Everyone has a story. The tour guides, the landlords, the waiter at every restaurant on every street. If you are a citizen of Cambodia, you have a story about the horrors that happened to you or your family during the Khmer Rouge. Sometimes, people are open to sharing their stories. While in the Mondolkiri jungle with us one day, our tour guide Mot recounted how his father was digging his own grave during the Khmer Rouge, only to be saved by volunteering to climb up a coconut tree and extract the fruit. Sometimes, they are not. When pressing Tra’s landlord for details on what happened to her during the Khmer Rouge, all she would tell me was that she went to the countryside, and then came back. Either way, the Khmer Rouge is a time period for Cambodia that every surviving citizen remembers, however unwillingly. The memories are not the only remnants of the Khmer Rouge period, however. It has only been 34 years since the Vietnamese overthrew Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime, which was the ruling party from 1975 through 1979. In this blog post, I will further explore how the Khmer Rouge’s reign continually affects the Cambodia and its peoples demographically, economically, and culturally.
Demographically, Cambodia is currently experiencing the effects of a “lost generation”. Anywhere from 1.7 to 3 million people died during the Khmer Rouge. That is one eighth of the entire population at that time. About half of these deaths were by executions, while the other half were from starvation and disease that occurred as a side effect of the Khmer Rouge. Two major issues in modern-day Cambodia arise from these deaths. Firstly, the elderly who survived Khmer Rouge now have no one to care for them in their old age, since their children were killed. In Cambodian culture, it is a matter of course to take in your parents once they can no longer support themselves—in fact, having children is seen as insurance towards your future survival. Because of the Khmer Rouge, however, a substantial amount of the generation of caretakers is dead, and parents who outlived them now have nowhere to live and no money to support themselves. Therefore, the amount of homeless, elderly Khmer people on the streets has increased dramatically.
The second issue that arises because of this “lost generation” is tied in to the economic impacts of the Khmer Rouge; that is, there is a loss of skilled workers. When Pol Pot was elected, he immediately rolled out his “Year Zero” manifesto, demanding that Cambodia return to an agrarian, pre-industrialized society. Because of this demand, Pol Pot ruthlessly killed professors, doctors, lawyers, artisans, economists, and the like, to ensure that their intellect would not threaten his powers. In the present day Cambodia, this genocide means that there are not enough seasoned, educated professionals in the workplace to adequately balance and manage the number of rising intellectuals. In the words of the CIA World Factbook, “The major economic challenge for Cambodia over the next decade will be fashioning an economic environment in which the private sector can create enough jobs to handle Cambodia’s demographic imbalance.” The Khmer Rouge killed who would have managed the rising number of new, educated workers in 2013’s Cambodia. Because of the lack of private sector jobs, it is much easier for young Cambodians to employ themselves in garment factories, where it is nearly impossible to experience upward mobility within the company, therefore perpetuating the Cambodian cycle of poverty.
During the Khmer Rouge, the governments’ main goal was to increase the amount of agricultural production of rice. The Khmer Rouge emphasized the importance of farming, and did not support cities or urban life. Now, 34 years later, this attitude still affects Cambodia’s infrastructure, specifically, its roads. As people and the constitutional monarchy attempt to rebuild their lives after the Khmer Rouge, they have not been able to prioritize the necessary monetary funds it takes to keep up the building of roads and highways in Cambodia as quickly as the amount of vehicular transportation grows. Therefore, the best roads in Cambodia are those that either the Chinese built for their own private purposes (exemplified as the road from Phnom Penh to Mondolkiri), or those that run from Phnom Penh to any other major city, such as Sianhoukeville or Siem Riep. These connecting roads are essentially cleared dirt or gravel paths, usually only large enough for two lanes. The quality of roads is either vastly inferior or nonexistent when concerning any other places besides these major cities.
The effect of the lack of infrastructure on modern Cambodians is great— transporting ones’ self to and from work becomes long, expensive (in having to pay a driver monthly), and dangerous, especially when you must commute in a van that fits tens more people in it than intended. Besides commuting to and from work, lack of proper roads also leads to inefficiency in the countrywide distribution of goods and food. When cities in the same country cannot rely on each other for trade in food and goods, the overall country suffers, as each city must “fend for themselves”, making prosperity and an escape from poverty unlikely.
