Danger: Moonrunes ahead!
Also known as:
Location: Southeast Asia, bordering Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos
Area: 180000 square kilometers
What’s a kilometer?
Capital: Phnom Penh (We live here)
Climate: Summer year-round
Ethnically: >90% Khmer
Religion: >95% Buddhist
Population: 15 million
Population growth: 1.63%
Area comparison: slightly smaller than Oklahoma
Population comparison: Slightly less than the greater Los Angeles area
Currency: both USD and Cambodian Riels (pronounced real)
Economy: agriculture, textiles, natural resources, tourism
GDP: $39.64 billion
GDP growth: 7%
GDP per capita: $2600
Population below the poverty line: 20%
Use of English language: Pretty Good
Famous for: The killing fields, Angkor Wat
A Brief History
I once was in a political science class in Hong Kong. The class was about modern Chinese politics. The professor opened up with a soft, warmup question. What countries are in the region? After the class named a few, one student said, “The United States”. Which, at the time, I thought was ridiculous. Why would someone possibly even think the United States is in a region directly opposite to where it is on the map? The professor sagely nodded his head (a distinct kind of professorial head nod which leaves a pause and indicates that the good answer needs to be absorbed before he can carry it forward. He explained that although the US is not geographically in the area, they are still very much in the region.
The US was subsequently brought up in every class. Say the subject of the class was “China and Its Border Policies with Mongolia and Russia”. Yes, the United States was a factor there too. Somehow. This idea is overwhelming actually. Although the level of US domination is fading, it’s one of the keys to understanding other parts of the modern world, which I think is hard to understand until you experience it.
Getting off the plane in Cambodia you are greeted with a different culture certainly. But you communicate in English, you hear US music, you see US television shows, you see US actresses on billboards, you see familiar brands in the stores, and you see prices listed in US money. I have yet to see a price listed in Cambodian riel. All this in a place I’ve barely heard of.
I don’t know much about Asian history. I mostly blame our education system which really only taught western civilization (although we made a brief exception for Australia which in retrospect seems… racist). I couldn’t name a single ancient Southeast Asian kingdom. So here is a Wikipedia rundown of Cambodian history: The Khmer Empire is the most famous ancient Cambodian-esque kingdom. Founded around 800 CE, it lasted for about 600 years. Here’s a map. Notice the boundaries.
This was the last Cambodian-centric kingdom until modern history. In the mid-1800s, the French subjugated the region into French Indochina, passing along some technology, architecture, food, culture, and oppression that come with colonization.
French Indochina had a mid-life crisis when France shortly ceased being a country in the 1940s. They started dating that weird, rapey-looking Japanese guy on the rebound.
Upon the defeat of Japan, sections of the Indochina region declared independence. The French fought to regain control of the region, ultimately failing. French Indochina was granted independence in 1953. Cambodia was established as a constitutional monarchy. Our American leaders feared a region wide sweep of communism. So began the Vietnam War.
For myself, a painful part of studying this region is our entrance into it, wondering how we could have done better, wondering whose fault certain things are. Fault in a system this big is a poor objective and likely simply a wrong concept. It is rarely any single doing or choice, it’s an outcome woven from a billion thoughts. However, visiting the intentions and desires then matching them with the outcome is a deep image of the problem. What happened after US troops entered the region was a chain of events that spread through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. None of it is good. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the Middle East, we want to help (at least the US public certainly does), but… as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, America is forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be.
The short of it is that the Vietnam War was no good for anyone. Aside from the Vietnamese and American bodies, the war spilled over into Cambodia both by the US and the Northern Vietnamese. The Cambodian leadership since taking power was one mostly of neutrality in both the Cold War and the Vietnam Conflict. The leader, Sihanouk, saw a badger fighting an eagle and tried his damned best to please two very, very pissed off animals. In 1970, a coup d’état took over the Cambodian state (the US “had nothing to do with this”, but we “never do anything” unless we’re caught red handed). This triggered a long series of events, all of which continue to be bad.
The new Cambodian state started fighting with communist rebels. These rebels where supported by North Vietnam and grew domestically by gaining support from the ousted king. These rebels slowly continued to win and grow, and grow and win. In 1975, these rebels took over Phnom Penh. Lead by Pol Pot, they named themselves the Khmer Rouge.
These fuckers had a vision.
From an outsider’s perspective, they committed genocide aimlessly and without purpose, they targeted minorities, political opponents, and intellectuals, but mostly just killed whoever happened to be around. That was the killing fields. They took out about a quarter of the population. We will talk more extensively about this later.
The domestic genocide continued throughout their rule, meanwhile external developments continued. The US departed from Vietnam. The Vietnamese diplomacy was immediately aggressive upon defeating South Vietnam. Vietnam’s relations with China chilled quickly and they insinuated rights over Laos and Cambodia. China saw this as a Soviet bid for the area.
In 1978 the Khmer Rouge led border raids into Vietnam, to which Vietnam retaliated with a 10 year long retaliation and occupation. During this time, the PRC not only supported the Khmer Rouge but also went to war with the Vietnamese. One thing that has grown since doing my light research into the region is my respect for the Vietnamese. They have pushed back the French, thwarted the United States, side stepped China, crushed the genocidal Khmer Rouge, survived sanctions for doing so, and for the past 10 or 15 years have had a stellar economy, now leaving third world status with a per capita GDP of over $4000 (China $10000, Cambodia $2600). That’s an impressive resume. All while being “evil” Communists.
One of the goals of this blog, is to contemplate rethinking US foreign policy, not necessarily ax-grinding for any specific idea, but just meditate on the idea. Attempting to convert every country to a democracy doesn’t seem to work and often has disastrous results (see: Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East).
These aren’t easy or clear questions. The Communist Vietnamese government has slaughtered many of its citizens. So did Saddam. We feared the domino effect and the domino effect did happen and voila, genocide appeared. The modern view of the Vietnam War is one of shame and moral decay. Would it still be so if it would have stopped the Killing Fields? Nothing about this trillion thread human thought tapestry is clear. Humanity is still in its infancy, we still don’t know quite how to get along without resorting to violence.
The trend in the 19th century was that the invader won. The trend in the 20th and 21st century is that the invader loses. With less military violence every decade, the direction we are headed seems hopeful. But what’s the next step. How can we, as a species, leave infancy?
In 1989 the peace process began and in 1991 the Cambodian monarchy was restored.
Today Cambodia is one of those democracy-in-name, but somewhat communist, somewhat free-market, somewhat dictatorship, very corrupt states. When I wrote about Ethiopia I sent emails which were nice and private. Well, this is 2015 and who knows who sees what, so when I speak of modern Cambodian politics I will be sticking to short, declarative sentences.
The Prime Minister is Hun Sen. He defected from the Khmer Rouge. He was installed by the Vietnamese. He has vowed to rule until he is 74.
This is Cambodia’s history.