Imagining Cambodia

How is one to write about Cambodia? In New York, thousands of miles away, images tumble into mind. A bejeweled dancer gently lifts an arm, bends a wrist, and seeks out her magic crystal ball while xylophones and gongs play vibrantly at her side. At Angkor, a multitude of enormous faces casts Jayavarman's benign Buddha smiles in four directions, the twelfth-century dark stone surfaces still startling against the bright blue sky. Such images are quickly replaced by others: American bombs exploding into villages and lush, green rice paddies; in 1975, weary crowds marching from Phnom Penh through heat and dust toward unknown futures in the countryside - starvation, illness, hard labor, fear, death?

Visiting Cambodia in 1988 and again in 1989, I was struck with the power of these, our well-formed images, but also with their inadequacy to describe contemporary realities. That Cambodia is a real country with real people engaged in complex struggles not simply to survive but to rebuild their society and culture is somehow too easily eclipsed in our popular understandings, which stress the ancient glories of Khmer civilization (Angkor and the dance), or the devastation of the Pol Pot period, or the seemingly intractable political vise (or vice) in which the country has long been squeezed. It is quite true that these are themes that preoccupy Cambodians themselves; as several articles in this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly show, Angkor, the dance, and Pol Pot also serve as critical contemporary symbols.

But there is also another Cambodia that cannot escape a visitor's notice. The streets of Phnom Penh, emptied and desolate in most of our minds (thanks in large part to the film The Killing Fields), today are alive with people, with thousands of children, with bikes and pedicabs and even cars, with photo shops and beauty shops and noodle shops, with men hawking balloons and streamers, with girls pedaling by in the latest fashions (furry orange or red hats were in style in 1989), with lovers wandering along the Mekong River banks. Markets teem with everything from lotus roots to Russian caviar and Mennonite canned beef; with brightly colored mats, gold jewelry, bolts of silk cloth, and krama (checkered, handwoven scarves); with televisions and VCRs. At night - at least in 1989, when for a brief period there was no curfew (it was reinstated after the Vietnamese troop withdrawal) - restaurants turned into discos, and one could dine on lakeside terraces, enjoying steamed fish and warm Thai beer, and dance to live music, a blend of 1950s American rock ("Wake up, little Susie" and the like) and something much more Southeast Asian.

But if life in the city seems at times to be almost joyful, there is also much to sadden, discourage, and infuriate. Horrifying tales of people's experiences during the Pol Pot period burble to the surface in the most unlikely moments (over drinks, during a car ride). At Tuol Sleng, a former high school that was turned into a prison and torture center and is now a museum, children carefully examine photographs of faces of the dead; one cannot know what the children are thinking. A Cambodian friend who has returned after 15 years abroad takes me to find her old family apartment, now inhabited by strangers; I take her picture there, at her request.

The enormity of rebuilding a country, beginning with basic infrastructure (water an sanitation in Phnom Penh, for example), is simply staggering. As we traveled, we witnessed what few resources those attempting to reconstruct the universities, schools, and libraries have. Teachers at the Kandal Province teacher training school - a campus built entirely by student and teacher labor, planted in red flowers and volleyball nets, with rice fields nearby - shoed us with a mixture of pride and dismay their roneograph, which serves as the school's sole duplicating machine: a crude, handmade box with a green ink-pad. Pleas for help are painfully hard to answer. The US imposed embargo on trade, investment, and development assistance has meant that bilateral aid (outside of India and Eastern bloc countries) is virtually nonexistent. Other international assistance has been provided for years by small, private, humanitarian organizations.

Yet even in dire circumstances people's spirits and determination to make things work seem astonishing. At the School of fine Arts, young orphans of the Pol Pot period are trained to be the new generation of dancers. Visitors are taken to see them rehearse in their simple, barnlike wooden studio. Watching these survivors turn into lovely little apsaras or leaping Hanumans, even the most jaded cynic cannot help but feel that there is hope.

Still, such hope is easily dashed. Although the last Vietnamese troops departed in September 1989, in early 1990 the country's future still hung precariously in an international (lack of) balance. In Phnom Penh, even as residents of the city and the Hun Sen government attempted to go about life as usual, Khmer Rouge radio trumpeted the fall of provincial towns, and contradictory rumors circulated wildly. By March, sporadic explosions in the capital had ceased, but resistance troops along the Thai border were reported to have lost control, killing, raping, and plundering indiscriminately. In the countryside around Phnom Penh fortifications were assembled, militias readied. The economy, previously quite stable, experienced volatility as well: in February inflation soared, diesel fuel became scarce, and electricity began to fail with increasing frequency in Phnom Penh. By March the exchange rate and prices had been stabilized, but severe strains persist, and government workers seek to supplement their meager incomes with additional jobs.

