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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Reflections on a battle for survival

Reflections on a battle for survival

I HAVE been coming to Cambodia and watching it grow since 1980. Perhaps I can help you to understand the existing complexities of this country by telling you a little of what I know of its past. This is for those who believe that knowledge of the past is essential for an understanding of the present.

When I returned to Phnom Penh in 1980 for the first time since 1972, I saw a country in ruins: schools, hospitals, roads, and private homes largely destroyed, and the people psychologically shattered by four years of Khmer Rouge leadership.

The people I met were mostly women and children. One must try to imagine what life was like for women in the years after 1979, when the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge and allowed people to return to their villages and previous occupations. Many women went back to find their family homes destroyed, members of their families killed or missing, their pots and pans and household goods gone, farm equipment and animals in short supply, and rice-fields ravaged.

But the suffering of the Cambodian people evoked little international response. In 1979, after a quick burst of humanitarian assistance, Cambodia was the target of a United States-led economic embargo and became the only "third world" country refused United Nations development aid until the early 1990s. The original argument for the denial of aid was that the Vietnamese were occupying the country and therefore it did not belong to the community of the UN. There is no room here for me to discuss the validity of this argument, but it is clear that the Cambodian people suffered from that isolationist policy.

The isolation of Cambodia and the denial of aid for a decade meant that agricultural production was low, health care antiquated, hygiene and clean water virtually non-existent. But the Cambodian people fought on, doing whatever they could to make a living, while the world watched, almost unmoved at the sight of Cambodia taking its place as one of the poorest countries in the world.

Nonetheless the 1980s were not a failure. A number of NGOs and some friendly countries responded to the cry of the Cambodian people. Together with the dedication of Cambodians themselves, they retrieved Cambodia from "Year Zero", as John Pilger called it in his film, to a respectable state, however poor.

Their success was not accidental. The government policy which encouraged a spirit of solidarity and care for one another was a crucial prerequisite for the rebuilding of the fabric of a society on the verge of total disintegration in 1979.

The early 1980s was an exciting time. I feel privileged to have witnessed such a rebirth of a nation. Every time I visited the country, progress never failed to surprise me: a new shop here, a restaurant there, a new set of pots and pans for this family, a new cut of cloth for this woman. These were small things, but those who had emerged from the Pol Pot regime with nothing appreciated them more. Nonetheless, progress was slow; there were simply no resources because of the isolation. The times were exciting, but also painful, to watch.

The move to a market economy, started gradually in the mid-1980s, accelerated as the UN peace talks started. Economic liberalization - including privatization of land, lifting of state subsidies in health care, agriculture and education and the opening up of the country to foreign investors - helped make the peace talks successful.

While Prime Minister Hun Sen was traveling the world negotiating, back in Cambodia people grew nervous, especially civil servants who feared they would have to share power with the other three factions. This ambiguous political transition encouraged corruption. The people's spirit of cooperation was threatened.

Literacy classes, for example, organized by local authorities throughout the country lost momentum towards the end of 1980s. Authorities found they were unable to mobilize volunteers as the people's sense of solidarity disintegrated.

Liberalization meant private farming. Villagers no longer worked together for common benefits. Instead, individualistic sentiment intensified to the detriment of those who were weak - women.

After the UN-organized elections and the formation of the new Royal Government, liberalization and its consequences became even more entrenched.

The process of economic restructuring and the attraction of foreign investment - good and bad, big and small - has increased the pace of national economic growth, benefiting some sections of the population, but also excluding many people, most of them women.

This quick liberalization saw Cambodia move toward a pseudo-capitalist regime, where the gap between rich and poor is widening. We have recently witnessed a manifold increase in female unemployment, destitution, prostitution, AIDS, domestic violence, urban migration, child labor and child prostitution.

International agencies who encourage such economic reform must provide well thought-out programs which include adequate safety nets for people who fail to benefit.

A market economy is more than just a balanced budget and controlled inflation; successful reform is one which takes into consideration the needs and the livelihood of the people. We are now witnessing a government that cannot do so. Agents who encourage the reform must be responsible in providing funds to set up safety nets such as women's shelters, social welfare services, health care, appropriate employment opportunities, work training, access to credit, and so on.

My biggest concern, however, at the moment is the daily reports of kidnappings and killings of innocent peasants by the Khmer Rouge who are still as deadly as ever. UNTAC and the international community, having spent $2 billion, failed to diminish the strength of the Cambodians' true enemy - the Khmer Rouge, who are as strong as ever.

I don't want to end this on a sad note, but I must say that having watched Cambodia since 1980, this is the saddest time for Cambodia I have seen.

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