Cambodia 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. Government 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.
Cambodia’s Today 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. Poverty 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 c …