The Pol Pot regime and the decades after Year Zero caused many Cambodians who could afford it to seek refuge abroad, especially in the West. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Cambodian expatriates and their descendants have returned to their country of origin. Their motivation: business opportunities fuelled by economic growth of more than seven per cent, far higher than in the countries they emigrated to.
Anvaya, an NGO founded in 2010, has picked up on the trend of re-emigration and helps returnees to settle into the Kingdom’s social and business circles. The organisation focuses on young Khmer professionals who have development projects in the pipeline.
Men account for two-thirds of the Anvaya’s 500 members, 75 per cent of whom are between 20 and 40 years old. Forty per cent hold managerial positions while 38 per cent are entrepreneurs.
Soreasmey Ke Bin, president of Anvaya, was one of the early returnees. He was born in France to a Cambodian father and a French mother. His father met his wife while studying at a French university in the 1960s.
Soreasmey, who has a master’s degree in international management and defence and international security, had been visiting Cambodia during vacation every summer since 1994. Then, in 2002, he decided to come back for a longer period and start something new, even though at the time he had no concrete idea of what that something might be.
“At first I didn’t make a decision about moving permanently to Cambodia, I just wanted to stay a bit longer and get real experience here . . . But some business opportunities came to me so I finally decided to stay for good,” Soreasmey said.
After growing up in the West, however, starting from scratch in Cambodia proved difficult. Only a third of all Anvaya members speak Khmer fluently and less than 20 per cent can read and write it. To overcome the language barrier the organisation holds Khmer classes for its members. Various events help to integrate newcomers into the Kingdom’s business community and society.
David Marshall is currently head of corporate and institution banking at ANZ Royal Bank. He was born in Phnom Penh and grew up in Canada.
“I was born in 1973, and was orphaned by the civil war during the fighting between Lon Nol and Pol Pot. There were some Canadians working here running an orphanage and through connections I was eventually adopted by a family in Canada in August 1974 and grew up with Canadian parents.”
The unfamiliar language and culture of his birthplace are sometimes a challenge to Marshall:
“There is a connection to the people and land but not always a connection in terms of cultural compatibility. That makes things interesting and challenging, but there is never a dull moment and there is always something new to learn.”
With his help he wants to see Cambodia improve, especially in the banking sector. He wants Cambodians to be proud of returnees and the skills they bring back with them.
“Cambodia is a special place, unlike anywhere else in the region. I want to be a part of this growth and ‘change’ story of Cambodia.”
Though returnees like Marshall see a role for them in Cambodia, their place in society remains difficult to define.
“We are not expats, we are not locals, we are Anvaya and we are willing to play a role in the Cambodia of today and the future . . . Cambodia is just recovering, and needs people from outside to get it back on its feet.”