Cambodia is a Depraved Place, In Desperate Need of Help
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA- To say that the landscape is pockmarked with debris would be an egregious understatement. Crossing the border from Vietnam into Cambodia is like entering another world, which doesn’t really seem possible after spending hours watching the Vietnamese countryside fly by. In Vietnam, most of the roads are in great disrepair and the people labor away, shirtless in the sun amongst the small rural communities in which they live. Yet everyone seems to be doing something, and while it’s obviously a third-world country by our standards, there is evidence of economic development here and there. Factories dot the landscape and tractor-trailers fly past. Some people drive motorcycles instead of scooter bikes. There’s a hustle and bustle that’s readily apparent to anyone paying attention.
Cambodia presents a stark contrast to this picture. Where you once were driving on paved roads (however poorly maintained), on the Cambodian side it’s a flattened dirt road the tires roll over. The houses no longer seem to be poorly built by any construction company, each dwelling here is obviously constructed by its inhabitants out of…well, whatever materials the immediate natural environment seems to provide. Bamboo, palm leaves, local trees. Some use corrugated metal roofs which one would imagine would be more effective at keeping out the rain than the thatched roof houses that you also see. Cows tied to trees in the front yard by a single piece of rope munch contentedly on burnt grass, wiling away the hours. The locals laze around in hammocks that look like they’ve hung in one spot for years and years. This scene continues for miles upon miles, repeating itself in indistinguishable village from indistinguishable village. Even though they share 700 miles of border, the stark contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia is a frightening one. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world by almost every internationally recognized metric even while having received billions of dollars of international assistance.
Oftentimes the capital city of a poor country possesses a modern, international feel that is lacking in the countryside. This is not the case in Phnom Penh. The skyline is limited to a few tall business buildings, but is nothing like that of any developed country. The streets are lined with trash; if you can picture how dirty parts of New York can get in a city with a Sanitation budget of $1.4 billion (which represents half of all yearly expenditures for the Cambodian government), you can imagine how things are maintained where the average person makes $7/day in a place with little to no education or awareness programs in place for how discarded trash affects the environment. Refuse is discarded in the street without a care in the world for the fact that there is no one who’s going to pick it up, ever. It’s a place you wear closed-toed shoes when walking around.
Any city of significant size has its share of homeless folks and beggars, but the ones in Cambodia are more heart wrenching than most. Mothers walk the streets with naked children trailing them, oftentimes holding sleeping infants in their arms as they beg for a few dollars, motioning with their hand to their mouth that they want something to eat. Men without legs sit on the side of the road or roll around in wheelchairs, soliciting donations from anyone of obvious Western origin, either out of the goodness of their heart or in exchange for a bootleg copy of the Lonely Planet Cambodia guide. Most of them have lost limbs to landmines placed around the borders with Vietnam and Thailand by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
The effects of the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge are starkly apparent when you start looking into the history of the country. Before coming here, I had known only that Pol Pot was a vicious dictator who had murdered millions of his countrymen in the late 70s. Nothing much beyond that makes it into the standard narrative of recent history, yet the effects of his regime still reverberate today. In short, Pol Pot led a communist faction that took power of the Cambodian government in 1975. It’s important to understand that this took place in a country neighboring Vietnam the year the US quietly withdrew and ceded defeat to the Communists. Western interest in fighting communism in Southeast Asia was at an all-time low, so the Khmer Rouge was largely left free to mete out whatever destruction they pleased. Pol Pot had a vision of a socialist utopia, where the peasants worked communal farms as the backbone of the society. He also wanted absolute power over the country.
To achieve these goals, Pol Pot sought to bring Cambodian society back to “Year Zero”, and eventually ordered the execution of virtually everyone with any education or association with culture. If the country were to start over, it would have to be rid of everyone that had any link with previous society. If you spoke a foreign language, if you wore glasses, if you had soft hands, if you were a diplomat, foreigner, gave any indication that you were literate, or in any way, shape, or form demonstrated that you could provide first-world value to society, then you were condemned to death. Most of these individuals were taken to a place now known as the “Killing Fields”, where they would be knelt in front of a large ditch, struck on the back of the head with a blunt object, and buried (alive or dead) with hundreds of others. The Khmer Rouge would sprinkle DDT over the bodies before burying them, both to mask the smell of the decomposing bodies and kill anyone who might still be alive. In 1979, the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and deposed the Khmer Rouge after frequent border clashes started encroaching on Vietnamese territory, but not before the Khmer Rouge had systematically disposed of 80% of the nation’s teachers and 95% of its doctors.
Imagine a society with no middle or upper class. Sure, there are power brokers and governments officials that enrich themselves through corruption, but think about a place with no teachers, no businessmen, no journalists, and no translators—no one with formal education of any kind. A society without educated people is going to be a society without the kinds of modern institutions that allow for economic specialization and subsequent growth. Newspapers, medical clinics, basic education, and banking services all form the backbone of society as we know it and allow the rest of us to go about our business since we know that the building blocks of a civilized society are provided for. After the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia lacked all of these institutions and the people that make them possible, and what is more, they lacked the youth that aspire to these positions since in most cases if one person was executed the entire family was killed in order to prevent a vengeful populace. The children of agricultural peasants are not going to become teachers in a single generation.
I'll spare a lengthy diatribe about the ensuing years and cut right to the obvious point: that a society whose entire middle class is eliminated is going to have serious trouble getting on its feet after a generation or two. Cambodia was never a truly developed country in the modern sense, but compared to its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, it has little or no prospect of significant economic development that will raise the standard of living. The government is corrupt as ever; the newspapers are littered with articles about the difficulties the Anti-Corruption Unit have in rooting out and eliminating the graft which is so prevalent. There are four major border crossings with Vietnam (where the visa costs $30 US), and I ended up passing through one of the smaller ones where the visa is openly billed as $35 US. The extra $5 goes right into the pockets of the border control police.
It’s a jarring experience to be in a place that is so poor and so deeply, systemically affected by the troubles of the past and the corruption of the present that it makes you wonder what, if anything, can be done to truly help this place. Sitting outdoors at a café makes you a constant target for the beggars and the salesmen, but one afternoon as I took my money out to pay, a small boy of about 6 or 7 was walking past and stuck his hand out, wanting money from me. I shook my head at him twice before he moved on, strutting down the street and not even glancing at any of the other patrons to seek remittance from them. It’s quite shocking to be somewhere where someone so young walks on the street by himself, sees a Westerner with money, and automatically sticks his hand out to ask for some. He wasn’t out begging, he simply saw an opportunity and figured he would see if he could get something out of it. When someone so young behaves like this in one of the most developed areas of the country, it makes you wonder how the rest of the people live. It also raises a serious personal dilemma: when small children come around selling things to you with long, desperate faces, should you buy something from them so that they don’t go home with nothing? Or should you decline to encourage a practice that will keep them out of school, since if they make money on the streets, why will they need an education? I’m generally of the thought that I don’t want to encourage children to do anything other than seek an education, but Cambodia is also a place that seems to be in dire need of support without asking for anything in return.