Isolation Has Worsened Suffering of Cambodians

Eva Mysliwiec. Genocide and Persecution. Editor: Jeff Hay & Frank Chalk. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2013.

The Kampuchean people continue to suffer not only from physical illness but from unhealed emotional scars left from so many years of oppression, abuse and the loss of family members and friends. An NGO [nongovernmental organization] representative states that in the five years she has spent in

Kampuchea, she has met only one person who claimed that he had not lost any family member during the tragic decade of war and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Foreign health personnel and aid workers find that emotional and psychological problems affect not only the general population but their Khmer counterparts at all levels of the administration. The Kampucheans no longer relate their tragic experiences to foreigners as compulsively as they did back in 1979 and 1980 but when memories are touched tears still come easily. There is no mistaking the terrible pain which is etched on the faces of many Kampucheans. The problems manifest themselves through depression and chronic grief, through the recurrence of nightmares, anxiety and fear of being exposed. Other symptoms of this debilitating illness include lack of motivation and difficulty in planning and organising work, as well as an inability to generate enthusiasm and hope for the future. A Khmer woman in Phnom Penh confessed to an NGO official, “I have a cloth hanging up in my home that says, ‘to live is to hope’. I look at that every morning. Sometimes I want to tear it down and wrap it around my neck. But I know I must have hope for the sake of my children.”

Lasting Insecurity in Cambodia

The recurring attacks launched by the opposition forces of which the Khmer Rouge are the strongest and most feared, only aggravate the insecurities of the Khmer people and fuel their all-pervading fear of the return of Pol Pot. Most Kampucheans find it incomprehensible that the UN supports the Coalition which the Khmer Rouge dominates, and that most nations of the world continue to give diplomatic recognition to their enemy, the Khmer Rouge. They do not understand why a majority of western governments appear to have turned their backs on the people of Kampuchea. The combination of fear and insecurity about the future, as well as the experiences under Pol Pot, also affect people’s ability to take decisions, to criticise the system constructively when offered the opportunity to do so or to expose injustices. Under the Khmer Rouge such behaviour was often punishable by death. “The best policy” said the head of one technical department, “is just to keep a low profile and mind your own business. I have lived through four regimes. I lived under the king, I lived under Sihanouk, I lived under Lon Nol and the American bombing, I lived under Chinese-influenced Pol Pot, and now I live under the Vietnam-supported Heng Samrin. Who knows what tomorrow will bring and what I will be held accountable for?”

The fragile political climate also creates uncertainties. According to one Khmer, “Our country has no freedom. Our leaders speak well; their ideology is good, but they don’t live up to their own ideas. And we cannot say anything.”

The wounds of the past are not being allowed to heal and the Khmer people’s efforts to build a future are undermined and frustrated by the ongoing conflict and ban on UN and western development aid. The conflict diverts men and financial resources away from reconstruction and agricultural production to defence work. As a result military conscription has recently been extended from three to five years and thousands of Khmer people from peasants to top administrators are deployed for ‘patriotic works’. These include border defence and clearing brush in the forests and along the roads to deny access to Khmer Rouge guerillas and to protect military convoys from ambush.

Provision of all normal services is disrupted. For example, half the health personnel from Kampong Cham province were sent to perform their 2 month duty at the border, leaving the already understaffed hospital and health facilities even more handicapped. The war is also taking its toll on the already imbalanced adult population ratio, reducing the number of men even further and increasing the number of handicapped and amputees. A restaurant owner in Phnom Penh claims that anywhere from 200 to 300 amputees a day come in threatening to damage the premises if they are not given a few riels [the Cambodian currency]. Another Khmer, when asked what he saw as the future Kampuchea answered with a prediction that circulated during the time of Pol Pot’s regime: “The war will be over when every man has forty wives”—because most of the men will have been killed, he explained. The war also creates heavier burdens for peasants who must support those involved in defence work with ‘patriotic contributions’—a part of their harvest.

The Kampuchean people also suffer from spiritual fatigue as a result of the ongoing conflict. They want serenity and time to enjoy their families and improve their lives. Many aid workers in Kampuchea have witnessed the emotional and physical strain under which their colleagues often work. For some, rest comes only when they have worked 7 days a week 18 hours a day for so long that they eventually suffer a breakdown and must be admitted to a hospital.

The Burden Falls on Cambodian Women

Women bear a disproportionate burden as a consequence of the Khmer Rouge regime and the continuing war. The demographic changes which by 1979 resulted in a higher proportion of women to men and a large number of widows, have added considerably to their difficulties. A survey in 1986 in Phnom Penh showed that from a random sample of 217 families, 53 were headed by women. Of these women heads of households, 91% were widows. Women are having to assume more responsibility in raising their families alone and having to undertake not only their own traditional tasks but those of the men as well.

