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From Killing Fields to Redemption

By David James and Rajeev Merchant

The New AsiaThe national flag of Cambodia – as national flags often do – gives a sense of the character of the country.  In the center of Cambodia’s flag is an image of the temple Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex in the world, built in the early 12th Century by King Suryavarman II, then king of the Khmer Empire.  (Angkor Wat means “City of Temples” in the Khmer language, Cambodia’s official language and the language of 95 percent of its people.)  The temple, which served as Suryavarman’s state temple and ultimately as his mausoleum, has survived centuries of neglect and national chaos.  Angkor Wat was at first a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, but in the late 12th Century, after the death of Suryavarman, it gradually moved from Hindu to Buddhist use.  (Currently Buddhism is the religion of 96 percent of Cambodia’s population.)  Angkor Wat has remained the country’s religious center since its foundation, a symbol of the deeply religious character of the country.

The economy of Cambodia today is a mix of agriculture, industry and services that is primarily export-based.  Textiles, garments and footwear comprise a strong 70 percent of Cambodia’s exports, yet they serve to employ only about 5 percent of the nation’s workforce.  Commodities such as rice, rubber, timber, fish and tobacco are other significant exports.  There is also a rapidly glowing tourism industry, with Angkor Wat as one of the principal destinations.

While Cambodia’s economy is expected to grow an average of 7 percent in the period 2012-2017, it faces enormous challenges.  There is an extreme lack of basic infrastructure throughout the country – roads, rail, bridges, port facilities, telecommunications, and access to electricity.  Much of the population lacks basic education and productive skills, especially in the poverty-ridden countryside.  And a youthful populace (almost 50 percent of the population is under 25 years of age) will require the private sector to create enough jobs to avoid a looming demographic imbalance.

Cambodia’s many challenges today are partly a result of a lengthy period of instability that commenced with a decline of the Khmer Empire that began in the 15th Century and continued into the 19th Century, exacerbated by aggressive power struggles and encroachments of Cambodia’s Thai and Vietnamese neighbors.  Finally, in 1863, Cambodia’s King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to establish a protectorate over his kingdom.  Cambodia then gradually came under French colonial rule and became a part of French Indochina in 1887.

The Japanese took control of the Cambodia in 1941 for the course of World War II, with the French Vichy government in Paris cooperating with Japan after France was occupied by Nazi Germany, and Norodom Sihanouk became king that year.  After World War II, in 1945, a victorious France under Charles de Gaulle re-imposed a colonial administration of the country, but King Sihanouk mounted a campaign for independence and sovereignty which was ultimately achieved in 1953 after a lengthy period of negotiations with the French.

King Sihanouk, known as “The King-Father of Cambodia,” was a major force in the evolution of the country’s political and economic development, domestically and internationally, holding some form of power for a period of 60 years from 1941 until his death in 2012 at the age of 89.  Sihanouk was a charismatic leader with remarkable political skills of adaptation and persuasion, winning independence from the French in 1953, navigating the perilous conflicts in neighboring Vietnam beginning in the 1960s and continuing during the Vietnam War between North and South Vietnam.  He was ousted from power in 1970 by a military coup that abolished the monarchy and renamed the country the Khmer Republic.  Stung by the betrayal of the coup plotters, Sihanouk allied himself with a ruthless Communist insurgency called the Khmer Rouge.

After several years of bloody combat, the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975 and immediately began a reign of terror.  Sihanouk was titular president of the Khmer Republic during the first year of its rule, but was then placed under house arrest.  Cambodians were ordered out of the towns and cities and sent to grueling work camps and farms in the countryside.  Communications with the rest of the world were cut off.  Society was fundamentally destroyed, with all religions and professions outlawed.  Intellectuals, Buddhist monks and anyone thought to be a political enemy were murdered.  Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, after escaping from the country, coined the phrase “the killing fields” to describe areas where huge numbers of Cambodians were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge during its rule in 1975-1979.  In addition, tens of thousands of people died of treatable diseases, overwork or starvation.  It is estimated that between 1.7 and 2.5 million people died, of a population of about eight million at the time.

In January 1979, the Vietnamese army and a Cambodian organization known as the Salvation Front drove the Khmer Rouge from power, and the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established.  (Kampuchea is the spelling of the name Cambodia in the Khmer language.)  Thereafter, a long period of civil strife ensued until in 1991 the United Nations brokered a settlement of the conflicts and Cambodia was established as a multiparty liberal democracy in the framework of a constitutional monarchy.  With the monarchy restored, Sihanouk was elevated to King.  Following country-wide elections in May 1993, Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second Prime Ministers, respectively.  Hun Sen became the sole Prime Minister in 1998.

Hun Sen’s administration remains in charge, ruling with an iron hand and patronage politics.  The government is known to expropriate private land and resources for development by favored interests, and corruption is widespread in public and private activities.  However, new anti-corruption and penal laws were adopted in 2010, and in 2011 a number of high-profile arrests were made, including those of five individuals within the inner circle of Senate president Chea Sim on charges of fraud (although skeptics see political motivation in some of the arrests).  Separately, the government has drafted social protection legislation intended to expand programs of health care, education, and employment generation.

Given the debilitating times that Cambodia has endured for centuries, it might well be that upward is the only direction forward for the country and its economy.  The country’s economic potential appears to be exceptionally promising, notwithstanding the many challenges it has yet to face.  Mining is attracting investor interest in the northern regions of the country where the government claims that opportunities exist in deposits of bauxite, gold, iron, and jade and other gems.  And in 2005, exploitable oil deposits were found beneath Cambodia’s territorial waters, representing a potential revenue stream for the country when commercial extraction begins.

Cambodia has many governmental and economic hills to climb, but in this highly religious country, with the Angkor Wat its national symbol, two of Buddhism’s principal beliefs may have a strong bearing on the country’s future: it is important keep healthy, and it is never too late to begin.  With religious resolve and dedication, there is every reason to believe that Cambodia will make a significant contribution to the economic strength of The New Asia.

© Copyright 2013 ABC-CLIO