Where do I begin with Cambodia?
…The tragedy of its recent history and the devastating civil war?
…The glory of the Angkor period and the historic strength of Khmer civilisation, art and architecture?
…The corruption and short-sightedness of the government – turning a blind eye to human trafficking, abuse and prostitution, stealing land from their citizens and selling it off to foreign corporations, more concerned with lining their own pockets than sustainably developing the nation and marrying their children into other elite families to ensure they remain in power well into the future?
…The strength of the inspiring NGO sector that counters and challenges the limitations of the Cambodian government, despite their own challenges of generally low skill levels, inadequate short-term funding and resultant difficulties in long term planning?
…The resilience and indefatigable persistence of the ever-smiling Khmer people who get on with it despite everything?
My experience of Cambodia was deepened by the work I did there with ECPAT. As a result, I find it more difficult to write this post. As a traveller, you experience one dimension; a skim picture of the country, brief encounters with the people before you move on and then you add in what else you know to draw some conclusions.
With Cambodia, I find it tougher. I got the skim view, I had the brief interactions, but I also had more extended interactions with people. They made me more hopeful, they made me sadder, they made me more confused.
When it comes to Cambodia, as with most things in life, it’s shades of grey. There are factors causing the institutionalised corruption that I can understand enough to restrain my criticism. If a teacher is paid 30USD per month, not enough to live on, even in Cambodia, then they must find ways to supplement their income.
So, when teachers ask their students for payment, even though early schooling in Cambodia is practically free, you can understand that.
When policemen are paid the same, you can understand why they take opportunities to earn a few extra bucks, whether by stopping westerners driving motos to dish out on-the-spot fines for imaginary traffic offences, or to charge a dollar ‘admin fee’ for providing an insurance report or stamping a passport. Iâ€™d like to think I wouldnâ€™t, but maybe if I was earning 30USD per month, I would be doing the same…
Then again, how can you ever hope to develop a country in the long term when all the driving factors are about short term gain?
This is where it gets murky. When around 40% of the population can remember the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime, where waking up each morning was a miracle (or a curse) then why wouldn’t you tend to have a short term perspective on things.
I think that, as Westerners, with our comfortable lives, we have the luxury of thinking and talking about the ‘greater good’ and â€˜the long termâ€™, which is a luxury ordinary Cambodian people just can’t afford. A perspective based on the here and now, basic needs, the impact on my family, has to be most people’s first concern.
It doesn’t excuse the government leaders though. For them I heat a large pan of boiling scorn and heap it upon their heads. A change in the Cambodian government will go a long way to solving Cambodia’s problems. But this is not likely to come soon. With a budget running to millions of dollars they ‘buy’ votes from under-educated rural people, in elections that cannot be described as anything like free and fair, and thus the CPP will be returned to power despite the leadership of Hun Sen, a clever enigma of a man who has managed to reinvent himself so many times he has stayed in powerful positions for the last twenty years.
As I moved from Laos into Cambodia, the difference was stark when you take the example of government sponsored development of the tourism industry. In Laos, lessons are being openly sought from more developed Asian countries, with a resulting focus on eco-tourism development, which saves rainforests, preserves some indigenous rural communities and spreads the tourist dollar fairly widely.
In Cambodia, Korean or Japanese conglomerates come to Phnom Penh, do a deal with a government minister for some land in an up and coming tourist hot spot, privatise the best section of beach, riverside or hill-top and build a five-star resort that will create only a tiny economic benefit for local people. And will invariably result in some forced evictions along the way, of people who may or may not be paid compensation to move off their land.
Just look at the example of Angkor Wat. It costs 40USD for a three day pass. You pay this money to a Korean company who hold a 99 year lease to manage Angkor Wat, the number one tourist attraction, in the one industry that holds the greatest potential for Cambodia. And a percentage of the income leaves the country. It beggars belief.
Despite all of this, the people of Cambodia are inspirational. The lessons they had for me were many and varied; how to find fun in everything, how to keep going no matter what, how to accept your lot and work with it in life, how to find a way of surmounting barriers and getting there in the end. While the country may not be â€˜greatâ€™ in the economic sense, the people have ‘greatness’ in abundance. I feel privileged and am grateful to have received so much from them.