Another economic issue that spurred from the Khmer Rouge reign is the weakness of the Cambodian monetary unit, the riel. During the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot banned the use of money, and even printed its own banknotes (which never caught on as currency yet we saw at the Landmine Museum in Siem Riep). In 1980, after the Khmer Rouge, the riel was re-introduced as a form of currency, yet with nothing to “back” the currency, inflation quickly took hold. Comparing the 1979 6th issue of the riel, in denominations of 0.1 Riel, 0.2 Riel, 0.5 Riel, 1 Riel, 5 Riel, 10 Riel, 20 Riel, 50 Riel, to the 12th issue of the riel (2001-2008) issuing only 50 Riel, 100 Riel, 500 Riel, 1000 Riel, 2000 Riel, 5000 Riel, 10,000 Riel, 20,000 Riel, 50,000 Riel, it is easy to see that inflation is enormous and their money, weak. Therefore, the U.N flooded the Cambodian economy with US Dollars in 1993, and today the USD is used as their primary form of currency for anything over 1USD—riel is used essentially as change. When a country does not even have a strong currency, how is it expected to successfully function on a local, let alone global, scale? The lack of a successful, self-backing Cambodian currency is a direct result of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge affected Cambodian peoples culturally not only by giving them a shared experience of trauma and genocide. Firstly, it executed musicians and artists, which therefore caused Cambodia to lose many of its traditional songs, dances, musical instruments, and myths. Oral tradition and other skill not written down were wiped out. Even if tradition was recorded, the Khmer Rouge burned thousands of books as a symbol against intellectualism.
On a greater scale, the Khmer Rouge wiped out ethnic minorities. As Pol Pot longed to reestablish the great Angkor Empire that once ruled Southeast Asia, he executed many ethnic minorities, as the only “pure” Cambodian “race”, as seen by the Khmer Rouge, was of course, the Khmer people—believed to be direct descendants from the Angkor Empire. Today demographically, the Khmer people make up 90% of the population, with Vietnamese at 5%, Chinese at 1%, and other Cambodian ethnic minorities at 4%, collectively. Cambodia is the least ethnically diverse country in Southeast Asia because of Pol Pot. Much like the Native Americans in America today, ethnic groups in Cambodia such as Muslim Chams, are regarded by the majority “race” as “less than”, and are subject to discrimination and social isolation. Because of the poor attitude the Khmers have about ethnic minorities, they are less likely to get hired by Khmer, further isolating the minority and lessening their chance for economic prosperity and an escape from the cycle of poverty.
Despite the Khmer Rouge’s horrific effect on Cambodia, the Khmer people continue to improve their country every day. According to the CIA World Factbook, “Since 2004, garments, construction, agriculture, and tourism have driven Cambodia’s growth. GDP climbed more than 6% per year between 2010 and 2012.” Things are looking up for Cambodians. More and more citizens are able to leave their villages in order to get work in the cities. There is free public schooling, an increase in tourism and therefore economic boosts, and a worldwide increase in acknowledgement and education about the Khmer Rouge period.
I will conclude my final blog post with a memory: During my second day in Cambodia, as we rode in a tuk tuk towards the garment factories, Dr. Rallis pointed towards the shallow pool of dirty swamp water that ran alongside our road. In the brown water grew lotus flowers, which he informed us were considered by Cambodians to be the most beautiful flower. Dr. Rallis stated that Cambodians consider the lotus flower to be a metaphor for the Khmer people. The lotus flower grows in harsh conditions—dirty, muddy water. However, it rises above its environment and blooms into a beautiful and usefully edible plant. While Cambodia still faces many struggles as it rebuilds, it’s important to note that the country has already made incredible strides and its future, while challenging, is hopeful.
“Central Intelligence Agency.” CIA. Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cb.html>.
William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience (Touchstone, 1985), p115-6.
“International Economics – Historial Exchange Rate Regime of Asian Countries.” International Economics – Historial Exchange Rate Regime of Asian Countries. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2013. <http://intl.econ.cuhk.edu.hk/exchange_rate_regime/index.php?cid=1