Archive for the ‘Poverty and development’ Category

Final Blog Post: The Lingering Effects of the Khmer Rouge in 21st Century Cambodia

Monday, February 11th, 2013

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.


Bones and teeth of the lost generation from a mass grave outside of Phnom Penh.

Bones and teeth of the lost generation from a mass grave outside of Phnom Penh.

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.

Young people gathering outside the palace in Phnom Penh

Young people gathering outside the palace in Phnom Penh

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.

A typical Cambodian road

A typical Cambodian road

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.

Look outside of the bus windows-- note the amount of people on the vehicle.  This is extremely common.

Look outside of the bus windows– note the amount of people on the tuk tuk. This is extremely common.

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.

Banknotes printed by the Khmer Rouge

Banknotes printed by 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.

Scenes from an ethnic village in Mondolkiri

Scenes from an ethnic village in Mondolkiri

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.

Acknowledging the past, yet looking towards the future.

Acknowledging the past, yet looking towards the future.



“Central Intelligence Agency.” CIA. Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2013. <>.

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. <

The De/Sexualized Body

Monday, January 28th, 2013

In Cambodia, there seems to be a distinct difference between sexualized nudity and natural, perfectly acceptable nudity. This distinction is not nearly as clear in America, where everything seems to be sexual.  As an American traveling in Cambodia, sights such as naked children, uncovered breastfeeding, and casual public male urination were at first a  bit of a shock but were accepted by the Khmer culture as completely appropriate to see and participate in while in public.  Here, I will research more into why this is considered normal for the Khmer people.

Child Nudity

In Mondulkiri, our tour group visited a remote ethnic minority village in which the main supply of water for bathing came from a groundwater pump which happened to be right next to an area where the entire village had gathered to participate in a cultural show of sorts for foreign tourists.  Despite the central location, throughout the show, mothers and older siblings would take turns washing their naked children with the pump water; the children seemed about under the age of 7.  No Khmer people seemed to stare, or mind.  Even if they did, where else is a mother supposed to wash her child when this is the only supply of water available?

In Phnom Penh, local boys enjoy a swim in the river at dusk, appearing between the ages of 4 – 12; all of them swim nude.  Buying a swimsuit for their child is probably the last priority for many people who live below the poverty line.

As far as child nudity is concerned, Cambodia is a Lesser Developed Country.  When the GDP  per capita is in 188th place at ($2,200) in comparison to the world’s 228 countries (®ionCode=eas&rank=188#cb), it is easy to see that buying an excessive amount of clothing for children who are quickly growing can be seen by the Khmer people as an unecessary use of their hard-earned money.  Therefore, it is not a big deal for anyone involved if a child runs around without clothing for awhile.

Of course, the thought that may cross many minds regarding public child nudity is, what about sexual predators?  Aren’t the Khmer people afraid that someone will look at their child in an indecent manner?  Well, it is my theory that Cambodians view child nudity, just like breastfeeding and urinating, as a type of nudity that is desexualized, and therefore appropriate. (Note: child molestation happens frequently by Americans and other westerners while visiting countries like Cambodia, where sex trafficking is rampant.  While there are a lot of advertisements educating the public about the horrors of molestation throughout Phnom Penh, these adverts were primarily focused on trafficking, not molestation on a local level.)


It is a commonplace sight to see a Khmer mother breastfeeding her child wherever they happen to be– standing outside their house, sitting around town, or (most commonly), while riding backseat on a moto.

And, for all practical purposes, why should these practices be discouraged?  The World Health organization ( states that “Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.” Add that statistic to the fact that 43% of Cambodian children are breastfed until age 2 (, it becomes clear why breastfeeding isn’t deemed too immodest for public display– if it were, mothers would be confined to their homes so much that nothing would ever get done!

Public Male Urination

In a country where public restrooms are often small, squatting toilets, with no air conditioning and oftentimes dirty, is it any wonder why men urinate outside?  It’s an easier, faster, and more convenient way to release your bladder than to go searching for a small, dark toilet.

Throughout these three examples, I hope I have emphasized that the Khmer people view these forms of nudity not as sexual, but as normal, everyday parts of life.  Therefore, desexualized nudity is appropriate for the public to see.  Conversely, in Cambodia, sexual identity and expression of that identity is a private matter.  Khmer people do not have public displays of affection, and they dress modestly.  


Traditional Cambodian Medicine

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

In a two-hour long Khmer culture class our travel group recently attended, we were introduced to some traditional forms of Cambodian medicine.  These treatments included Tiger Balm, the practice of Coining, and the practice of Cupping.  Tiger Balm seems to be the Asian equivalent to America’s Vick’s Vapo-Rub, and comes in a liquid or balm variety.  When a small (very small!) amount is placed on the temples and forehead,the essential oils become fragrant and this can relieve a variety of ailments, including headaches, nausea, etc.  Tiger Balm can also be used to sooth stomach troubles and muscle aches, among other things.

