Cambodia… A Country of Contradictions

Cambodia is an amazing country, even though it is full of contradictions.  The people are very poor, but they smile so much.  The countryside is green, but deforestation is occurring in the more populated areas.  They ruled a mighty empire in the 12th century, but have been controlled by communism and the military in the recent past.  They lost 2 million of their citizens in the 1970’s to disease, starvation and execution.  These numbers included all the educated people as well as a generation or two of grandparents.  The support of an extended family was eliminated.  Those who survived feel great shame for allowing this to happen.  And yet they still smile. We spent just over a week in this neighbor to Thailand and I learned so much about a country that I had been pretty ambivalent about for my whole life.

I was invited to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia by Bernice Pollock.  I taught with her for 20 years in Rocky Mountain House.  She is a brave traveller and is responsible for  convincing me that we could live in Chiang Mai for a winter.  She now teaches at the Canadian International School, along with Nancy, another colleague of ours from Rocky. Bernice invited me to come and spend a day helping their teachers with some planning strategies.  Since this school teaches the Alberta Program of Studies, it was an easy match.  It is a private school, owned by a Chinese family.  Wealthy ex-pat’s children, who are mostly Asian, attend.  They want a “Western” education for their children.  The children are taught in English, or French and also receive some training in the Khmer language.  It was another good reason to go and visit Phnom Penh.

Some contradictions in Phnom Penh

  • really nice home next to yards filled with garbage
  • wind trio performance in a luxury hotel garden while children are begging in the streets
  • mostly empty office and condo complexes advertising lavish living near people subsisting in tin shacks
  • master tailors creating clothes from a picture in a magazine working from a tiny  booth in a market
  • although most people have little and work hard, they gather in the parks every evening to exercise and eat together  They play soccer and badminton, walk, do Tai Chi and Zumba.  People filled the parks.
  • they use the American dollar as their primary currency.  They don’t use the coins, but instead have a local paper money called riel used as change.
  • beautiful French Colonial architecture next to bare cement block construction
  • traffic drives wherever it wants.  Scooters travel in packs and take over a lane or sidewalk if necessary.  There are few traffic lights and those wanting to turn against the flow just wait until there is a critical mass and start to turn, hoping that the other traffic will stop and wait.

The Killing Fields

To understand Cambodia, you need to visit this memorial.  It is not easy, but it is necessary.  It is recommended to also visit the S-21 Museum also known as the  Tuol Sueng Genocide Museum, which is a meticulously documented torture location.  We were not emotionally able to go there, although I did some reading about it.

We hired our airport driver to take us out to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre).  From the entrance it looks like a nice park with trees and chickens wandering around. It was early in the morning with few other people. Once we started listening to the audio guide, (an essential part of this tour), the atmosphere of the place completely changed.

Khmer Rouge

After some years of civil war in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975.  Their leader, Pol Pot, wanted a classless peasant society where everyone was completely equal.  He eliminated money, banks, religion and the right to own property.  He sent all the people from the city to the countryside to grow rice where many died of starvation and disease.

All the teachers and educated people,  as well as those with defects like needing glasses were taken to centers where they were forced to admit their crimes against the people.  They were then taken in the dark to one of the hundreds of “Killing Fields” around the country where they were beaten to death and buried in mass graves.  The genocide ended in 1979 when 60 000 Vietnamese troops invaded Phnom Penh.  Although the people of Cambodia now hold elections, it is a one-party system as the opposition leader was exiled and has recently resigned after a law passed that would not allow him to participate in politics.

Our driver came in and walked quietly around the area.  On our way back he told us he had been a young boy during this time and his job was to look after the cows used in the rice fields.  His father was a blacksmith and they were allowed to survive.  He told us that they were only given 2 bowls of rice to eat each day.  If someone found a chicken and killed it for food, they would be killed.  “Everyone was very thin,” was the comment made by Mr. Saran.

Killing Fields Tour

You can see the areas where the mass graves were dug.  They have opened many of them to study the cause of death and to memorialize the victims.  There are still sections where bits of clothing or bones or teeth resurface on their own during the rainy season.

There was a tree there that had such horrific purpose that I couldn’t even take a picture of it. They would swing toddlers’ heads against it while their mothers watched.  The Khmer Rouge believed they had to, “kill  the root so they would not come back for revenge.”

There has been a stupa built as a memorial to many of the victims of this genocide.  It is filled with 500o skulls found in the graves here.  They are categorized by age and cause of death.  It is difficult to see but makes it so real.

What is my responsibility?

It is impossible for me to deny that such a thing happened in my lifetime. Yet, I was oblivious to it.  Rwanda, Syria, Somalia and others all tell similar stories.  What is my responsibility?  I was born in a time and place that protected me from this kind of violence.  I am hoping that at least by sharing this story, others will question our responsibility to the people of the world who have no voice.  People making racist or bigoted remarks about others is an example of this on a smaller scale than genodice but is a situation that I can no longer tolerate without action.  We all need to speak up!

5 thoughts on “Cambodia… A Country of Contradictions

  1. Jeanne jantzi

    Wendy, have you ever read the book Common Shock by Kaethe Weingarten? In it, she talks about “bearing witness” to trauma like this. Becoming informed and telling others is one way to bear witness. She also had a website called the Witness Project. I find the approach to be very helpful as I bear witness to injustice and trauma.

    Just as another note, education is further behind in Cambodia than almost anywhere else. That’s one of the sectors MCC focuses on.

    I often think about generational trauma in Cambodia where shame keeps my generation from telling their children what happened. Also, people don’t know where their neighbors stood during those years. They could have been z Khmer Rouge. So better to keep silent and not find out.

    I am thankful to work with many resilient Cambodians who are rebuilding and resisting the injustices that continue.

    1. Wendy Davies

      Thanks for your comments Jeanne. I will have a look for that book. I have a much better understanding of the kind of work you do with MCC. Thank you for sharing your faith through action. I will continue to work to discover my responsibility in all of this. All the best in your transition. Stay in touch. We head home April 1.

  2. Crystal

    Great article, Wendy!! Since I was in Cambodia last year, and visited the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, I know your facts are correct. It was certainly a sobering travel experience! Hearing descriptive accounts of Cambodians’ experiences/memories while viewing graphic photos on walls, and encountering the mausoleum of skulls – well, suffice to say, I’ll never forget it! That’s what Cambodia wants – the world to never forget what atrocities they endured! They are still recovering from that! Thank you for writing this factual and feeling article!

    1. Wendy Davies

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It took me a long time to really decide what I thought and how I felt about what I saw. I still have work to do in those areas.


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