Cambodia is evolving. So our mission is evolving. Twenty years ago, Cambodia was still devastated from the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime 1975-79 and the Vietnamese occupation (1979-89). Now the economy is growing at a rate of about 7% per year causing new upheavals, challenges and opportunities to the young population. Over those twenty years, the population has almost doubled to 14 million people. The vast majority are Buddhists but often with strong beliefs in local spirits also.
For all those years I have been teaching students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Most of them go on to be high school teachers, many in remote areas. The life of a teacher in Cambodia is very hard as they earn low salaries that must be supplemented by other income. There is an independent teachers’ union in Cambodia which tries to advocate for reform and against corruption in the education system but their leader Mr. Rong Chhum lives in danger of his life as there are powerful forces that do not want light shone into dark places.
Between 2004 and 2006, three trade union leaders were assassinated, Mr. Chea Vichea, Mr. Ros Sovannareth and Mr. Hy Vuthy. They were all from the same union, the Free Trade Union of Cambodia. The owners of the garment factories which employ over 300,000 Khmer workers, mostly women, do not like this union as it is independent of the Government and not amenable to bribery and corruption.
With rapid economic development, the price of land has soared. Many rich and powerful people with connections to the Cambodia People’s Party, the Army or the Police have been grabbing land along the major roads and pushing the poor people off. Any appeal to the courts based on land titles cannot be won by poor people. The courts are not independent and many judges are corrupt.
One Buddhist monk, Ven. Luon Sovath, has emerged as a symbol of the Buddhist conscience. He filmed a violent eviction and kept a record of it later revealing it to the press. He has turned up at many peaceful protests to the rage of the Political authorities. There may be hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks in the Pagodas of Cambodia so this one man could cause quite a commotion if other Buddhist monks woke up to what is happening. The Buddhist hierarchy has banned him from staying at pagodas in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. He still remains a monk however. His life is perhaps in more danger than is that of the leader of the teachers’ union.
Another issue to emerge over the last few years has been the extent of domestic violence, in particular violence against women. One fearless women politician from the opposition Sam Rainsy party, Ms. Mu Sochua, has uncovered a scheme by some rich and powerful Cambodians to send poor Cambodian women to work as maids in Malaysia in conditions little better than slavery. Her parliamentary immunity has been removed and now she is being charged with aiding prisoners to escape from a penal institution. These were simply poor people gathered by police and sent into a detention centre. She told those people that they were being held illegally so they crossed the fence and went home.
This marks progress of a sort. Now legal proceedings and jail terms are being used to silence opposition whereas before assassinations were the preferred method.
The trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders is grinding to a halt with only one conviction that of Comrade Duch, who used to run the notorious Tuol Slaeng, S 21 prison and execution center in Phnom Penh. It is estimated that 20,000 people, mostly young Khmers, were executed after their confessions were extracted by torture at that institution. The trials of Mr. Noun Chea and Mr. Khieu Samphan, the principal leaders after Pol Pot, are taking forever. Even though many other Cambodians have been implicated in the evidence gathered so far, the Government is trying to close down the trial as the trail will eventually come to their door.
Fortunately young people do not allow themselves to be overburdened by these problems. All over Cambodia, there is a huge surge of interest in learning English as all sense that the future of Cambodia will be one of relationships with other nationalities both at home and abroad. The skills base of the young people is very low but if the quality of education improves over the next few ways, then these young Cambodians can hope for a more fulfilling quality of life than that enjoyed by their parents.
Author: Ashley Evans, SJ