Siem Reap is a dormitory for droves of tourists here to see Angkor Wat. We are surprised to find that, although the local currency is the riel, all the prices are advertised in American dollars. It seems it has been that way since 1993 when the United Nations presence ended here (Who said UN = US?). In the light of recent financial palpitations in America you’d think the Cambodians would want to divest themselves of this albatross as soon as they could. As Bob Dylan sang so presciently 25 years ago, “And it’s sundown on the union.”
Cambodia is a country with a long history. The era of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is the short interlude they all would dearly love to forget, but there are lingering reminders. I ventured over to the War Museum this afternoon to see if I could gain a glimpse into the period. My volunteer guide was congenial Khom, a victim of a landmine explosion 15 years ago.
Khom’s father was a scrap metal merchant who was investigating an unexploded bomb when it exploded, killing both of Khom’s parents and two of his sisters. Khom survived but with permanent legacies including a missing left arm. Every year he has to have a new growth of his vestigial bone shaved off. (“I asked them if they could use a sharp knife and be quick so less pain,” he says.)
In Cambodia, the notorious Pol Pot strode in to fill a power vacuum in 1975. Prince Norodom Sihanouk abdicated the throne and fled to the hills in the vicinity of the Vietnamese border. The Khmer Rouge ruled for only four years but caused untold horror and despair. (Pol Pot’s actual name was Salotsor. Pol Pot was a nickname derived from ‘Political Potential’.)
Some of the war museum exhibits are of the Khmer Rouge era and some are from the American War. (The landmines in the countryside are left over from the American War.) Khom is now 29 years old and has a good grasp of English thanks to an Australian (John from Perth) who volunteers as a teacher of English here because “money doesn’t mean much, it’s heart”. Khom has a good understanding of his country’s history, especially since he’s lived it so painfully. He says, “Nixon said sorry after the end of the war. (Pause.) I hope one day the American president will come here and remove all the bombs.” Khom thanks me for my donation: “I hope one day to have a robotic arm. If you come back in 20 years I will give you a big hug.”
Hun Sen has been in power here since 1979, claiming legitimacy despite many plausible accusations of vote buying and rigging. At the last election, the Cambodia People’s Party won 90 seats out of about 126 in the parliament with proportional representation.
Dany took me to a floating village today, giving me some excellent insight into the political situation here. He is a member of a subversive social organisation which is struggling to achieve some real democratic change in this country, which has suffered badly enough already. His organisation has eight planks for reform. One of them is that district and provincial leaders be elected by the people rather than appointed by the ruling party. At the moment many villagers survive in abject poverty. The pretence of representation at local level makes a mockery of the current administration’s claims to govern from the ground up. Dany describes the current government – which purports to be democratic – as a dictatorship. There are many who secretly concur.
the real Cambodia
Cambodia has been poorly governed for a long time and it shows. Most tourists go out to see Angkor Wat and stay close to the cloister of their hotel. It was good to obtain an insight into the real Cambodia whilst here. Tomorrow we are up early for a boat trip across the biggest lake in South-east Asia towards Battambang. There they teach meditation, among other things.
from Siem Reap in Cambodia