A id worker Soizick Crochet, who is now in Kompong Thom, challenges the
idea that Cambodia of the 80s was "an exciting time."
I FEEL compelled to
write after reading Chantou Boua's article, in your issue date Dec 16-29:
"Reflections on a battle for survival". Just like her I often feel sad and
despondent when looking at the problems Cambodia is facing today: corruption;
deforestation leading to floods; disastrous harvests for the second year; young
women and children driven into prostitution; the rise of HIV. And who would not
support "providing funds to set up safety nets such as women's shelters, social
welfare services and so on"? I have great respect for Ms. Boua's commitment to
the cause of Khmer women. But if I believe also that "knowledge of the past is
essential for an understanding of the present" my memories of the 80s are quite
different. I work in Phnom Penh in 1984-5. I was replacing a colleague who had
arrived in 1982 and we both shared the same experience, and we don't recognize
it in Chantou Boua's rosy picture of "an exciting time". The human rights
records of the former People's Republic of Kampuchea are known well enough, but
not the everyday life and work of the Khmer people and the few dozen Western aid
workers of that time. There is a reason for that.
The international isolation of the country during this period was a two-way
process: the US embargo on one hand, and the Cambodia government policy on the
other hand. It could be argued that the second was in response to the first.
However, aid workers were already wondering at that time how Cambodia's
infrastructures and human resources would ever be able to handle a large influx
of international aid. What happened when UNTAC arrived, and the present-day
logistical nightmare of distributing food aid gives a partial response. But it
is not the main point. The main point is that the "denial of aid" came also from
Heng Samrin's government. NGOs were rejected if they were perceived as not
sympathetic to the government or if they insisted on having a representative
staying on Cambodia to manage the program (this is why OXFAM was an "umbrella"
for many NGOs only allowed to visit their programs once a year). And for the
handful of NGOs allowed to work in Cambodia in those days life was made
extremely difficult. I remember how bitter it was to see that so much help was
needed, so much work had to be done, and everything was made to put the western
aid off: visas were granted after months and years of negotiations, on the basis
of the budget (the bigger the budget, the more the visas, but only one at a
time). It meant working day and night, filling at least two positions at the
same time, plus secretarial tasks, because it was forbidden to hire Khmer staff,
for fear that they would be contaminated by the contact with Westerners. There
was a distinct paranoid and xenophobic atmosphere. Westerners were grouped in
two hotels and forbidden to meet Khmer people, to visit their homes, or to
receive them at the hotel. Learning Khmer was forbidden for foreigners from the
"Capitalist countries" until 1985 (we learnt in hiding). At work Khmer staff
were not supposed to meet Westerners on a one-to-one basis: it had to be in a
group (at least another Khmer had to be present as a witness to what was said).
We quickly learnt that visiting our colleagues at home could put them in danger
and we had to refrain from showing too much sympathy for some of them. "Guides"
provided by the ministries spent long hours not only reporting on the
foreigners' activities and words, but also endlessly rewriting their own
biography, on short hand notice, to make sure that they were not inclined to
political deviation by their repeated contact with Westerners. Aid workers were
regularly followed. Going anywhere other than the factory, the hospital or the
office to which we were assigned was forbidden. Hence, everybody got only every
limited view of the country's situation. But there is worse.
There is worse because suspicion was everywhere. Instead of "the government
policy which encouraged a spirit of solidarity and care for one another" I
remember and I am very sad to say that many people were afraid of each other.
People were hiding dangerous items, such as having a relative abroad (and this
is why we could never leave the country without dozens of letters for the US or
Europe, secretly passed to us sometimes in tragi-comic circumstances, to be
mailed outside); having a relative in a refugee camp; having been in a refuge
camp; having Chinese background (I remember the discreet joke about some
personnel "falling sick" during the Chinese new year, in order to celebrate in
secret). I remember that we could guess if the background of a counterpart was
"ancient regime" (as was said at that time) i.e. being a former "capitalist",
but given responsibilities because of rare technical capacities. Such a person's
speech was always anxiously "200 percent politically correct". Traveling without
permission west (towards Battambang or Sisophon) was an indication that you
wanted to flee, that you were a traitor.[The Battambang prison] T3, which the
International Red Cross was never allowed to visit, was a constant threat. But
there is worse.
There is worse because yes, "agricultural production was low, health care
antiquated, hygiene and clean water virtually non existent." But instead of
"rebuilding the fabric of the society",many "dedicated Cambodians" were losing
their time in political meetings, Party celebrations, seminars, (including for
some of them six months in Vietnam), self-criticizing sessions, "manual work
"(poulakam) or "going to the base" (choh moulatan) to give political sessions in
the countryside. How many times did we arrive at a hospital, an orphanage, a
laboratory, to meet sorry colleagues telling us with embarrassment that it was
not possible to work today (or for the next three days or more) because there
was a "prochoum noyoubai"? Too bad for us, but what about the patients? Yes, on
paper there were social services. But there were like an empty shell and often
provided a very poor service, if any, to the population. But there is worse.
There is worse because there was one more reason for not working at the
hospital, orphanage, laboratory or factory. It was the dreaded " mission", also
called K5 or "defrichage" or "cutting the wood" to build the "wall" along the
border. Thousands of people stepped on mines (and we now see them begging in the
streets); or died from or spread malaria to areas where it had been eradicated.
There were unfortunately very few Westerners to witness this new drama, referred
to by some Khmer as "a second April 17th" (see Luciolli Le Mur de Bambou, le
Cambodge apres Pol Pot, Ed.Desforges, Paris, 1988). I remember my Khmer
colleagues at that time, how we shared the fear and anxiety of "being on the
list", and if so the cries and the search for anti-malarial drugs, the stories
of those who escaped by paying (corruption is not new) and then the long wait
until they would come back safe. Yes, "progress was slow". But it was not
because of international isolation, unless Ms Boua means that isolation allowed
that regime to carry out paranoid and insensitive policies with total impunity.
Unfortunately, it is very hard for me to believe that except for some courageous
individuals, the government of that time "was taking into consideration the
needs and the livelihood of the people".
I came back in 1991 to do
research and live with Khmer families for six months (an impossible dream in the
80s). I came back again in Dec 1993, and stayed since doing field work. Just
like Ms Boua, "every time I visit the country, progress never fails to surprise
me", in the same small ways she describes: children are sick less often, a
father has been able to buy a moped or get a small job to help with the family
income. Moreover we can now meet without fear and talk freely. For those who
have learnt a little bit of English (you remember that it was forbidden until
the late 80's) they can read foreign papers without hiding; their relatives
abroad can sent letters or visit; they can get grants and travel; and they can
criticize. In the village where I work, women organize themselves in income
generating projects without the obligation of referring to the authorities
first. There are also all the new problems, ominous like dangerous germs.
Friends tell me that yes, the cost of living now makes it difficult. And
certainly at that time there was not this huge discrepancy between the rich and
the poor, "we were more like each other, in that regard". But the 80s are not
"the good old days" and I have not met anybody longing for them yet. By
comparison with "the exciting times" regretted by Ms Boua, the 90s are not at
all for me the "saddest time for Cambodia". With its failed hopes, the arrogance
of the nouveaux riches looking down at the poor, the crimes and the waste, this
is life which is also dirty and full of germs.