New Internationalist


May 1983

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Map of Kampuchea

Leader: President Heng Samrin

Economy: GNP was $150 per person in 1977 (latest figure)

Monetary Unit: Riel. Gold, gemstones and rice used as barter currency.

Main exports: Before t970: rice, rubber kapok. fish, gemstones. In 1979 export earnings only $1.5 million.

People: 6 million

Health: Infant mortality 150 per 1000 live births.

Daily calorie availability: 78% (1977).

Culture: Shattered by ten years of war and internal persecution.

Buddhism tolerated and widespread. Muslim Cham 1%. Communist party has estimated 60,000 members.

Language: Khmer. French was widely spoken by the educated middle classes. Independence gained from France in 1953. Ethnic groups: Khmer, Khmer Krom (Khmer/Vietnamese), Cham, some hill tribes.

Sources: World View 1983, World Development Report 1982.

WATER has fashioned Kampuchea’s topography and history. The Mekong river and the great Tonle Sap lake — helped by the monsoon rains — shape the land and render it fertile. Power over this abundance of water provided the kings of tenth and eleventh century Kampuchea with the economic base for an empire: Angkor. Water provided hydraulic power and transport for the construction of huge ‘temple mountains’. The most famous of them, the 12th century Angkor Wat, is still an intense inspiration to the Khmer people.

After the sacking of Angkor in the 15th century, Kampuchea’s history was one of occupation and land annexation, until the French established their protectorate in 1864. Prince Sihanouk came to the throne in 1941. His skilful diplomacy brought Kampuchea independence in 1953 and kept the country out of the Vietnam war.

But in 1970 Sihanouk was deposed by his generals and within months the country was engulfed in war. American bombers devastated this beautiful land, fomenting a brutal civil war which polarised the town dwellers and the rural population. In five years Kampuchea, previously a food surplus agrarian nation, degenerated into a refugee society dependent on massive US handouts to the corrupt Lon Nol government.

The victorious Khmer Rouge entered the capital Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. From that day on the cities were forcibly emptied and the entire population was forced to work in the countryside. The Khmer Rouge decimated the educated classes and city dwellers — 1½ million people died or were killed during the next four years.

In 1979 the Vietnamese invaded, pushed back the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border and installed a makeshift government of Khmer exiles under President Heng Samrin. A massive international relief operation followed. Three years on, the desperate chaos and shortages have receded and city life in Phnomh Penh has a familiar bustle and purpose to it The ‘free’ market flourishes, with convoys of bicycles carrying contraband cargoes of watches, cloth, radios, soaps and other consumer goods from the Thai border to the thriving markets. In the towns people revive Khmer rock ‘n roll and traditional dance music. A baby boom has been reported — nature’s way of making up for the million and a half dead.

From the remnants of the country’s pagodas, the few surviving priests attempt to revive the once omnipresent Buddhist faith, and consult the astrologers about the future. Perhaps they recall a prediction from ancient times: ‘The country will collapse completely into the hands of an unknown and murderous regime.

Foreigners will invade the country and people will struggle to regain power.

When a new king returns to Phnom Penh, Cambodia will regain all of its land…

Peter Davis

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As trading class grows, urban-rural income gap increases
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Dependent on aid from Soviet bloc, Vietnam UN and Western agencies since 1979
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‘Women greatly outnumber men. Traditional sex roles breaking down.
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[image, unknown] One party communist state watched over and guided by Vietnam and, increasingly Russia
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Free primary schooling introduced after schools closed. 1975 – 79. Literacy rate improving.
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Some political prisoners. Re-education camps for Khmer Rouge. State-controlled press and radio

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‘46 in 1960 but no recent figures available. Health services improving

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This feature was published in the May 1983 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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