Traditionally, men and women in Kampuchea assume different roles and functions. A majority of Kampucheans are involved in agriculture, but jobs that require more strength such as ploughing and harrowing or operating a rohat, a pedal-pushed irrigation wheel, are traditionally men’s jobs. Similarly, house building and repairs were also considered men’s work. Today women are found doing all of these jobs and during the planting season one sees many more women than men in the rice fields. This transition has not been easy for most women, who feared that taking up traditionally male functions would make them less ‘feminine’ and reduce their chances of remarrying in a society with few men. The undereducation of women is a further disadvantage. In rural Kampuchea most women had less than six years of primary education, although before Pol Pot the number of women in higher education had been increasing.

Before the Khmer Rouge regime, most households depended on the combined efforts of both sexes and on the support of the extended family. But with the demographic imbalance many women found themselves the head of the household with no man to help with the domestic or financial burden. One woman agonized over how difficult it is now for women in Kampuchea, particularly those who have lost their husbands and parents. Women must live alone and must be totally responsible for their children. There is an unspoken understanding that because so many men have died, men can take more than one wife, and many have. In the words of this Khmer woman, “Relationships have changed very much; families used to be intact and supportive. Husbands and wives were loyal to each other. The men now are not good. They are deceitful and corrupt. They say one thing and do another. We can no longer trust each other.”

Many women who come to the hospital for medical consultation suffer from depression, according to medical staff in Prey Veng’s provincial hospital. They attribute this to the trauma of the Khmer Rouge period, the heavy responsibilities weighing on women, loneliness and the lack of marriage prospects for the future. During her research on women in Kampuchea in 1981, Chantou Boua, herself a Kampuchean woman living in Australia, found that:

In Kampuchea today one often hears widows talking obsessively about their husbands, who were killed by Pol Pot forces. They talk about memories of earlier, happier days, about the dreadful Pol Pot period, about the abduction and killing of their husbands. It seems that, tragically, many women will never forget the moment when their husbands were taken away or were shot or clubbed to death. These traumatic experiences haunt them and some women will never recover….

Many women complain of how inefficient they are compared to earlier days. Bosses complain about their absent-minded and day-dreaming female employees. A peasant widow said, “I do not know what I am doing or thinking everyday, sometimes I forget about the pot of rice on the stove and leave it there to burn.”

Today, except for the ‘solidarity groups’ which offer support to their most vulnerable members, there is almost nothing to help women cope with the emotional and psychological scars. “I just feel a deep sadness and very much alone”, said one Phnom Penh women who lost her husband during the Khmer Rouge period. “When I get up in the morning I feel very heavy, like something is pressing on my shoulders. But I cannot talk to anyone. I have no friends. Oh yes, I have friends, but no one to whom I can say what I really feel.”

An aid worker who participated in the Phnom Penh sanitation survey in 1986 found during house visits that some widows, or women who had no living relatives, lived together for mutual support and because they could not manage on their own.

The National Women’s Association, which in the early 1980s had a highly political profile, has since 1984 modified its role and become more involved in addressing the problems of women, especially widows and women with limited education and skills. The Women’s Association has been active in literacy programmes for women, in providing a number of skills training programmes for them, in organising sewing and weaving cooperatives, and helping them with income-generating projects such as the digging of fish ponds. They also provide some material assistance and support to women with children, whose husbands are fighting the war.

In view of the heavy burden and problems of women in Kampuchea today, it is disappointing to see the low priority given to programmes specifically geared to women’s needs by Kampuchean government institutions and by the international agencies. However, UNICEF has increased its focus on women’s programmes and their experience may lead to improvements in this area.

The Effects of Cambodia’s Isolation

Closely related to the psychological stresses experienced by the Kampuchean people is the sense of isolation they feel. Between 1975 and 1978 it was the Khmer Rouge who initiated a self-imposed isolation. Today, the Association of South East Asian Nations, China and the majority of western governments isolate Kampuchea because of the presence of Vietnamese troops in the country. Most governments ostracize the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh and since it is not recognized in the United Nations there are no diplomatic, and very few cultural or educational exchanges between Kampuchea and any non-communist nation, with the exception of India. The people’s access to outside ideas and influence is further limited by the government’s own restrictive policies. Consequently, Kampucheans live in a kind of vacuum, not knowing what is going on in the outside world or sometimes even within their own country.

Inside the country, though communications have improved over the last few years, they are still difficult. People came out of the Khmer Rouge period, having been deprived of news, education and books, with an insatiable hunger for knowledge and reading material. Yet there are few reading materials available. There are no foreign newspapers on sale in Kampuchea. Those the aid agency staff receive are highly coveted.

