I like the tone of this video. As Angelina Jolie says here, Cambodians have a terrible history. A terrible recent history. And yet they are able to be friendly and welcoming, even serene. At least on the surface. I think it's definitely part of their culture to be peaceful and serene, influences of Buddhist beliefs and practices, but the horrors of war and conflict leave scars. And while Cambodians and anyone who cares about Cambodians work to move forward and past their history, it's important not to forget it.
But first I had to learn this history. Before Stephen and I decided to move here I knew very little about Cambodia. In the past months I've learned about Pol Pot and his regime, the Khmer Rouge. During the four years he ruled Cambodia, an estimated 2 million people were executed or died from disease and/or starvation (out of a population of about 8 million). I learned that previous to Pol Pot's rule the United States, led by Nixon and Kissinger, dropped more tons of bombs across the Cambodian countryside than the US dropped on Japan in WWII. I learned that the Vietnamese were the ones to finally end Khmer Rouge control of the country but then continued fighting them for decades. The Vietnamese "K5 Project" forced Cambodian peasants to bury millions of landmines along the Thai-Cambodian border as part of this fighting. These landmines continue to kill and maim to the present day.
Horrific stuff. And these are only a few pieces of the awful story. When I learn things like this, many questions form in my mind. And so I try to read as much as I possibly can to try to find the answers. We have many books on our shelves about Cambodia. And we watched The Killings Fields which was the story of Dith Pran's (a Cambodian journalist) survival during the Khmer Rouge. It's not easy to watch and the books are not easy to read. But I'm compelled to watch and read so that I can make informed choices and decisions. I want to do something useful. I want to do something here that will really improve people's lives. I definitely don't want to do something that seems good to me but in reality doesn't help Cambodians, or even worse, harms them. And there is really no way to do this without studying Cambodia's history and immersing myself in the current culture.
I'm glad that Angelina Jolie is using her celebrity status to draw attention to this country. Cambodia could use some good publicity. Tourism is an important industry for this very poor country. But tourism has its downside too. It's kind of nice to be in a place that doesn't have a long history of rich tourists coming in and out. People who beg on the street more often than not just hold out their hands or hat and gently mumble something. Stephen and I almost always give them a few hundred Riel (the Cambodian currency) and they respond with gentle smiles of thanks and walk away. We only give them the equivalent of pennies, but they are appreciative of our small gesture. In other parts of the world, people who beg or even those trying to sell us something are very aggressive. Even several "no thank you" responses do not deter them. I remember some quite young children in Ethiopia following us for several blocks using English phrases the whole time, pestering us for money.
Cambodia has experienced the damaging effect of well-meaning but uninformed outsiders. Angelina Jolie was able to adopt her son from an orphanage, but she was one of the last to be able to do so. Orphanages have been used to exploit children. Well-meaning families wanted to adopt Cambodian children so they could provide these children with a better life. Well-meaning people want to volunteer in an orphanage short-term as part of a popular trend called "voluntourism". People spend their vacation "doing something good". It's a nice concept but too easily corruptible. Poor Cambodians were selling their children to orphanages either for adoption or to help raise money for the orphanage. So the Cambodian government responded to this by suspending all adoption since 2003. And this week Stephen attended a meeting on the new NGO law that the government is considering. Stephen thinks this law is partly a response to the rash of these "voluntourism" orphanages that have sprung up all over the country.
This knowledge can be so depressing. But life today in Cambodia offers bright spots juxtaposing its history. This morning, one of the employees of our apartment complex rang my doorbell wanting to arrange the flowers on my terrace again.(Yesterday he brought three more baskets of plants to add to the ones I already had and hung them all on the bars he had just installed. Later he came back to move them so I could "see out".) He left and a few minutes later arrived with a beautiful flowering plant not yet blooming. We both laughed at how much time and effort he was putting into the flower arrangement on my terrace. With his limited English he said, "your apartment, remodeling flowers". :)
Cambodia's history shapes who they are but it doesn't have to define who they are or who they will be. Despite only a recent end to war in their country, Cambodians have resiliently begun to move forward from their dark past. What kind of a society would Cambodians have built if they hadn't endured all these years of devastation? They have much to offer and we have much to learn and maybe Stephen and I can be part of efforts that help some Cambodians realize their potential.