Monday, October 27, 2008

Cross Roads in Cambodia

Few Westerners have heard of the Khmer Civilization. The Khmer established themselves as one of the world's most innovative, advanced, and sprawling cultures which dominated and heavily influenced present day Southeast Asia for close to a thousand years. The Khmer Civilization spawned from what we know today as Cambodia, and its capital and spiritual center was located at Ankor Wat, near present day Siem Reap. Cambodians are rightfully proud of their cultural history and as ancestors and caretakers of past glory that placed Cambodia at the center of the Southeast Asian world.

Modern times have not been as glorious for Cambodians, having lived under the boot of French colonialism, and then later as a geographical door mat where proponents of both Capitalism and Communism wiped their feet while playing out their chess moves for ideological supremacy, leaving Cambodian citizens to bare the brunt of lying in the midst of the high-stakes cross fire. Cambodia remains to this day one of the most bombed countries in history, having tallied more TNT within its borders than all of what was used in World War II during the Allied campaign over Europe.

Most despicable was the vacuum of power and leadership created by these external struggles which presented the opportunity for Communist radicals, who were hell bent on creating a Marxist paradise within Cambodia, to seize power and send the nation to the utter brink of existence. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime decimated the entire country from 1974-79. Educated in France, where he became infatuated with Marxist and Leninist ideals, he returned to Cambodia with his like-minded band and lived in the rural countryside awaiting the precise moment to spring their plan into action. Once power was seized in the after-glow of the end of the Vietnam War, massive relocation efforts were put into place by the Khmer Rouge. People living in the cities were transported hundreds of kilometers away to rural countrysides to begin their new life as modest and benevolent farmers. It didn't matter if people had no previous farming skills. They were forced to surrender all of their worldly assets (cars, houses, investments, clothes) and to move to the rural areas to begin a tortuous life of physical toil and eventual starvation.

Cities such as Phenom Penh, which was once known as the Paris of the Far East, were virtually empty of life due to the forced rural relocations. Scholars, government officials, journalists, ethnic minorities, even a few foreigners from western countries, were rounded up as suspected traitors and capitalist sympathizers and imprisoned and soon thereafter viciously tortured and executed. Tuol Sleng Prison, a converted high school, was operated by the Khmer Rouge's feared S-21 division. According to the Khmer Rouge's own ghoulish documentation, Tuol Sleng became hell on earth for over 10,500 prisoners in just four years of operation. Few if any of these prisoners lived to tell of their experience. Those who survived the torture of Tuol Sleng were eventually transported to places such as Choeung Ek, site of the ominous "Killing Fields".

On my trip to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, a sickening silence hung over all who walked the ground of these thousands of tortured souls. Depressions in the earth marked the spots where prisoners were ordered to dig their own graves before receiving either a fatal gunshot or blow to the head by a hammer or blunt farming implement. I could still see pieces of clothing half buried in the dirt. As I walked along a narrow trail, I spotted what first looked to be some loose gravel. Upon closer inspection it was apparent that what I had actually come across were human teeth.

The Khmer Rouge did not rest by taking away just a single member of a family who was suspected of being a traitor to the communist revolution, but would also imprison and eventually murder the person's spouse and most shockingly their children as well. It is estimated that Cambodia lost over 50% of its population to executions and starvation during this five-year time period. The Khmer Rouge shut the borders with neighboring nations and Cambodia turned dark as the blinds were pulled down on the outside world so as not to witness some of the most sinister acts of genocide ever known to man.

Contrast these recent horrors with the fresh opportunity to slowly build Cambodia back up from the ashes left behind from the Khmer Rouge, and you bare witness to a country filled with promise and potential. Although I had been to Cambodia twice before, first dating back to 1999, this trip represented my first ever visit to the capital of Phenom Penh. Unlike my other two trips, this time I was representing my company and was there to explore opportunities to develop business in a way that could also help spur on local economic development through the use of computing technology. My co-worker and friend Frank, who had traveled all the way from the US, and I visited with several officials representing different ministries within the government. None of the government officials that we met shied away from the country's economic deficiencies or infrastructural challenges and all appeared clearly focused on how to turn things around. The officials that we met were open to idea sharing and hearing about examples we had captured from other countries. There was an obvious desire to learn and apply solutions in a manner that could quickly help Cambodia climb out of its current situation.