The country’s isolation is a great disadvantage in trading on the international market. The delay in receiving economic data or journals means that they cannot compete with international prices when trading their goods because information is often months out of date. Unbiased news of international affairs is hard to come by but there is a widely read Khmer weekly newspaper which publishes not only information about current activities in Kampuchea and the region but also popular criticisms of the regime.

Perhaps the most cruel aspect of this isolation is that it prevents family reunification and makes communication with relatives abroad extremely difficult. Khmers who lost all documentation and personal mementoes during the Pol Pot era have no way of finding the addresses of relatives overseas. Khmers living abroad have no current addresses for their relatives in Kampuchea and often still do not even know whether they are dead or alive. The postal system in Kampuchea is still erratic and unreliable. Many Kampucheans, mindful of the punishment received by those who had associations with the West under the last regime, are today still afraid to admit that they have relatives abroad and in some cases have changed their names, which makes them even more difficult to track down with any mail. Even though some organisations have officially attempted to negotiate reunification programmes with the Kampuchean government, the current climate of international hostility towards Kampuchea drives such efforts to a dead end.

Although to some extent international isolation has strengthened the Kampuchean people and led them to rely more on their own capabilities and resources, it sets a number of obstacles in the path of food self-sufficiency and reconstruction. Because of its isolation, Kampuchea has missed out on the last two decades of developmental experience and research in agriculture, health, appropriate technology and many other fields. Khmers are denied desperately needed training and educational opportunities abroad, although in some cases their own government restrictions prevent them going. Japan, France, the US, the Netherlands and Israel, for example, all had extensive technical agriculture and rice research programmes in Kampuchea before the war. Much of the documentation from that work is presently not available in Kampuchea. Blueprints for buildings, sewers and water systems which were built by foreign companies and which have suffered much damage from the war and lack of maintenance are also hard to come by, as are topographical maps and soil studies needed for irrigation systems or for well-drilling.

Unofficial Help from Overseas

Once an integral part of the International Mekong Committee’s Development Plan, Kampuchean participation and development assistance has been suspended since 1975. It is also barred from participating in many other international organisations and conferences. However more opportunities have been opening up recently through the aid of NGOs and UNICEF, such as sponsoring women to international women’s conferences, or sending Khmer representatives to a sanitation seminar in India. Over the last two years more Kampucheans have been involved in educational trips abroad especially to India and more recently to the Philippines’ International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) which could offer Kampuchea much help in restoring the many seed varieties lost during the Khmer Rouge regime and provide valuable and appropriate training.

Educational exchanges are invaluable to Khmer technical and professional staff who have been cut off from outside ideas in their fields of expertise since the early 1970s. Western aid workers in Kampuchea have found that Khmers return from such trips refreshed and enthusiastic and full of new ideas. One Khmer who returned from a visit to health facilities in India remarked how much more poverty there was in India than in Kampuchea and was very impressed with the self-help preventive health programmes that Indians were managing without external assistance.

Isolation and the embargo on development aid to Kampuchea also prevents the country from obtaining spare parts or repair manuals for equipment provided or purchased before the war from US, Chinese, Korean and other international companies. For example, many badly needed Massey Ferguson tractors stand idle in Battambang province, and Korean pumps in one of Prey Veng’s pumping stations were restored by a group of NGOs at a phenomenal expense because replacement parts were unobtainable and had to be made to order.

NGO personnel working in Kampuchea feel that even the limited exposure they have with Kampucheans helps to decrease the Khmers’ sense of isolation and abandonment, and increases their sense of security and international interest in their welfare. For many Kampucheans the presence of the small number of westerners working in Kampuchea on behalf of aid agencies represents a window to the outside and a glimmer of hope for their country. Several Khmers have told aid workers: “When you [humanitarian organisations] have to leave, it will be a warning that something bad is going to happen to us.”

Many of the Khmer officials interviewed felt that the most damaging effect of western-imposed isolation is that it limits the options available to them in determining their future and pushes them to become more dependent on Vietnam and the Soviet Union. “How can we practise self-determination if you [Western governments] do not give us any choices?” asked one official. Many western aid workers and visitors to Kampuchea have sensed a real eagerness from Khmers for international relationships and recognition. Many of Kampuchea’s educated and technical people were trained abroad in France, China, the US, India, the UK and elsewhere, or were trained by the French in Phnom Penh. Today, they as well as younger people recently trained in the Eastern Bloc, reach out for friendship and assistance from the international agency staff. As Kampuchea’s Prime Minister Hun Sen put it, “There are two sides to isolation.” It hurts not only Kampuchea but the West as well.

Until there is a commitment to work for a negotiated settlement of the Kampuchean conflict, political games will continue to strangle the hopes of the Khmer people for a country that is once again at peace, independent and neutral.