Conversations in Cambodia
S: So what made you decide to build a school for poor kids?
P: When I was about 22-23 I knew that I was lucky to get an education, and wanted to do something for my village; I knew I’d do something for poor people even before that though. We were poor when I was young; that bowl [he points at my serving of a sardine-sized fish & rice] used to have to feed four of us; most of the time we didn't have any meat or fish at all; we lived on rice & pickled cucumber. It didn't occur to me that we were poor until I was at a friend’s house one night for dinner…when I was about 8. They had this piece of meat that they were sharing, but it was a very large piece of meat - about the size of my fist; I went there again a few days later and they had another piece the same size. I went home and asked my mother why they had meat and we didn’t; she told me to work hard at school and I’d find out, and be able to buy that kind of meat; and it was from that day on that I knew that I wanted something better for myself and my family. I guess it was at that time I set off on this path.
S: So why an English school? And when did you start it. P: At school & university I studied English and teaching, it seemed to me that that was the key to being rich. I was teaching at a local high school and in my spare time, I taught about 40 kids in a classroom under my house; over time more and more students wanted to join. This went on for about 8 years, with more classes filling up our weekends – there were too many kids, but we did our best [T’s wife began to teach as well]. I met a German man one day who had moved to the village with his new Cambodian wife, he’d met her in Phnom Penh and she wanted to come home for while. He came down to the school one day and was impressed by what we were doing and offered to help by contacting his friend at an NGO in Germany; within a few months the NGO had visited and agreed to help us.
S: In what way did they help? P: First they said we needed to find a bigger place, and said that once we did they could help build a school for us. My mother-in-law gave us some land she had across the other side of the river, the NGO and I agreed that they would pay for a new building; I mean they would pay for floors 1 & 2 for classrooms, and I would pay for the top floor for us to live in. That was two years ago, and now we have 8 classrooms and 400 hundred students.
S: Do the students pay fees? P: Oh yes, well most of them do; the poorest kids are paid for by the German donors.
S: How much are the fees? P: 20,000reil [$5US] per month for juniors & 32,000reil [$8US] for high school students.
S: What is the average wage here? P: Teachers at the local high school get about $50-$80 per month. Most people (farmers) earn about $30-$40 per month. People who work at the Chinese factory about 20km away get about $60 per month, but they spend about $20 per month getting to work and buying food. The top paying job around here is $100 per month working outside about 60-70 hours per weeks at the brick works - a very hard, hot job.
S: What do local people think of what you are doing? P: Some people think I’m doing a good thing helping poor people; but there are quite a few people who talk about me
behind my back complaining that we don't help them too. I try to explain to people that we can only help the really poor; and if you’re not the poorest of the poor then you have to make your own way – but people are very jealous and won't even speak to me in the village. But I really don't care about what they think; they just want something for free.
S: How do you decide who is and isn't poor enough to get access to the NGO’s donor money? P: We are very careful. We go around the village and visit people; you can see fairly quickly who has nothing to eat, and who has no furniture etc. The villagers can’t really hide anything; everyone knows who is poor and who is not.
S: Does the NGO provide anything else apart from money for fees and the building etc.? P: Yes, as you saw the other day they bought the 30 bags of rice, and they took the really poor kids shopping for clothes. Those things happen only when either some donors are visiting, or I ask directly for some extra help.
This is a conversation with a respected local, which took place over two lunchtimes. For reasons of safety, his, we'll call him ‘G.’
S: How do people see each other? I mean to say how do people view each other’s financial situation? G: Cambodians are funny people. People who are not poor look down on people who are, and often won't even talk to them. The people like this aren’t necessarily rich, or even that much better off than the very poor. I experienced this when I was a kid: I was playing with another boy from down the road, when his father came out and scolded him for playing with a poor boy, of course that poor boy was me.
S: Did that hurt? G: Not at the time, I didn't understand what I had done to get that boy in trouble – but that’s how people are; and still are.
S: What about people’s view of the rich? G: Oh, people who are not rich are afraid of the rich.
S: Afraid? Why? G: Because when you are rich in Cambodia it means you have power, power over other people’s lives and property. Money and politics are the same in Cambodia. What's it like in your country?
S: Um, well no one is afraid of the rich, many people are envious of course; but they aren’t afraid of them because they have no power as such. G: Strange. I like that.
S: What's the number one most important thing needed in Cambodia? G: Education is number one. But Government has to change; they are so corrupt.
S: In what way? G: Well if government or a large business wants to take your land for say a big road, or building a factory, they just do; and very few people get money for their land, and if they do it’s very little.
S: What about the courts? – Are they effective? G: Hahahaha, if you can afford a lawyer who is not corrupt, the courts are controlled by judges that are friends of the politicians who are friends of the business people. The price to take a case is out of reach of people, and if enough people get together to take a case; the police will just arrest some of them…what do you call them…?
S: Ring leaders? G: Yes, ring leaders; and they can spend a long time in jail on no charge or rubbish charges if they make trouble; many are beaten up, some have been killed.
S: But the laws are there right? – To protect people and their property? G: Yes of course, but who would want to complain even if they could afford a lawyer.
S: What about contract law between individuals? Is that enforced? G: Yes, that is usually settled easily, but is still expensive. Most disputes are settled before that though.
