June 12, 2014
By Adam Roth
Starting in the 1990s a debate commenced over whether or not there was a decline of solidarity in the Cambodian countryside. At the time Cambodia was recovering from thirty years of violence, four of which marked one of the darkest periods in human history. From 1975 to 1979, after years of build-up, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge ruthlessly exercised total reign over the entire country. But even after Vietnam liberated Cambodia, peace was not entirely restored. The Khmer Rouge had been weakened but not defeated, as thousands of members fled to the forest where they would spend the next decade engaging in guerrilla warfare against the occupying Vietnamese forces. It was only in the 1990s, after the UN elections, that Cambodia became accessible once again to foreign scholars who were anxious to study the cultural remnants of the country with one of the most tumultuous histories of the latter half of the twentieth century.
I visited Cambodia for the first time earlier this year. As a sociologist interested in social networks and emerging economic systems, I turned my focus to the countryside. It was the logical place to study as 80% of the population still lives there and have undergone political and economic change so quickly that the social effects prove highly unpredictable. As mentioned above, in recent years a debate has arisen regarding solidarity in the Cambodian countryside. One of the problems with this debate is that solidarity—the dependency individuals have on each other to fulfill their needs and interests—is difficult to conceptualize. It can be measured in many different ways, thus opening the possibility of many different conclusions. In order to tackle the problem at hand, I enlisted the help of a handful of local Khmer who would serve as my field assistants and translators as we surveyed community members of four villages in northwestern Cambodia.
A Typical Khmer Village
The villages Bompenh Reach, Tropiang Svay, Leang Dai and Doun Ouv are all located in the Angkor Thom district of the Siem Reap province, approximately ten kilometres from the famous Angkor Wat temples. (This should not be confused with the Angkor Thom ruins located within the Angkor Wat Archaeological Site.) Despite their proximity to Angkor Wat and the hordes of tourists it attracts, the villages of Angkor Thom remain remarkably unaffected. Physically, the villages are similar to the way they were in the years prior to the war. The houses are built in traditional Khmer fashion, from a combination of wood and banana leaves or—in the case of wealthier families—concrete.
Each house stands on stilts, thus creating a space underneath for families to take refuge from the beating sun during the dry season and the pouring rain during the wet season. Apart from a single paved country highway intersecting the district, all roads and pathways are dirt or gravel. There is no electricity in the district. All lights, radios, televisions and other electrical appliances run off car batteries which are recharged for a small fee at a number of local shops. Transportation is limited to three options: walking, bicycling and motorcycling. Although most families own a motorcycle, walking and bicycling are still the most common means of inter-village transportation. As for the local economy, most households still rely heavily on rice farming. This is practiced at a near-subsistence level. A fair share of households typically have at least one member working outside the district, usually in construction or the service sector of Siem Reap town. The majority of the district is monolingual. English is taught in the local schools, but in most instances it is more of a formality as few students obtain proficiency by the time they graduate.
The Local Atmosphere
As part of my research team, I was introduced to Bopha (24), a teacher at the local high school and three of her students, Heng (17), Maly (16) and Punthea (15). All of them exhibited overt kindness and welcomed me into their community with little questioning of why I was there. Over the course of a month we went house to house soliciting villagers to take part in our survey. Initially I was skeptical; I assumed we would face constant resistance. After all, not only did the survey take upwards of half an hour to complete but we were not part of an organization and therefore had nothing to offer participants in return for their time. At the first house we were greeted by a lone man in his sixties. With little introduction on our part, he graciously pulled up four chairs followed by four glasses of hot tea. The exchanges in between questions and responses were long and heartfelt. Rather than shooing us away the man warmly welcomed us into his home. I quickly came to learn that this was typical of village life in these parts. Half a dozen houses later I asked Bopha if she or her students knew any of the people we had surveyed. “No,” she smiled. “People here are just friendly.”
Over the course of the next month we surveyed 117 villagers. Quite often as we approached the houses unannounced, we would find the occupants hard at work, whether it was a woman crafting a basket out of loose branches or a man digging in his garden. Without fail every time we drew closer the occupants stopped what they were doing and offered us a chair, hammock or spot of the ground next to them. More than simply tolerating us they welcomed our presence. Due to the intimacy of survey administration, Bopha, Heng, Maly and Punthea took turns translating, typically switching after each house. When it was not their turn to translate the remaining three would make themselves at home in the stranger’s house. They would either lounge in the hammocks that lay in the shade under nearly every house or play with the toddlers who so often wander free around the yard.
On the third day of surveying we reached one particular house in Bompenh Reach where a man was working alone in his garden. Upon seeing us he put down his hoe and beckoned towards a table underneath the house. The questioning began in normal fashion. He was 32 years old, married and had no children or relatives living in the village. Nothing struck me as odd as he continued to answer our questions when a boy of about three years old came to his side. Soon the boy began motioning for a radio which sat in the middle of the table. The man—hardly looking twice at him—reached for the radio and handed it to the boy. Suddenly I realized what was wrong with this picture: the man did not have any children. Nor did he have any relatives in the village. This boy did not live here. It was unclear whether he was a neighbor or complete stranger, but either way neither he nor the man seemed bothered by this. The nonchalant attitude displayed by both parties represented a large pattern of solidarity within the community.
Angkor Thom is a place where people often treat each other as family regardless of association. Indeed quite often families’ daily activities spill into that of their neighbors’. In all four villages, unattended children wander casually between houses. Adults constantly check in on one another be it for business or for a visit. Even at the local shops—usually the front of someone’s home—a congregation will often gather for no particular reason other than to socialize. Initially, I had set out to determine if the emerging market economy is affecting solidarity within the Cambodian countryside. Many before me had conducted similar research in hopes of drawing larger conclusions to the modernization of rural populations in countries such as Cambodia. I found, through my research and my experiences within the villages themselves, that solidarity remains strong in the villages of Angkor Thom. Times may be changing as the presence of machinery and hired labor slowly infiltrate the countryside, but for now the vast majority of villagers are sticking together. And as long as that togetherness persists so too will the culture that is unique to Cambodia.
Adam Roth spent four months in Cambodia in early 2014. He lives in the United States where he earned his B.A. in sociology.