Q&A: an academic on the divided Cambodian returnee community

Q&A: an academic on the divided Cambodian returnee community

In her new book, Navigating a River by its Bends, Dutch academic Gea Wijers explores the fractured nature of the first-generation returnee (or re-migrant) community in Cambodia. Wijers, who spent two years working as an adviser to the Ministry of Environment and previously self-published Swimming in Uncharted Waters: Reports from Cambodia, interviewed a sample of returnees – those who grew up in Cambodia before leaving because of the Khmer Rouge and civil war and now at least 50 years old – in Cambodia and in diaspora communities in Long Beach in the US and Lyon in France. She found that members of the re-migrant community in Cambodia were often marginalised and internally divided – particularly between French and Cambodian returnees. Many re-migrants were frustrated in their attempts to bring about positive change. She believes the potential benefits that re-migrants could provide Cambodia are being squandered through a lack of government policy and financial support.

Dutch academic Gea Wijers with her new book.  WILL JACKSON
Dutch academic Gea Wijers with her new book. WILL JACKSON

Why haven’t Cambodia’s returnees worked together more to achieve their goals?
I don’t want to believe French and Americans are different, but in practice they are very much so.

A weakness – and I think to most people it’s quite clear – of the re-migrant community is that they are not a unity. They’re very fractured. They don’t really want to be a community, which is why they can’t really lobby for themselves; they’re not very strong as a group.

It’s like there’s this animosity and it’s a pity because it’s a lose-lose situation.

Why is there this schism between French and American Cambodian re-migrants?
I studied the re-migrants at three points. Leaving the country, there were different people going to France as opposed to the US. There was the aristocracy; the French were the colonisers, so often the higher social classes went to France whereas the former military and the large, large groups of peasants went to America, so there was a social difference already.

The second stage is once they’re in the country. America had a very different policy. America, a migrant country, wanted them to be economically self-sufficient, but also rewarded them as a community. If they could have shown they were different then they could have got subsidised for holding on to their Cambodian culture while France wanted complete assimilation. So they became French [not French-Cambodian]. The French didn’t even register when Cambodians came in, which made people integrate into the societies very differently and take their culture with them very differently.

And when these people go back, they get received in Cambodia very differently and that has been an evolution. At first, of course, the French were welcomed most warmly; it was most familiar where they had been, they used the French language but geopolitically America became stronger and stronger and now most of the money comes from the States so by now the Americans get a warmer welcome than the French do.
So that all helped to create these differences.

What was the result of these different experiences for the first generation of returnees?
It turned out that – relatively speaking – more of the French returnees went into government and more of the Americans went into the NGO sector. Generally, you saw a lot of French people in educational NGOs. In comparison, the American returnees seemed to want to work in human rights NGOs or to really change Cambodia. While the French worked within the system, the Americans tried to work outside.

You refer to some of the re-migrants as “institutional entrepreneurs”. What do you mean by that?
Institutional entrepreneurship is a key concept. It’s not entrepreneurship as in business, not commercial entrepreneurship. Sam Rainsy to a certain extent – reading his book got me thinking about this. I wanted to look at people who start political parties and NGOs who give up making money and want to change Cambodia and that’s a first generation thing. It’s about bringing about institutional change, transforming Cambodia. It’s usually people that have retired.

Where there any really surprising things that came out of your research?
I asked the people in the overseas communities to point out the most successful re-migrants and one of the people whose NGO has done best is actually a former Khmer Rouge supporter. Which is very counter-intuitive, because despite all of the rhetoric about democratisation, idealistic people are not very successful here. They speak a different language to the government, and if you don’t get along with the government you’re not going to go anywhere.

What are the concrete useful things to have come out of your research?
We need to get these returnees together, to show what they can do for the country, like [diaspora networking organisation] Anvaya is trying to do. There needs to be policy changes to make Cambodia attractive for these returnees – for all different groups of returnees, to come back. It’s sharing information too. One of the things Anvaya wants to do is be a platform to share job opportunities. Investment opportunities. There needs to be a real diaspora policy. Now, if you’re from overseas, you’re considered a foreigner. In Rwanda they call their diaspora the sixth region of Africa. You should be considered part of the Cambodian nation wherever you are. That will maybe bring about a dynamic where people view the diaspora more positively and, even better, the diaspora sees itself more positively. That’s the thing that really got me started, these people filled with good ideas and money and lots of stuff, going back home, and a year later they would be utterly demotivated after not being supported or accepted. Lost. Aside from all the economic stuff, to not know who you are is the most devastating thing for a human being. And it’s not necessary.

Navigating a River By Its Bends is available from Monument Books, Norodom Boulevard for $39.50.


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