new internationalist
issue 258 - August 1994

Country profile: Cambodia

Where is Cambodia? In the wake of the 1993 elections, new nightmares have arisen as Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge guerrillas continue to threaten the fragile government, innocent civilians and other easy targets. They are stronger now than at any time since 1979 when Vietnamese troops invaded and toppled Pol Pot.

Many Cambodians fear Pol Pot will try to fill the vacuum left by departing UN forces by increasing his control over rural areas. His Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia during his 1975 - 1978 Maoist, back-to-the-jungle 'killing fields' regime in which about one million Cambodians died from mass executions, torture, starvation, neglect and slave labour.

The Khmer Rouge spurned UN offers to participate in the election which brought a narrow victory to US-backed Norodom Sihanouk's royalist party.

As a result of the polls Sihanouk (represented by his son Norodom Ranariddh) shares power with the defeated Viet-namese-installed regime which led the country during the past 13 years under former Prime Minister Hun Sen. The coalition is riddled with former Khmer Rouge guerrillas and collabor-ators, and snarled by infighting. Some US and other Western dip-lomats are wary of Sihanouk's offer to allow the Khmer Rouge a role in the fledgeling government. They fear Pol Pot is using the often confused monarch as a stepping stone to seize power again - as in 1975 when he pronounced the Khmer Rouge the nation's saviours and invited home all Cambodians who had fled. As people arrived, however, the Khmer Rouge grabbed them at the airport and slaughtered them in mass graves.

Minority ethnic Vietnamese are also terrified because Pol Pot and coalition officials have vowed to expel them from Cam-bodia - or simply kill them. Meanwhile thousands of land-mines laid during the war remain buried on roadsides, in rice paddies and on jungle paths despite some UN de-mining. Cambodia suffers one of the world's highest amputee rates due to land-mine accidents.

In addition to Pol Pot's effort to return and the traumas re-maining after more than 20 years of war, Cambodians are also suffering a sudden collapse of their boom economy because of the UN departure.

The huge UN presence resulted in an influx of imported goods to feed, house, maintain and entertain them, plus a sudden burst of feverish investment and construction by Cambodians and others eager to cash in on the 24,000 relatively rich and free-spending UN officials.

Much of Cambodia's economy will now be controlled by various ethnic minorities and foreigners who have already grabbed whatever they could.

Meanwhile the Khmer Rouge 'wait in the wings to exploit every opportunity to expand their power,' says the Wash- ington-based Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge 'Pol Pot is sticking with a winning strategy.' The warning bells are ringing loudly.

Richard S. Ehrlich


LEADERS: Joint leadership under Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $200 (US $22,240)
Monetary unit: Cambodian riel
Main exports: Rubber and timber.
Main imports: Machinery, petroleum, textiles. Agriculture employs 75 per cent of workforce; crops are rubber, rice, maize, cassava, fruit, timber. Minerals: gemstones, manganese, phosphates. Vast destruction of roads, bridges, railway lines, electric lines, water systems and other grids in war. Danger of land-mines.

PEOPLE: 8.8 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 117 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Khmer culture with influences from China, India, Vietnam and France. Khmer majority with minority ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese. Religion: Theravada Buddhist with a tiny Muslim minority.
Languages: Khmer; some French also spoken.

Sources: The State of the World's Children 1994; The Asia and Pacific Review 1993/94; Third World Guide 1993/94; World Development Report 1993; Asian Development Bank, World Health Organization, UNESCAP, and government statistics.

Last profiled in May 1983



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
20 years of war and genocide have caused destitution. High inflation as economy opened to world trade.

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LITERACY [image, unknown]
Only 22% for women; 35% for men. Pol Pot killed teachers. Most children now have primary education.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Dependent for most things. Few skilled workers/professionals survived Pol Pot. Infrastructure destroyed.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
New regime promised freedoms but practice is different. Dissidence is not tolerated.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Many men killed, so women fill jobs: but tradition and male dominance prevents women's real power.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
Women 52 years; men 49 (US 76 years). Health care obliterated during Pol Pot years. Many deaths from mines.

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Politics now

Politics then

Despite elections, still influenced by years of communism.


NI star rating

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