Meanwhile, the flag of Democratic Kampuchea (the country's name during the Pol Pot period) flew boldly at the United Nations until February 1990, testimony to the bizarre international politics that have undermined Cambodians' attempts to rebuild their country over the years. For different reasons, the United States, China, and Thailand each has enabled the opposition (consisting of Khmer Rouge followers of Pol Pot, Sihanoukists, and the anticommunist resistance) to persist, indeed to flourish. As Vickery (1989) reminds us, "In 1980 when the Pol Pot remnants were starving on the Thai border, the United States shelled out $54 million toward their rehabilitation and rearmament, encouraged, perhaps even bullied, other countries into providing similar support, and has adamantly opposed measures that would prevent that group from returning to power."

Nearly a decade later, in August 1989, the 19-nation Paris conference on Cambodia collapsed as the United States insisted on following Prince Norodom Sihanouk's (and China's) demand for Khmer Rouge participation in an interim government. Hopes have recently been rekindled in light of an Australian proposal for a UN-supervised interim administration (and a vacant Cambodia seat at the UN). But it is difficult to look upon the new initiative with anything but very cautious optimism.

A political settlement will be a major achievement, but the story will not end there. Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan's much-lauded intention to transform Indochina from battlefield to marketplace might itself be cause for concern, if one may draw lessons from recent events elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In Burma, for example, the dream "of Thai prosperity radiating into surrounding countries" was played out in 1989 as a "crash sell-off" of that country's precious resources of fish, gems, and timber (McDonald 1990:17).

It has been said that little will change in the United States until we start thinking of Vietnam as a country and not a war (especially a war we lost). The same applies, of course, to Cambodia. (It would be true of little Laos, too, if anyone gave it any thought at all - a country on which the United States rained bombs equal to those it dropped on Europe and the Pacific in World War II, two-thirds of a ton per Laotian.) We hope that this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly will make a small contribution toward illuminating something of the complexity of contemporary Cambodian life.

The articles here range widely. Three prominent Cambodians are represented in interviews: Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia since 1979 through its remarkable recovery from the ravages of recent history; Chheng Phon, the charismatic minister of information and culture, representing an older generation of French-educated intellectuals and artists; and Thong Khon, the young mayor of Phnom Penh who guides the reconstruction of urban life in the capital.

Other articles place the crises of the last two decades in historical perspective (Chandler, Vickery, Kiernan) or offer analyses of the current (and dramatically changing) political and economic situation (Vickery, McDonnell and McAuliff). The chronology provided on pages 33-34 guides readers through the complexity of the conflict since 1975. Not surprisingly, the theme of survival echoes in many articles (most prominently in Kiernan's, on ethnic minorities); but most of the essays deal with revival of diverse aspects of Cambodian culture and society: the arts, especially dance and music (Blumenthal, C.M. Sam, S.Sam, Lobban); Khmer language, literature, and libraries (Vickery, Ledgerwood); religion (Keyes); and health (McGrew). That "revival" is itself a complex process, drawing upon multiple interpretations of the past and of Cambodian identity, as suggested by an analysis of the legacies of Angkor (Keyes). Finally, the issue concludes with a reflection on the versatility of the krama (Grunewald), the simple woven scarf that is invested with meanings and allusions far beyond its scarf-ness.

I would like to thank all the writers who contributed, many of whom have spent much time in Cambodia. For good company and shared insights, I would also like to thank my companions on my two brief trips to the country, undertaken as the Social Science Research Council began to explore avenues for scholarly cooperation, a process which we hope will continue to bear fruit. And finally, profound thanks to the many people in Cambodia who have opened their doors, their offices, and their homes to odd groups of visitors trying to understand their country, its suffering, and its rebirth.


In a symbolic move clearly designed to dissociate himself from the Khmer Rouge, on 3 February Prince Norodom Sihanouk changed both the flag and the resistance coalition's name (from Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea [CGDK] to National Government of Cambodia [NGC]). In practice, nothing has changed: the "coalition" is still dominated by the Khmer Rouge, to which the United Nations seat reverts if the coalition dissolves.


McDonald, H.

1990 The Generals Buy Time. Far Eastern Economic Review. 22 February.

Vickery, M.

1989 Cambodia (Kampuchea): History, Tragedy, and Uncertain Future. Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 21 (2-4):35.

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CSQ Issue:

14-3 Cambodia

September 1990