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The Legacy of Cambodia’s Tragedy

Rebuilding a Scarred Civilization


Rebuilding a Scarred Civilization


Cambodia is still grappling with the Khmer Rouge’s obliteration of its culture and civilization in the late 1970s. But for the average Cambodian, escaping poverty and building a viable economy may be more important than seeking transitional justice.



Rebuilding a Scarred Civilization

By Jack Huang/The World 2.0

After many invitations from my good friend “R,” I finally made a trip to Phnom Penh during the Lunar New Year holiday to thoroughly experience this fascinating Cambodian city and its tearful and bloody history.  

Phnom Penh and other urban areas seem to have taken off and made progress in recent years. In terms of economic indicators, such as per capita income and infrastructure development, Cambodia remains an underdeveloped and relatively backward country. It is also highly dependent on international aid, and one-fifth of the national population is still carving out a living below the poverty line.

A Magnificent Past Gone up in Smoke

Many people may have forgotten that Cambodian history had its glory days. At its height in the 12th century, the Khmer [Angkor] Empire, which grew out of the site that is present-day Cambodia, held territory that encompassed virtually the entire Indochinese Peninsula and was the strongest power in Southeast Asia. All over southern Vietnam and central and northern Thailand, travelers can find cultural relics and buildings that date back to the golden age of the rulers of Angkor.

Khmer culture boasts a long history. The influence of Cambodia’s magnificent history (and culture) manifests itself in the architecture, religion, customs and practices in neighboring countries. Even as recently as the 19th century, after Cambodia became a French "protectorate,” trade thrived and the nation Westernized so rapidly that Phnom Penh once earned the moniker “little Paris of the East.”

“Back then, even Singapore needed to send students to Phnom Penh to learn medical skills and engineering. … Thai boxing, the Songkran water festival, the architectural style of temples and palaces, all this was influenced by Cambodian (Khmer) culture,” R, who hails from Phnom Penh, says proudly.

But the glory of the past is worlds apart from the reality today – shabby, dirty and messy downtown streets and an impoverished population lacking in formal education. Thanks to a large influx of young people from the countryside and low wages, the periphery of downtown Phnom Penh has become a location where foreign businesses rush to invest in labor-intensive industries.

As far as I am concerned Phnom Penh does not boast that many attractions – the lion’s share of tourists arriving in Cambodia head straight to Angkor Wat. On the contrary, it’s the “investment craze” hyped by the media in recent years that led investors to flock to this small city on the Mekong River to scout for business opportunities. The numerous high-rise buildings that are springing up are gradually changing the city’s skyline. But foreign capital may not be able (or willing) to resolve such deep-seated problems such as the lack of a domestic industrial base and a gradually vanishing local culture.

Downtown Phnom Penh boasts numerous high rise buildings. (Image: Shutterstock)

A Country Ruined by the Khmer Rouge

Why did Cambodia decline to its current state? One of the obvious reasons is the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge, which lasted less than four years from 1975 to 1979. During my trip to Phnom Penh, I also wanted to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, on the site of the notorious Security Prison 21, to better understand the impact of the Khmer Rouge regime on Cambodia and its capital Phnom Penh.

Khmer Rouge is the name given to the followers of Cambodia’s Communist Party of Kampuchea. After they toppled the U.S.-backed government of [Marshal] Lon Nol in 1975, they imposed an extreme leftist Communist system modeled after Communist China’s “Great Cultural Revolution.” The original ideas and appeals of the Communist Party of Kampuchea “might” have been noble – it hoped to create a classless and prosperous society.

However, as history has shown many times, be it in the Soviet Union, China or North Korea, such pure Communism runs counter to human nature. But as the Khmer Rouge tried to implement its “idealistic policies,” it began to resort to extreme measures, exterminating everything that was considered “reactionary poison,” just as China did during the Cultural Revolution. This included the abolition of money, the confiscation of private property, the closure of schools, hospitals, factories, and temples and a ban on all traditional culture and customs as well as foreign cultural influences.

It is estimated that more than 2 million people, mostly intellectuals such as professors, school teachers, engineers and artists, fell victim to the three and a half year-long Khmer Rouge regime.