Liquid “Tiger Balm” often sold in markets.

Tiger Balm can be found everywhere in Cambodia– pharmacies, grocery stores, and outdoor markets, to name a few.  The question begs to be asked, then– why is it that traditional, “ancient” medicinal cures are still so prevalent in today’s Cambodia?

The first reason could simply be that the traditional medicine actually works for some people.  For example, today our tourguide/friend Chen, a native Cambodian, told us that while he has developed a cold this weekend, he already feels much better after he got “coined” last night– that is, a metal coin was roughly scraped over his upper chest and back area to increase circulation and aid in healing.  Additionally, I have used some Tiger Balm for headaches since I’ve been here, and can say while it doesn’t completely cure the headache, the scent and sensation is often overpowering enough that you are too distracted to notice your previous ailment!

The other reason traditional medicines are used in modern-day Cambodia, however, lies in their current economic status.  According to the CIA World Factbook, as of 2009, Cambodia’s GDP on Health expenditures is only 5.8%– Cambodia comes in 112th place when compared to other country’s GDPs.

So, this means that if a family member is sick, it is the family’s own responsibility to help this member– they cannot rely on healthcare, or the state for support.  This fact, coupled with the fact that the average Cambodian’s per capita GDP is $2,200 annually, makes for insufficient funds for “modern”, or more aptly called, “western” medicine.  Even if Cambodians had funds for western, or for that matter non-traditional medicine, according to, as of 2000 there were only 0.16 physicians per 1000 Cambodians, so access to these doctors and therefore medicines would be exceedingly difficult..

When one takes into account all of these numbers, it makes sense that the Khmer people are still widely using traditional medicine to fix ailments instead of going to doctors, where they will often charge $20/month for a medicine when a family may only have $100/month to subsist off of.

Would Cambodians be more likely to use Western medicine instead of traditional cures for things such as headaches, back aches, etc, if western medicine weren’t so expensive?  At our local pharmacy in Phnom Penh, a bottle of Tiger Balm sells for 80 cents, while 20 caplets of Tylenol sells for $3.  Would more access to western medicine increase their life expectancy, which is reported to be only 63 years old, according to  Cambodia will probably never get an opportunity to answer this question.

Another factor to take into account when looking into the use of traditional medicine with the Khmer people is the devastation that the Khmer Rouge left on the country.  According to, “One of the greatest losses was people: of a population of about 7 million, 1 to 3 million are estimated to have died under Khmer Rouge rule. Many of those who perished were people with higher levels of education. Only 45 medical doctors survived, and of those, 20 left the country. Only 26 pharmacists, 28 dentists, and 728 medical students remained in Cambodia in 1979.” ().  In other words, Cambodia is still healing, and a result of the Khmer Rouge could be that more “advances” in Cambodian medicine could have been halted because of the genocide.

As with most situations in Cambodia, there are no easy answers to these questions.  All I can confidently say is that traditional medicine is still highly used, and poverty is extreme and common in Cambodia (31%, CIA World Factbook.).  Although correlation does not equal causation, I cannot help but wonder– is traditional medicine only a crutch being used by Cambodians until a better healthcare system can be established?

Is the Mekong Damned?

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

There are numerous propositions to construct dams along the Mekong river in an effort to provide sustainable hydroelectric power for the region. The dams would provide a renewable source of energy for the six countries that share the river–China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Would damming the mighty Mekong truly be “sustainable,” however?

I believe the social and environmental costs of these proposed hydropower dams would be higher than their benefits. The Mekong falls victim to dredging, drilling, blasting, pollution, and overfishing. The ecosystem is already dealing with degradation. Why threaten its delicate balance even further?

A physical barrier across any portion of the Mekong would have significant consequences. Most evidently, the river’s flow would be choked, altering, and possibly eliminating, the region’s wet and dry season cycles. A dam would block sediment and nutrient transfer, restricting alluvial deposits. The migratory and spawning paths of fish would be disrupted. Millions of people in thousands of communities depend on the river, for income, but also for sustenance. These ecological disruptions could force people to relocate. The majority of people who live along the Mekong are rural and impoverished, and the river serves as their life blood. It seems a dam would benefit the construction companies’ rich and cost the region’s poor.

What is being overlooked is the river’s benefit to the region, just the way it is. Before approval is granted to these hydroelectric companies, the impacts on the region should be deeply considered. Local communities who know the river best should be consulted. In this case, I hope it’s not the poor who, once again, lose out.