Frank and I were able to tour a local learning lab that our company had sponsored which focused on providing teachers and educators in Cambodia with new skills on how to incorporate the use of computing within their teaching methods to help deliver high-impact education to Cambodian children. Education remains one of the fundamental building blocks to help establish competencies that can be used to create economic development. And with over 50% of Cambodia's 14 million population under the age of 25, it makes sense for the government to have a strong focus on education.

One of the true joys on this trip was getting to know Rada, my local co-worker in Cambodia. Rada has been with my company since 2005 and to this day remains the only in-country staff that we have in Cambodia. Rada is not only a ground-breaker and first-mover within the business community there, but more importantly he sees himself as an agent of change that can help improve things for the better in his native land. Rada's personal story runs the gamut from tragedy all the way to true-grit inspiration.

Rada was nine years old when the Khmer Rouge snatched power. His family had their personal land and assets absconded and were sent 250 kilometers away to the rural countryside with nothing of their own to begin farming the arid land to grow rice for the revolution. Brutal and back-breaking work followed along with starvation. Rada explained that they were just happy that their father was allowed to live which was highly unlikely for the time given his previous status as a former government official. At age 13, Rada and his family escaped over the border to Thailand and lived in a refugee camp there for close to a year. The family survived by selling noodles within the camp and bartering for whatever they could.

Rada and his family were then granted immigration to America and began sowing the seeds of a new beginning. For the next 13 years Rada learned to speak English and attended school, while he and his family took on the immigrant work ethic to build a business and a better life in their new adopted home. His family opened a restaurant and later an Asian grocery store, and as Rada explained, every free moment he had outside of school was spent in the family business. Rada went on to university and then after graduating worked for large corporations. Then at a certain point, Rada reached a cross road in his life. One path had him on a comfortable and stable path remaining in the US, the other presented him with an opportunity to return to his homeland and apply his skills towards the re-birth of Cambodia. In 1994, Rada took the harder path and returned to Phenom Penh.

Rada is equally passionate about his love for Cambodia and the opportunities that he had in the US. He is embodying the new spirit that this nation needs to begin the move towards economic growth and sustainability. He believes in his calling and is investing his own money in local businesses. Some of his overseas family members wondered why he would return, but Rada would have it no other way. Rada met his own cross road and chose a path less traveled. I only hope that Cambodia, having faced the bloody challenges of the past and the economic decay that ensued, now finds itself on the right path. Things are definitely looking up. Roads have been built, Hydro-electric dams are being planned, sub-marine fiber optic cable is being laid, and the country just recently discovered oil reserves within its borders. Last but not least, the country has people like Rada who see their own path uniquely interlaced with the homeland pride and energy that it will take in these important next steps.


At 3:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

personally i couldnt take any photos when i visited Tuol Sleng Prison or Killing Fields. it was too sad for me and seeing your photos bring back memories.

but the positive outcome is the unfaltering spirit of the locals. Similiar to your friend Rada, i have met locals who had opportunities to go abroad and pursue a better life. but they opt to stay back, believing that life would be better in the coming years.

its great to read another account here. thanks for sharing :)

At 6:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David you need to write a book, ( american yankee in the orient)

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

you have a very interesting blog. I left you a message on your skype connection.

I have briefly browsed through your blog. I will dedicate a bit more time to read some posts. Impressive this one about Cambodia. I just spent the Xmas holidays there. I am a blogger as well (unfortunately my blog is in Italian...), and a traveller, for business. I was in Singapore over the new year time.

I read your old post on "why having a blog". Very nice.

Congratulation for your blog.

Homing Pigeon / Ferdinando


Post a Comment

<< Home