Having the misfortune of being nestled between ancient super powers like the Siamese, Chinese and Champa, has led to the poor Cambodians being kicked around for thousands of years.
The spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia is the ancient capital Angkor. The Khmer Empire reached its peak between the ninth and fifteenth centuries and then vanished. The ancient capital once home to a million was swallowed by the jungle, reappearing again a thousand years later. Where did they go?
In 1953, Cambodia threw off the Colonial French. Years of political turmoil followed, culminating in the bombing of Eastern Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict. The constant surge of refugees from Eastern Cambodia who were abandoning homes and villages for the relative safety of the capital. Phnom Penh swelled in population from 600,000 to over two million.
In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over, filling the vacuum left by deposed leadership after the Vietnam War. By the end of 1975, there were only 45,000 inhabitants left in the city, mostly soldiers.
Between 1975 and 1979, two to three million Cambodians died. Pot Pol maintained a strangle hold on the country by dislocating and breaking up families, torture and death. At the heart of Pot Pol’s strategy was a plan to unfurl people’s strongest bonds (family) and all loyalties. The Cambodians continue to suffer 40 years later.
Anyone who spoke a foreign language, wore glasses, had an education, owned a business, had foreign relatives, or worked for institutions such as banks, private companies, and even the government, was executed. Imagine the horror then and the difficulty of rebuilding a nation devoid of nearly all educated citizens.
In 1979, the age old enemy Vietnam started the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, but this did not end the misery. Within weeks, 50% of Cambodia’s remaining population was in transit, either searching for their homes or fleeing to refugee camps in Thailand.
Gangster-ism, political terrorism and chaos remain part of the Cambodian political and economical landscape to this day.
Imagine the horror of knowing there are six to eight million land mines remaining in the ground. Not a day passes without someone, mostly children, getting dismembered or killed. And yet, in spite all these woes, the people greet you with smiles, invite you into their homes, ask for nothing and share their meager rations with you – a total stranger.
There are many modern wonders of the world and world heritage sites, but is there a category for the “indomitable spirit of a mankind”? There should be, and the kind, resilient people of Cambodia would be the first recipients.