A land mine victim in Battambang, Cambodia. (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
Hans Rudolf Gohl of Walpole, Maine, works with students at New Hope Orphanage in Battambang, Cambodia. (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
A young boy sits patiently at a Cambodian Living Arts dance practice. (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
A resident transports recyclable material past the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
Arn Chorn-Pond, a former boy solider who was saved because of his musical ability, inspires others to persevere through adversity. Here, Chorn-Pond shares his experiences with Andrea Dorlhiac of New York, left, and Stephanie Flores of Chicago at his home along the Mekong River (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
Matt Piercy at a Ta Prohm temple in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT PIERCY)
Fraught with social, economic, and environmental problems, the nation of Cambodia is as beautiful as it is complex. This summer, I had the opportunity to work for Putney Student Travel, a company that has been offering summer programs abroad since 1951. For four and a half weeks, I co-led a group of high school students as we learned in-depth about the lives of Cambodians and how they are moving forward in reconciling a horrific past.
As active participants, not passive observers, we traipsed from the capital city to the rice paddy countryside and on to the coast. Along the way we challenged ourselves to delve below any surface impressions or explanations as we sought to understand the complexity and inter-relatedness facing the “Land of Smiles.” The experience culminated at the ancient city of Angkor Wat. The theme of our trip was “Telling Stories,” and to uncover the multitude of stories was not difficult.
A visitor quickly witnesses lives of material poverty and with ease can attest to the fact that more than 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. The challenges Cambodia faces today are the result of a contemporary history where the Khmer Rouge wreaked systematic destruction of all cultural, economic, and social structures.
In less than a four-year period, 1975-1979, about 25 percent of Cambodia’s population was brutally murdered. This mass genocide affected all of Cambodia’s eight million people. Saloth Sar, or Pol Pot as commonly known today, sought to “purify” Cambodia by transforming the country into a completely self-sufficient agrarian communist state.
Pol Pot wanted to begin again, to “Year Zero,” where modern technology, medicine, education, newspapers, and even money were outlawed. Pol Pot died before the Cambodia Tribunal, or Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was established. Other living former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are octogenarians and the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal continues their trial more than 30 years later. More than an emblem of justice, the trials serve as an icon of reconciliation.
We immediately gained a sense of place, history, and context during a visit to S-21 Security Prison, a former school converted into a facility where as many as 20,000 were tortured and killed. More emotions stirred within us as we moved on to visit Choeung Ek, the infamous “killing fields.”
It’s hard to imagine the genocide was just three decades ago. Yet many examples of the collective strength and resiliency of Cambodians emerged as we continued with our inquiry of the past. It was this spirit of the people – their easy smiles, optimism, and decision to look forward rather than backward that overshadowed our experience.
From the 9th to the 15th century, the Khmer Empire reigned. By the turn of the 14th century, Angkor was the largest city in the world, its population approaching 1 million and its people occupying a tract of land twice the size of Los Angeles.
Besides its size and enduring architectural achievements, Angkor is iconic for the cultural, religious, and symbolic values it exemplifies. It is hard to fathom how the French, from 1887 to 1953, could colonize a culture so advanced and then to have it fall victim to a mass genocide by its own people.
Ostensibly neutral, Cambodia was suspected of being a communist base for Vietnam and over the course of an eight-year period (1965-1973), the United States dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives on Cambodia, a country with a smaller population than New York City – more than the Allies dropped in all of World War II.
The horrific pangs of the past endure. Midway through our journey we learned firsthand about this history as we visited the Cambodian Landmine Museum. Aki Ra, an ex-child soldier of the Khmer Rouge established this facility in 1997. Ra is doing everything in his power to help remove some of the thousands of mines he planted. In 2010 Ra was recognized by CNN as one of the Top 10 heroes of everyday people changing the world.
Cambodia tussles with oppressive corruption that permeates education and politics. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander changed allegiance and fought in the rebel army alongside the Vietnamese to overthrow the Khmer Rouge Regime in 1979, and for nearly three decades has reigned over the Kingdom of Cambodia.
The tides of Cambodia leadership struggles appear to be turning. Freedoms we might take for granted—including the right to assembly and the press— until recently were replaced by apprehension or outright fear in Cambodia. Since the inception of democracy instituted in the early 1990s, each lustrum Cambodia elects its leaders.
Our visit this summer coincided with the hotly contested election of the prime minister. Following the king’s pardon, Sam Rainsy was welcomed back to Cambodia weeks before the election. Rainsy is the leader of an opposition party aptly called “The Rescue Party.” The hotbed of activity and political fervor of Cambodians in the street was evident. Akin to the Arab Spring, Cambodian youth is rising.
Unlike technologically connected countries like Egypt, the strength of social media is yet to be realized. Less than 10 percent of Cambodians have access to the Internet and a visitor is more likely to see a wooden wheel or plow than a computer. However, the rallying cry for change is imminent.
Upon returning from Cambodia, I am left feeling more than transformed. I intend to share many personal experiences with my classes in the coming months, and students are certain to be better informed about such things as globalization, and how youth are rising up to make a difference.
Matt Piercy teaches Middle School social studies at Hawaii Preparatory Academy.