Monday, 4 February 2013

Cambodia, A Tragic Past, An Uncertain Future

Craig Writes: We arrived at the airport in Cambodia after what seemed like a 12 minute flight. No sooner were we buckled in and leaving Saigon than our wheels were skidding along the Cambodian tarmac. It was only a 7 km trip from the airport to Siem Reap and our hotel. It's taken me a few days to get my head around the place and the people here. Unlike Vietnam where you feel a genuine confidence, calmness and strength, here something didn't feel quite right and its taken me a while to try to understand it. Thankfully our guide has been brilliant and very candid in sharing with me his thoughts and feelings about the place. But I notice always with an eye to who is within ear shot and always in hushed tones. I can't talk about Cambodia without first acknowledging a couple of things. Firstly, the Khmer Empire was once the most powerful empire in the region. Encompassing parts of Laos , Vietnam and Thailand. They won battles, acquired territory and built magnificent temples and cities. The likes of which the world had never seen. They were a proud and prosperous people. From the late 13th centuries with battles being lost and territory being seceded, the capital was moved from the north in Angkor to further south near Phnom Penn. With that move the great temples and cities of Angkor fell into disrepair and were lost to the world for over 400 years. Lost battles and poor leadership saw the country lose territory and power. There were constant battles with Thailand and Vietnam. Even today there is tension between them. The last century and a half have also not been kind to them. The French took control around 1860 and stayed there until they were removed in 1954.

The second thing, and undoubtedly the most devastating chapter in the history of the country, was the reign of Pol Pot. This murderous piece of crap came to power through executing the leader of his own party. He effectively controlled the country from 1963 till he was ousted in 1979, but he still held great influence within the country until the late 80s. During the four most devastating years of his reign of terror, 1975 to 1979, he would go on an insane rampage that would kill up to 2.5 million of his own people. 25% of the population. Approximately half through execution, the rest starved to death. He closed down and evacuated all the cities and towns and moved everyone to the country under the premise there was to be a huge American bombing campaign and everyone could return shortly. His actual plan was to forge an agrarian society where nobody owned anything and all work for the common good. Namely him. His logic was he only needed a population of around 2 million to realise this and the population at the time was 8 million. So, the best way to cull them all was to move them to the country, ban fishing, cut down fruit trees, restrict farming, ban religion and education, kill anyone that could spell their own name and ban medicines and hospitals and let the strongest 2 million survive. A truly despotic man who deserved much more than a soft life in exile in China and to die in his bed in 1998.
The government today is the same quasi dictatorial one that has been ruling for the last 30 years. There are "elections" due this year but the "opposition" is banned from promoting themselves and their party. The general public can be arrested for talking about the elections in public. Corruption is rife. The police have two price ranges for a fine. 100% if you want a receipt , 50% if you don't. There was a policeman at one of the temples today offering to sell police badges to tourists for a souvenir . Government workers can have their pay stopped for up to 3 months if the government is running a bit short on funds. If you get seriously sick or injured and you or your relatives cant afford to pay, they'll literally push you to one side to die. And, there are still prearranged marriages where you have to pay a dowry of between $US 5000 to $US 7000.
With the memory of that evil bastard still so fresh in the minds of the people, no one is willing to risk any more upsets. The government made a deal with the devil when they accepted help from the Vietnamese to stop Pol Pot. The Vietnamese now have a mortgage on most of the big temples, including Ankor Wat. They have positions in the government and have invested billions in the country. Of the current population of 14 million, 2 million are Vietnamese. The government, read filthy pocket lining bureaucrats and politicians are getting rich by selling off development rights to various other countries. 
So, now having a bit more information I can now try to put my thoughts into words. I think beneath the thin smiles and well rehearsed words their is a lot of fear, resentment and sadness here. With the influx of overseas money and promotion of their country comes a flood of tourists. With that comes stories of other lives being lived with opportunities abounding and dreams being fulfilled. Things seemingly beyond them. When I discuss with our guide about our lives back in Australia he shakes his head but more in despair than wonder or envy. When you come across street sellers there is desperation on their faces. I think people here are still shell shocked. Shell shocked from the hell on earth they endured for four long years and now shell shocked by the rapid sell off of their country and this meteoric influx of foreigners and all their money and their endless stories. I think they are genuinely fearful of losing their identity as Cambodians as more and more Vietnamese and Koreans come into the country with their deep pockets and government contacts. Buying up or setting up all the businesses and then importing their own people to work them while the Cambodians beg for change in the street.
Before the killing spree Siem Reap had a population of around 100,000. At the end of 1979 it had approximately 1000. By the year 2000 it had grown to 10,000. Over the last 12 years, fuelled by the explosive interest in their ancient temples and cities, particularly Ankor Wat and Ankor Thom , the population has soared to nearly 1,000,000. They have built over 170 hotels, some commanding $3500 per night. There are over 250 guest houses and 400 restaurants. They are trying hard and at the moment the cracks are easy to see. You can only hope for them that with the opportunities that come with the tourism and the investment that they get there fare share.

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