“My grandfather was also a victim. My father was just over 10 years old at the time, and he was beaten unconscious by the Khmer Rouge with a steel rod. Then they threw him into the river because they thought he was dead. Luckily he was rescued by people downstream or else he would not have survived…,” recounts R matter of factly.

A Decades-long Rebuilding Period

When R accompanied me on the visit to the Genocide Museum, he didn’t want to step into the exhibition rooms whose walls were covered with brutal photographs. Instead, he stood outside in the corridor in deep reflection.

During the Khmer Rouge regime, a large number of “elite elements” were eliminated, somewhat similar to what happened during the February 28 Incident in Taiwan. Within a very short time, the Cambodian nation suffered a massive loss of human resources that led to a talent gap and caused national development to fall dramatically behind the neighboring countries. Catchphrases like “Southeast Asia’s cultural hub” or “the little Paris of the East” suddenly became distant memories.

As R reveals, it was absolutely impossible when he was little for many elementary students in Cambodian public schools to go on to middle school because “there weren’t enough junior and senior high school teachers.” After six years of elementary school, many graduates were forced to serve as teachers for the lower grades or else it would have been impossible to keep the elementary schools running. Only a very small number of families were able to squeeze their children into higher schools that had been founded with foreign aid.

This talent gap began to slightly improve only after the year 2000. Even today the cost of nurturing highly skilled people in Cambodia remains rather high. As other Southeast Asian nations transform their economies by promoting industrial restructuring and map out their future economic development, Cambodia’s industrial base still consists mostly of labor intensive contract manufacturing. If not for the continued influx of “Chinese capital” in recent years, (which has also led to inflated property and housing prices in urban areas), the country’s economic growth would rank at the bottom of global economies.  

Although the Khmer Rouge “automatically disbanded” between 1979 and 1980 due to international intervention, Cambodia truly began to recover from its years of devastation only in 1992 when the United Nations dispatched tens of thousands of people to the country, and after 1999 when the Cambodian Communists had lost most of their troops and territory, resulting in the total collapse of the Khmer Rouge.

Later on, the “Special Tribunal for Cambodia” formed by the United Nations and the Cambodian government tried the Khmer Rouge leaders who were still alive. These included Kaing Guek Eav, the S-21 prison commander, Nuon Chea, the secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and Khieu Samphan, the head of state. They were sentenced to life in prison for murder, crimes against humanity and other crimes in separate trials.

‘Transitional Justice’ or ‘Political Opportunism’

“Do you think this is successful transitional justice?” I ask R. After all, the Cambodian government has included this period history in its compulsory education curriculum. From childhood on, every Cambodian kid knows this period of history very well, just like German society has reflected over the Nazi atrocities in the past.

“Transitional justice? For us this is a very new term…Perhaps, yes since most of the victimizers have been punished. But then what? It won’t bring back the things we lost, will it?” remarks R slowly.

He does not feel that Cambodia’s incumbent “democratically elected leader” cares about “transitional justice.”

Given the low educational level, poor government performance and severe corruption in present-day Cambodia, “reckoning with the past” seems to be more about diverting the focus of attention and consolidating the legitimacy of vested interests.

“Do you know that our largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was declared dissolved by the Supreme Court in late 2017, on charges of “treason?” On top of that they were implicated in some historical Khmer Rouge related events…,” notes R, his voice trailing off.

In his view,  most Cambodians do not see reflecting over and criticizing history as the most pressing task at hand. What is more urgently needed is adequate food and clothing, a basic living standard and sufficient education so that people become aware of their rights and obligations.

The Cambodia of today remains a rather backward country because decades ago a catastrophe completely eradicated the civilization that Khmer culture had built over centuries and the self-confidence of the local people.

In the face of violence, civilization has always proven fragile. Now that it has been destroyed, it will likely take a very long time before it can recover its former self.

Translated from the Chinese article by Susanne Ganz

features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives.  See also CrossingNYC.

Additional Reading

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This article presents the opinion or perspective of the original author / organization, which does not represent the standpoint of CommonWealth magazine.