As a resident of the United States, you can expect to live to the age of 78. Throughout your lifetime, you have access to opportunities unavailable in other parts of the world. You have the freedom to pursue an education, a family, and a career. You can vote. Whichever path you choose, you come into this world expecting to live a long, full life.
Imagine you were not born in the US, but somewhere in East Asia, where the life expectancy is 72. Subtract six years off of your life.
Suppose you were born in Southeast Asia. You have just lost another three years.
Now, imagine you were born in Cambodia. Subtract nine more years from your life. In your expected 60 years, you will live on an average of $2 per day. Most likely you will live in a rural community, with little or no opportunity to pursue work outside of subsistence farming. Chances are you will not reach secondary school. You are not entitled to subsidized food or health care, and have little say in petitioning the government to improve your situation. Overall, you will have a very low standard of living. How did you get here?
In this report, we will describe Cambodia’s current state of development and recent progress, diagnose why it still remains among the world’s poorest nations, and highlight the greatest priorities in alleviating poverty. We will then lay out a development proposal to improve maternal health in Cambodia through increasing the availability of trained midwives to rural villagers.
Historical Context: Khmer Rouge
Understanding Cambodia’s current state is only possible by considering its historical context. There are many ways to explain Cambodia’s current dismal state: low-lying corruption, poor economic planning, a lack of transparency in the government, and so forth. Although all of these explanations have truth to them, one cannot begin to analyze Cambodia’s predicament without an understanding of the devastation wrought by Pol Pot (pictured below) and the Khmer Rouge. In fact, the majority of development concerns surrounding Cambodia stem from the Khmer Rouge’s removal of the country’s foundation: the economy, education, healthcare, and social-cultural systems.
Recalling accounts of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge, Loung Ung, a former Phnom Penh resident, describes how the economic policies of the new revolution first came to her attention:
“I have to go to the toilet,” I tell Ma urgently after dinner.
“You have to go in the woods.”
“Anywhere you can find. Wait I’ll get you some toilet paper.” Ma goes away and comes back with a bunch of paper sheets in her hand. My eyes widen in disbelief,
“Ma! It’s money. I can’t use money!”
“Use it, it is of no use to us anymore,” she replies, pushing the crisp sheets into my hand.
Born to a successful farming family with royal connections, Saloth Sar (who would later adopt the name Pol Pot) came to age in a time where Vietnam’s influences on Cambodia were quite substantial and communist ideology was rampant. Pol Pot and his closest companions, who were educated in Paris, desired to establish a government, to be known as Democratic Kampuchea, in Cambodia that would emphasize the country’s independence and a return to “true” Khmer origins: peasantry. To transition the monarchy of Norodom Sihanouk to Democratic Kampuchea, “all cities were evacuated, hospitals cleared, schools closed, factories emptied, money abolished, monasteries shut, libraries scattered” (Kiernan). For years, freedom of movement, of the press, of worship, organization, and discussion was completely erased from Cambodians. The family structure, of vital importance to Khmer culture, was destroyed. Parents were separated from their children, who were taught to distrust and spy on their parents. Human communication and interdependence completely disappeared.
As Ben Kiernan, author of The Pol Pot Regime explains, “A whole nation was kidnapped and besieged from within.” Cambodia was sealed off with the closing of borders, foreign embassies, and press agencies. Radios, newspapers, and all other forms of communication were seized and immediately destroyed. The speaking of foreign languages was strictly forbidden. As Kiernan writes, “[People] quickly learned that any display of knowledge or skill, if “contaminated” by foreign influence (as in normal twentieth-century societies), was folly in Democratic Kampuchea” (Kiernan). Those who were educated or showed signs of being educated (i.e. wearing glasses) were often executed, for only peasants were desired by the regime. The consequences of these actions still remain in Cambodia today, where there are few teachers, health professionals, entrepreneurs, or senior monks.
Two groups of Cambodians, old and new people were pinned against each other, making it nearly impossible for Khmers to trust one another. Old people were Khmer Rouge cadres and peasants, with new people being former urban residents. The regime’s motto for the “new” people was, “To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss.” Minorities, which included Cham Muslims, Chinese, and Vietnamese were either expelled from the country or executed. With the cities deserted, rural Cambodia was transformed into a prison camp state. Millions of Cambodians were forced into hard labor in rice fields, with long hours and barely anything to eat. The worker’s forced efforts successfully transformed the Cambodian countryside: replacing tiny dikes and irrigation systems, removing walls of earth to make straight canals, and establishing paddies, creating hectares of rice land.
In the end, over 1.7 million Cambodians would die in the four years Democratic Kampuchea ruled. In 1979, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia after a failed pre-emptive attack on their country, ordered by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge was ousted and replaced by the original king, Norodom Sihanouk. The Khmer Rouge remained largely intact, despite being a government in exile, and for years after their official fall the rebel group made multiple attempts to rule from the outskirts of Cambodia.
Although Pol Pot died in 1998, the tremendous effects of the Khmer Rouge are still felt throughout Cambodia today. The massive destruction, murder, and feelings of mistrust the Khmer Rouge enacted have prevented the state from developing alongside of its neighbors. Despite enduring genocide and political instability for years, today Cambodia has managed to become a peaceful and stable nation. It speaks for the strength of the Khmer people that the country has managed to develop tremendously in multiple ways. Though they may still have a long way to go, Cambodia has managed to overcome the impossible with great stride and promise.