It never used to be this fancy,” Richard Bridle said as he sat down yesterday to a double espresso in Phnom Penh’s Raffles Le Royal Hotel lobby.
When the UNICEF country director was first in Cambodia in 1983, he and his agency were sequestered in the hotel and could only leave under the watchful eye of a government-appointed “guide”.
But things are different now, and Bridle, who has spent nearly 30 years working here, is packing his bags for the bright lights of New York to a posting at UN Headquarters.
“When we first got to Cambodia, everything needed to be reestablished,” Bridle recounted.
In those early post-Democratic Kampuchea years, UNICEF was supplying almost all of the medicine in the country.
“There was rampant malaria, especially after 1985 and the K5 project,” Bridle said.
The K5 Project, or “Bamboo Curtain”, was initiated by the Vietnam-backed government in 1985 to create a border seal between Thailand and Cambodia by way of fences, traps and mines, as a defence mechanism against the then-guerilla Khmer Rouge forces.
“It was compulsory labour, but so that is wasn’t seen by the population as something like the Khmer Rouge used to do, they would arrange entertainment in the evening – everyone would sit out and watch theatre and dancing.
“And that is prime biting time.”
The malaria strain along the northwestern border of Cambodia is drug resistant, and was impervious to the drugs being used at that time, Bridle said.
“There was an embargo on importation of newer forms of malaria drugs – so we smuggled them in,” Bridle said nonchalantly.
“It was a life-saving measure, and we didn’t have any qualms about avoiding sanctions.”
Bridle, who left for a posting in Bangkok in 1987, returned as UNICEF country director in 2008 to encounter a very different Cambodia.
“The biggest factor [in this change] was the end of civil war,” Bridle said.
“And today, it is the enormous role played by foreign investment.
“The country is experiencing a rate of growth second only to China in the East Asia region, which means there is enormous capacity here now and also a huge number of donors around.”
Cambodia’s ongoing issues in the social sector include neonatal mortality and child malnutrition, which have not improved in the past seven years, Bridle said.
“The other crucial issue for Cambodia is to tackle the alarming inequality that is growing here,” Bridle said.
“The gap between those who are very rich and those who are very poor is worrying and it is a gap that is widening.”
Bridle said the widening wealth gap was also an ethical issue.
“What really impressed me,” when he first came to Cambodia, “was that all these survivors from the Khmer Rouge time stayed. Every single one of them could have left and probably could have made a much better life of it overseas.
“These people stayed because they wanted to do something for country and people,” Bridle said.
“There was a real patriotic service effort around.”
He said it was “unfortunate” to see this ethic eroded in Cambodians today.
“In a place where corruption of various kinds plays such a huge role, where almost everything is decided by patronage, you kind of learn to get ahead by working the system,” he said.
“It’s a pity – people really did used to hang together.”
Under the Vietnamese occupation, Bridle said one of the few opportunities foreign aid workers like himself had to interact with Cambodians was to play outdoor sports at the then-Ministry for Foreign Affairs building.
“I would be playing badminton with a bunch of directors of departments, and over on the volleyball court was Hun Sen playing volleyball with the drivers.
“There was an egalitarianism then. That was really special.”
Richard Bridle will leave Cambodia at the end of the month to assume a new role leading a HR division at the UN in New York.