S: So what about the police then? What do people think of them? G: Everyone hates them – they are so corrupt. But being a policeman is often one of the few jobs going. Police get paid about $60 per month, and they get extra money by taking it off people for not wearing helmets, going through red lights; and of course taking it off foreigners with no license is good money.
S: So what kinds of jobs are there for people around here? G: It’s very hard for young men to get work; they may get day work from time to time for a couple of dollars per day, or they can join the army or the police. A lot of the young women work for the factories. There are many Chinese factories now; and they prefer young women instead of men. The factory workers can earn about $60-$70 per month working long hours – it’s a long way to travel for most people though; so after they spend money on travel and food, they are left with maybe $40 per month.
S: What do you think of the Chinese doing business in Cambodia; the factory must provide much needed work? G: Yes, it is good that the Chinese factories are here, otherwise there would be no work. The Chinese are also paying for that road to be built [pointing to the road behind me]. That’s a good thing, but they are mean.
S: Mean in what way? G: Well that road is being built right through some people’s property, and they paid them nothing, they just took it one morning. And you see that some shops have had the front yard ripped right off - their customers can't get into their shops.
S: Isn't it the job of the government to protect land owners? G: I told you before, the government and businesses are in it together. The Chinese don't care; why would they if the government doesn’t.
At this point G asks me a few questions.
G: Why won't more western companies come here, instead of the Chinese?
S: I guess foreign companies need to know the law works, that things are stable, that corruption won't affect them too much; Cambodia struggles to offer that. And you might not realize this but the Chinese often have another deal going on that you might not know about.
G: Like what?
S: The most recent one was the ASEAN meeting chaired by Cambodia, where all the countries present except Cambodia and China wanted to discuss the island disputes in the region - the disputes arising from the Chinese claims to most of the region’s sea. Everyone at the meeting knew that the Chinese had put pressure on the Cambodian government not to forward the motion to discuss it. In exchange China is known to give money to your government without any questions of where and who it goes to.
S: What do you think about that?
G: As long as we get the money.
Once I’d spent a few days with G, I felt confident enough to ask about the Khmer Rouge.
S: G you’re an educated and well read man; what can you tell me about the Khmer Rouge? G: Not much.
S: Ok, what do you know about them, and what they did? G: Only what foreigners tell me.
S: Funny, I’d heard that before from a tuk-tuk driver [who became a friend of mine last time I was here]. He said that he and his friends are puzzled by foreigners wanting to go to Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields; and that he wouldn't have known about what happened there had it not been for meeting foreigners.
Why is that? – I mean it was a monumental event in your country’s history…and not very long ago. G: We are not taught about it in school. Though I don't think anyone would really care anyway; that was a long time ago; and no one really wants to think about it.
S: What about the trials [of Khmer Rouge leaders] on TV?
G: The trials of the big four?
G: Nobody wants to watch them, they are boring; anyway who are those guys…I’ve never met them, and they didn't hurt me.
S: Oh come on; you know what they did – surely you have some interest in seeing them tried and convicted? G: Yes, I suppose so. But I just never think about it.
S: Is that the same for people you know? G: Yes, no one ever talks about it. It's nothing to do with us. And anyway, people are more interested in getting enough to eat tomorrow.
S: It’s hard to argue with that last sentence. But have you ever heard the expression: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”?
G: Yes, I’ve heard that.
S: So do you think a Khmer Rouge type thing can happen here again? G: No.
S: Why not? G: Because westerners will help us and stop them.
S: Have you heard of Rwanda? G: No, why?
S: Doesn't matter, mate.
The current government has been in power since the early 80’s, formerly an avowed Marxist/Maoist party. Early in the eighties they started a publicity campaign to throw off their links with Pol Pot. They now claim to be “democratic socialists.” There is now a semblance of a democratic political system, but opponents that get some support and worry the regime, and can't be cajoled and corrupted, have been denounced, jailed, and assassinated. The system here – if you can call it that – is not dissimilar to China’s, except that people get to play the charade of elections.
The trials going on in Phnom Penh of former Khmer Rouge leaders has now set limits on who can be tried, and are now just for the four top remaining survivors of the regime. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who decreed this policy, was once a Khmer Rouge commander himself who fled to Vietnam in the late 70s for what he claims was his ‘unease’ at Pol Pot’s extreme policies. I can't help but wonder if perhaps the on-going purges might have been a factor in his leaving too. Once he’d fled to Vietnam he set about convincing the Vietnamese to invade. The Vietnamese didn't initially, but did support Sen and his band of exiles in their attempt to oust Pot. As it happened however Pol Pot was sufficiently stupid and evil to attack Vietnamese civilians both in Cambodia and across the border. (The previous regimes forces did this also and got pounded for it.) The Vietnamese did invade, and thankfully—by driving Pol Pot and his regime into the forest—relieved the surviving Cambodians of their most murderous regime to date. The Vietnamese gave Sen the job of Foreign Minister under the new/old regime, which he still retains.
Today, the influence of China is palpable in both what is being built and how it is being built, and in the political shenanigans that are going on. The culture is otherwise much more Indian than Chinese; the people physically look more Indian than other East Asians too; and their particular form of witch doctor worship (religion) is also derived from India.
Suzuki Samurai posts irregularly from around Asia. Check out all his posts here.
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