The Killing Fields Forty Years Later

One day in Cambodia does not an expert make. I get that. And I’m not sure that Sihanoukville is the place on which you should base your impressions of a nation that is 85% rural. But you can, and do, form impressions nonetheless and a few things did jump out.

First, was the reminder of how fortunate those of us who were born or raised in the US, or the UK, or Germany, or any of the countries of the “developed” world, truly are. In Cambodia, the killing fields of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime remain a grim reality even 40 years later. There was likely no family untouched by the horrors of those years. Our guide’s family was no exception.

His matter of fact recounting of the losses his family experienced was chilling in its own way. And the social and economic devastation of that regime that went so horribly wrong still affects the nation. And there is much that is still of concern. He spoke of a nation in which criticism of government is not allowed…in which freedom of the press is circumscribed….in which electricity is available in his home one day a week (but not at night) and where water is equally a challenge.

The poverty was apparent…and the trash and the dirt. It’s not the only nation to have suffered chilling violence nor the only nation to struggle to overcome poverty. Nor is it alone in bearing the burden of poor governances. But the fact that other nations may face similar challenges doesn’t make the life for the people we saw today any easier. Life is hard in a way that most of us have never known.

Equally striking though was the rush to build up Sihanoukville. But it isn’t a development that will help most folks here. Ten years ago there were 2 casinos. Today there are 68 and more are being planned. Locals aren’t allowed, however. They are the playground for rich Chinese, and Vietnamese and Thais….Cambodians, I guess, need not apply. Nor are they supposed to complain when they are excluded from over half of the beautiful beaches on the Gulf of Thailand that are under the control of the private hotels the most upscale of which charges from $350 to over $1000 per night.

There’s money to be made here …its just that a handful of foreigners benefit far more than the average Cambodian. But then, with the challenges they face, perhaps the crumbs that come their way are still a blessing and the surge of hotels and casinos and foreign investment is a good think in the long run. It all becomes relative.

Similarly, in preparing one of my lectures I looked at the concerns surrounding proposals for new dams proposed for the Mekong River in Cambodia. The dams could destroy the vital inland fisheries that are among the largest in the world. And they could equally undercut the vitality of unique cultures and lifestyles associated with the passage of the Mekong through the region. But the lack of power and the stunted economies are a reminder of the tradeoffs of not building dams.

There are visions for development of the nation that argue there is a balanced approach that will address not only economic imperatives but environmental priorities and that also can help preserve cultural values and identity. But whether the interests of the few and of our foreign actors will take priority over the needs of the far more numerous but largely voiceless man on the street is an uncertain proposition.

It was a day that sparked a lot of questions. Visits to new countries can do that. I have no answers and I’m not sure that I’m asking the right questions but I do know that travel is supposed to broaden our horizons and spark a journey of discovery. Today’s stop in Cambodia certainly did that!

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