and two prime ministers head the government. The prime ministers attend to daily tasks of government, and the king is deeply involved in matters such as dealing with the Khmer Rouge. The Nationalist Assembly has 120 members. Further changes in the structure of government are expected as part of the process of political transition and in order to resolve the conflict with the Khmer Rouge.
The 20th Century
Present-day Cambodia was colonized by France in the 1860s and remained under French control (except during Japanese occupation during World War II) until 1953, when it was granted independence. During the postindependence period, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was the dominant figure in Cambodian politics, until he was deposed in 1970 by General Lon Nol, who was backed by the United States. When the U.S. withdrew from Southeast Asia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a Communist faction headed by Pol Pot, took control of the country and began a violent, forced restructuring aimed at returning the country to an agrarian communal society. Sihanouk was reinstalled as the nominal head of state, but he resigned in 1976, During the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule, more than 1 million Cambodians and ethnic minorities were killed or died of starvation and disease. The educated and business classes were all but eliminated. The economy was destroyed.
In response to the Khmer Rouge’s slaughter of Vietnamese living in Cambodia and repeated attacks on villages in Vietnamese territory, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978. Pol Pot fled, and a government loyal to Vietnam was installed with Heng Samrin as president. Hun Sen was later named a prime minister. For the next ten years Vietnamese troops attempted to defeat anti-government guerrilla forces. In 1989 Vietnam, tired of the struggle, withdrew from Cambodia. The United Nations had refused to recognized the Hun Sen government. Instead, a coalition of three guerrilla groups (Khmer Rouge, Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, and supporters of Prince Sihanouk) was recognized as a government in exile (as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea). Although tentative peace talks between the government and the three guerrilla groups had begun in 1988, little progress was made until 1990, when the United States and other nations withdrew their support for guerrilla coalition. In August 1990 all four parties agreed to adopt a UN plan that created a Supreme National Council (SNC) as an interim government. The UN sent troops and other personnel to take over the country’s administration and organize national elections. Prince Sihanouk returned to Cambodia as head
Cambodia’s gulf coast, or the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia lies totally in the tropics. There are no negative conflicts now, as Cambodians enjoy a sunny day of swimming and surfing.
of the SNC and was immediately accepted by most Cambodians as the only person capable of establishing peace. The UN began registering voters in 1992 for elections in May 1993. Violence between the government, Sihanouk’s supporters, and the Khmer Rouge frequently threatened to halt the peace process. The Khmer eventually refused to participate in the electoral process.
Nevertheless, elections took place in May and were peaceful, free, and fair. However, when Hun Sen’s government realized it was losing to the Royalist opposition
(loyal to Sihanouk), it threatened to reject the results. Sihanouk, who was not a formal candidate or party leader, stepped in to create a coalition government. After several attempts, he worked out an agreement in June 1993 that created a co-presidency between his son, Prince Ranariddh, and Hun Sen. The newly elected National Assembly approved a new constitution that provided for Sihanouk’s return to power as King of Cambodia. He was crowned in September 1993. After ratifying the new constitution, he named the crown prince, Norodom Ranariddh, as first prime minister and Hun Sen became second prime minister. This continued the compromise agreement worked out in June.
The political situation remains uncertain-in 1994, government and Khmer Rouge troops were involved in a series of battles over rebel-held territory, and talks held in June between the two sides broke down within a short time. The return of King Sihanouk has raised people’s hopes of peace and a better life. However, uncertainly remains while Pol Pot lives and the Khmer Rouge continues to fight. Legacies of the war, such as, the thousands of Khmer refugees who continue to languish in Thai border camps, and the ever-present danger of land mines which the Khmer Rouge continue to use, further hinder national renewal.
There are over seven million ways of writing about Cambodia today. Each Cambodian’s experiences are authentic, and slightly different from those of anyone else. One problem for a writer is to discover common themes among the voices.
Another is that so much of the country is inaccessible to outsiders, because of the civil war or because overland communication is so poor. It is almost impossible to generalize about rural life, even though over 80 percent of Cambodia’s people live in the countryside.
