Cambodia: A story that’s hard to tell

Warning – some graphic content.

You know the last verse of Don McLean’s American Pie?

“I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news…She just smiled and turned away.”

I felt like that girl when I tried to write about Cambodia.

I left there in June 2015 to return to Australia and I have tried to write about it many times since, about how the country has progressed in the 40 years since Pol Pot’s genocidal regime cast its pall over the country.

But I couldn’t write about it. If it is possible for your heart to feel sick, that’s how I felt when I left:  So, so sad and deflated, and I just couldn’t describe it.

That was in such sharp contrast to how I felt the first time I visited there, in 2011, when I fell instantly in love with beautiful Cambodia.

I left the grey skies of Belfast that October and stepped off this rickety little plane in Phnom Penh to be greeted by my friend Maeve and a blissful humidity that seemed so heavenly to my cold Irish bones.

At the same time, I was hit by this whole new world of colour: The streets of Phnom Penh, lined with fabulous French colonial-style buildings whose balconies were overflowing with the most vibrant colours: green, orange, pink, yellow – all draped against a background of blue, blue sky.

I spent luxurious afternoons lounging by pools at various secret-garden-style villas being served cocktails and sweet peanuts.

The food was like nothing I had ever experienced, exploding with colour and flavour and freshness; eaten in cool, trendy bars and restaurants or on a stool along some run-down little side street, sitting under a torn-up umbrella – it didn’t matter where, it all tasted fabulous.

And Phnom Penh seemed such a romantic place to me, full of photographers and filmmakers and journalists and intelligent, passionate people who worked for NGOs and drank coffee in elegant colonial cafes, like the Foreign Correspondent’s Club or Java Café, places that you could picture Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman just coasting into.

All this, while Buddhist monks of all ages strolled peacefully in the chaotic streets below – and the indescribably magnificent Temples of Angkor cast their air of great mystery from the country’s northwest.

Of course, this exhilaration and romantic idealism – even in 2011 – was greatly tempered by my knowledge of what had happened to the Cambodian people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, as recent in their history as the Troubles is to the people of Northern Ireland.

As a tourist, you can stand inside the blood splattered walls of the interrogation centre, S21, which remains as it was found the day the Khmer Rouge fell to Vietnamese-backed troops, on January 7, 1979.

You can see the hundreds of portraits of men, women and children who were photographed on the day they arrived at S21 to be tortured, and you can try to read their faces: Just how terrified or bewildered were they at that moment? Did they know what was ahead of them?

Or you can stand in the silent ‘killing fields’ on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (one of an estimated 20,000 such sites in the country), where most of those tortured beings ended up, blindfolded, to be executed.

Where you walk across splinters of their bones and fragments of their clothing that have since risen to the surface and where more than 8,000 skulls are stacked to be viewed by you and other tourists.

You can also stand by a great, big tree there and know that it was the spot that babies were mercilessly killed, by smashing their heads off the tree’s trunk.

That’s what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime, which lasted less than four years but claimed the lives of a quarter of the population.

That level of suffering is incomprehensible.

And as a first-time tourist in Cambodia in 2011, this horrific past remained always at the periphery of my mind, part of the experience, but I felt buoyed and hopeful because the country had come so far from those dark days.

It has – but as a second-time tourist in Cambodia in 2015, it became clear to me that such optimism was naïve.

When you go beyond the trendy bars, exotic tastes and genocide spectacles of the tourist experience, Cambodia is a country still being devastated by self-serving elites and egotists who have arguably done little to improve the lives of average Cambodians.

Political corruption is so brazen it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

I was only there for four months as a second-time tourist in 2015, so the depth and scale of the country’s problems go way beyond my understanding. Issues such as the garment industry and the sex industry are hugely complex – but there are other big problems.

The man who has ruled the country for more than 30 years, Hun Sen, and his extremely powerful family, are seen by many commentators as being corrupt, self-serving and having no respect for democracy – unless its suits them.

Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier, controls the courts and parliament; NGOs say he has presided over the use of extreme violence and murder to stamp out dissent, and he appears driven mostly by a desire to maintain his grip on power.

The people of Cambodia are, generally, very poorly educated and lacking in the types of skills that could drive the country’s economy – if there were jobs (but there aren’t). It is estimated that a quarter of Cambodian women are illiterate, with less than 40% of children enrolled in secondary schools.

The consequent desperation feeds into the hands of human traffickers and many men and women get trapped in horrendous conditions, often in Thailand and Malaysia.

Land-grabbing – the process whereby the political elite take land from the people, those who live on it, farm it, rely on it for food and shelter, and then give it to large companies – is another huge issue.

An estimated 400,000 people have been affected by evictions since 2003, with 73% of the country’s arable land passed into the hands of companies as of 2012.

It’s astounding, contributing not only to increased poverty and heartache, but also having devastating environmental consequences, with national parks and wildlife sanctuaries ‘being turned into rubber plantations’.

Global Witness described Cambodia as a “country for sale”, where “biased or corrupt decisions frequently result in the rich and powerful in Cambodia gaining all the benefits, whilst the poor and vulnerable…pay all the costs”.

When you stop being a tourist, you see this is the case in every aspect of life in Cambodia – and that makes me so sick.

That the suffering of the Cambodian people continues, more than 40 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.



One thought on “Cambodia: A story that’s hard to tell

  1. Tell us more, Emma. Why does Cambodia place what looks like such little emphasis on education? Which companies are taking the land? Local or global? What natural beauty is at risk? What are the NGOs and charities doing? Start with the small stories. I can’t wait to read them.


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