A third problem is that “Cambodia” in 1990 includes not only the country itself, but the 320,000 Cambodians along the Thai border and 250,000 more who have resettled overseas. A widow in Phnom Penh, for example, would describe “Cambodia today” differently from a farmer in western Kompong Speu, a trader in the “Site 8″ refugee camp in Thailand (one of many) or a teenager in Long Beach, California, where almost 40,000 Cambodians have settled since 1980.
Keeping these difficulties in mind, some important themes emerge from Cambodia’s recent history, and affect the ways that Cambodians face in the future.
The Fear of Pol Pot
One is the fear that Pol Pot will reemerge and reenact the horrors of 1975-1979. Memories of uncontrolled violence and total domination have driven man Cambodians into mental illness, and all survivors are fearful of Democratic Kampuchea. “War is a horrifying prospect for Cambodians”, one of them said in September 1989. “I don’t think they could survive another one, physically or mentally. “Three years earlier, a Western psychiatrist reported, after several months among Cambodian refugees, that more than half of those he worked with suffered from sleeplessness, nightmares, poor appetites, and estrangement from other people. Similar symptoms have been reported from Cambodians inside the countryside the country and overseas.
The People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the State of Cambodia tried to channel this fear and resentment into an annual “Day of Hatred”, celebrated in May, in which the crimes of Pol Pot were recalled, in ceremonies conducted at village cemeteries, Tuol Sleng, and other sites of violence under Democratic Kampuchea.
Farm workers in Khet Kampong Chhnang prepare to thresh rice after harvesting from the fields.
A second theme is that nearly all Cambodians are still extremely poor. Only a few thousand of them inside the country have access to electricity and running water. All but a few thousand have a difficult time finding enough food for themselves and their families, schooling for their children, and proper medical attention. Twelve out of every one hundred babies born in Cambodia in 1989 died before their first birthdays. A major cause of these deaths was their mothers’ malnutrition. Children who survived infancy were often undernourished. A U.N study in 1984 estimated that 30 percent of Cambodia’s children were underfed. Hundreds of thousands of children are orphans or have only one surviving parent. The crisis of poverty, affecting children and adults alike, makes lone-term planning difficult, or impossible.
Because of insecurity and a shortage of revenue, the State of Cambodia has been unable to keep Cambodia’s roads, bridges, and railway system in good repair. Trips that before 1970 took less than an hour from Phnom Penh by car, on well-paved roads, now take over three hours, on roads from which the paving has almost disappeared.
Rapid Social Change
A third theme is that for many Cambodians, as for millions of other people elsewhere in the 1990’s, everything is changing so rapidly that their past experience gives little guidance for their lives. The possibility of the return of Democratic Kampuchea and the erosion of traditional values have made many Cambodians uncertain. This is particularly true for those who live abroad. People who traveled for twenty years on foot, in ox-carts, or in an occasional rickety bus now live alongside freeways where tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and buses roar past them everyday. Accustomed to villages, they live in urban slums or run-down suburban areas. When they venture from home, for work or shopping, their new environment, its inhabitants, and its weather are unfamiliar, even menacing.
The freedom enjoyed by young people in the West is also distressing to many older refugees who have settled there, and so is the apparent decline of Buddhism. Cut off from their roots, many Cambodians find difficulty putting down new ones. Some have tried hard to do so, however, by becoming Christians, for example, or by working hard in high school and college.
As these changes are going on, many Cambodian immigrants have watched their children become American or French, Canadian or Australian, losing track of the past, and often losing respect for the ways that held Cambodian society together. For older Cambodians, the process has been sad to watch.
The Civil War
Finally, Cambodians in Cambodia and along the Thai border live in the shadow of an ongoing civil war. This war has sputtered along since 1980. When the Vietnam withdrew their troops in 1989, thousands of young Cambodians were forcibly drafted into the army and trucked off to battlefronts in the northwest, while their counterparts in the refugee camps were pressed into service to fight them. The civil war also affects civilians. Every year, hundreds of civilian men, women, and children, as well as a larger number of soldiers, have their legs or arms blown off by small plastic land mines that have been scattered throughout the country over the years by Democratic Kampuchea, the State of Cambodia, the Vietnamese, and the resistance forces. Many of the mines are undetectable until they’re stepped on or touched by mistake. The pressure and the click that it makes on the mine activate the explosive, which blows off a hand, a foot, or more. Mines made in China and favored by Democratic Kampuchea are known as “jumping mines”, because of the way they leap out of the ground when ignited.
The minefields are unmapped, and experts estimate that to clear those along the Thai border alone would require 30,000 people working for several months, during which over 10,000 of the workers would be maimed or killed.
Villagers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, especially in remote parts of the country, were also threatened by D.K. raiding parties. These ranged in size from five to a hundred men. Sometimes they offered gold for food and treated people decently, but in most cases they menaced, killed, and kidnapped rural people and tortured S.O.C. officials to death as a warning to others. Some of these D.K. fighters have been raiding villages and using their weapons against “enemies” for over twenty years.
Cambodia’s People Today:
Boom or Bust?
Since the early 1980’s, foreign journalists and most other visitors have not been allowed to circulate freely in Cambodian, because of the threats posed by guerrillas and because the Phnom Penh government, like many others in the past, has preferred to control the information about Cambodia that reaches the outside world. This makes it difficult to say much about social and economic conditions in many rural areas today, as compared with those in Phnom Penh or in the places where visitors are usually taken. Even in the cities, some see hopeful new prosperity and others a frightening descent into corruption and despair.
At the same time, some statements about Cambodia today are easy to make. The first, already emphasized, is that nearly all its people are desperately poor. By the early 1990’s, agricultural production has not yet reached pre-Revolutionary levels, and indeed its seems likely that in many war-torn and forested areas little food is being grown. Malnutrition is a serious problem in many parts of the country and is the major illness treated in the children’s hospital in Phnom Penh. Other diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, are widespread in rural areas. Many parts of the country are too embattled for people to be sure of eating and single mothers with small children, eke out precarious livings in Phnom Penh, often finding it difficult to cope.
Yet some parts of the country, such as Kompong Chhnang on the shores of the Tonle Sap, have regained some of their earlier prosperity, as fisheries have reopened and a flourishing trade in fish and fish products has developed between Cambodia and southern Vietnam. Similarly, in the ruby and sapphire mining regions of the northwest, many individual miners have become wealthy by trading across the border with Thailand. Similar fortunes are being made by Khmer and Thai who cooperate, without official permission, to cut down valuable timber in the frontier region. Still other Cambodians, transporting goods from Thailand through Cambodia to Vietnam by truck, on foot, or on bicycles, earn a handsome profit, and there is a flourishing coastal trade in Cambodia’s “Wild West” province of Koh Kong.
Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital and largest city.
Hardly any of this prosperity reaches the Phnom Penh government in the form of taxes, and the government is therefore sorely pressed to provide basic services like electricity, water, and sanitation to its people-to say nothing of education, new roads, or proper medical care. The new prosperity does “trickle down” to many poor Cambodians who find jobs in building construction, restaurants, tourist services, and markets unthinkable in the more austerely socialist atmosphere of the early 1980’s. As Vietnamese troops departed, and the government relaxed its dependence on Vietnam, it became unclear to what extent any Cambodian government could influence events outside the capital, or control the economic boom that seemed to have overtaken Phnom Penh.
Benefits are very uneven, and many Cambodians in the 1980’s balanced on a thin edge between death and survival. Hundreds of thousands of them had too little to eat, worked long hours for pitiful rewards, and succumbed easily to disease. These hardships darkened the picture of an economic boom based on trade and speculation, reported by many visitors to Phnom Penh and to areas along the Thai border.
This “boom”, if it really is one, is based largely on informal trade with Thailand and between Thailand and Vietnam, and also on increasing revenue from tourism, real estate speculation, and the possibility of renewed foreign investment, particularly by Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan. With the relaxation of Vietnamese influence, many Cambodian government officials have become wealthy, as have individual traders, themselves often Vietnamese, Chinese, or Chinese-Cambodians.
Prospects for the Future
These developments have also widened the gaps between Cambodia’s rich and poor, and, some would say, between the Vietnamese and Chinese minorities on the one hand and Cambodia’s urban and rural poor on the other. Some visitors saw the changes as evidence of a new openness and new opportunities for Cambodia, and as a chance for Khmers to benefit from relative political freedom and from the prosperity of the early 1990’s. The rebirth of Buddhism, and Buddhist festivals, was seen by many as a hopeful sign and as evidence of the resilience of Cambodian culture and the flexibility of its supposedly Communist leaders. Others claimed that the collapse of the old monarchy, the pressures of world economics, and Cambodia’s hardships in the 1970’s and early 1980’s had all been too much for the country, and that its very survival was in doubt.
Bicycles, motorbikes, and pedicabs flood the streets of present day Phnom Penh.
Throughout its recent history, then, Cambodia has had to come to terms with its location between two powerful and often antipathetic regimes, each seeking to turn it into a kind of buffer zone. Prince Sihanouk, Lon Nol, and Pol Pot sought to neutralize this situation by seeking protection from powers outside the region, particularly China and the United States. Other regimes have sought to escape the threats of one neighbor by becoming the client of the other.
Still others perceived the changes in the late 1980’s as a return to the widespread corruption of pre-Revolutionary times, when gaps developed between the richest and poorest members of Cambodian society, and particularly between high officials in the government and ordinary people. Some resented the favored treatment they claimed was being given to the Vietnamese inhabitants of the country. In the 1970’s similar injustice led many young people to join the revolutionary forces led by Pol Pot. After the “killing fields” of the early 1970’s, sweeping social change was no longer a real possibility, but if widespread corruption continues, it could easily erode the confidence that has been built up in the 1980’s between the government and the people.
These economic threats, changes, and opportunities, as well as the evolving relationship between the government and the people, must be seen, in the short term, against the background of an ongoing civil war and in the context of the economic boom that has overtaken so much of the region. The future will also be affected by the breakdown of Communist parties in Europe and the pressure against those that survive in Asia, especially in China and Vietnam. If Cambodia is to become a non-Communist country, as seems likely, what kind of government will it have?
In the longer term, the rapid changes of the 1980’s need to be seen in the context of Cambodia’s history, for which written records extend back for nearly two thousand years.
Current Statistics and Data
Official name Kingdom of Cambodia (Kampuchea)
Capital Phnom Penh
Area 181,040 sq. km
Major cities (Pop)
Phnom Penh 369,000
Population 10.3 million
Region Southeast Asia
Pop. growth rate 3%
Pop. density 57 persons per sq. km
Percent urban 20.7% of the pop.
Percent rural 79.3% of the pop.
Life expectancy, female 53 years
Life expectancy, male 50 years
Infant mortality rate 130 deaths per 1,000 live births
Languages Khmer (official), French
Theravada Buddhism 95%
Government Constitutional monarchy
Independence 9th November 1949 (from France)
Constitution 24th September 1993
Voting rights Universal at age 18
GDP per capita U.S $96
Major trade partners for exports & imports
Vietnam, former Soviet republics, Eastern European countries,
Natural rubber, rice, pepper, wood
International food aid, fuels, consumer goods, machinery
Rice milling, fishing, wood products, rubber, cements, gem mining
Mainly subsistence farming except for rubber plantations; main crops-
rice, rubber, maize, food shortages-rice, meat, vegetables, dairy
products, sugar, flour
Timber, gemstones, some iron ore, manganese, phosphates,
? Encarta 97 Encyclopedia
Funk & Wagnails
? Brittanica Encyclopedia
? Encyclopedia Americana
? “A history of Cambodia” (1983)
Michael Vickery & David P. Chandler
Cambodia 1975-1982 (1984)