Sunday, 21 September 2008

Former Topekan reports from inside Cambodia

Cambodia's troubled and bloodied past belies the beauty of its culture, landscape and people. A former Topekan offers her first-hand report.

By Susan Anderson

Special to The Capital-Journal
Sunday, September 21, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: Susan Anderson, a freelance writer who spent her childhood in Topeka and now lives in California, has traveled extensively throughout the world, including three trips to Cambodia. Following are her impressions during a recent visit to that Southeast Asia country.

TAKEO, CAMBODIA — There is nowhere to begin and nowhere to end when you want to start describing a country like Cambodia.

I suppose I could begin by saying that it's a country shaped like a heart at whose center is Angkor Wat and the great Tonle Sap. A better description would be that if you took all the signs, symbols and colors the universe has yet to think of and scattered them around like confetti, the landscape would look like it does in Cambodia.

But in the end, I don't even think it's a place after all. I think of it as a dream because its depth, beauty and terror are unknowable, and because it seems like the closest thing you can get to being in heaven and hell.

It is dotted with constellations of ancient temples and vast areas of unexploded landmines, sometimes right next to each other. The subtle embrace of control and explanation that helps put everything together in your day-to-day life in the United States is rendered obsolete in a country whose culture has been threatened with destruction.

What is so spectacular about Cambodia is it's been relatively untouched by modernity due to its long history of isolation and warfare. There is a bucolic beauty to the undeveloped countryside that is ethereal to the point of being eternal.

It's home to an assortment of precious flora and fauna, though the threat of development looms large.

The Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, is a biosphere with more than 220 different kinds of birds. Interestingly, birds are considered bohdhisattavas, a type of enlightened being, in Buddhism, making the region all the more holy. It also has the biggest diversity of fish species on the planet.

Cambodia's deep Mekong waters are home to the world's largest fish — the Mekong catfish and the Irawaddy dolphin, recently featured on CNN by journalist Anderson Cooper.

Cambodia is a country where people still take baths in front of the National Museum and children run naked through traffic, lending a fairly lawless quality to the whole nation. And it's a country that seems to be grabbing the attention of the tourism industry.

A troubled past

To understand modern Cambodia, you simply must take a look at the traumatic history of its people and geography. The political legacies of its complicated history are apparent everywhere. It's architecture is a play on globalization and ancient religious beliefs. Everywhere there are structures, all in various states of ruin or repair, that tell a story of Hinduism, Buddhism, animism, French colonization, Cold War autocratic rule and modern capitalism. Street names in Phnom Penh, the nation's capital, reflect the international conflicts and influences that have shaped the Khmer soul.

The Soviet, Chinese and Vietnamese influence of the Cold War are echoed with names like Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, Russian Market and Kampuchea Krom Boulevard.

Kampuchea Krom is a reference to the lower part of Cambodia taken over by Vietnam several hundred years ago. What was originally Cambodian, we know today as Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

The fact that every day one is approached by beggars and one in six Cambodian children never make it to adulthood is countered by the gentle graciousness of many Khmer people who are trying to look forward to the future.

When you land, you can see abandoned helicopters framed by the beauty of native trees, resting as poignant memorials to the machinery of war. There are bullet holes on wats, pagodas and various houses and factories, and there are signs everywhere telling people not to bring in weapons, such as guns and grenades.There is also a heaviness to the air, even before you land.

Horror reigns

When the United States decided to pursue military action in Vietnam in 1965, then-King Sihanouk protested by cutting off military aid from the U.S. government, much to the displeasure of Cambodia's military elite. A few years later the king broke off diplomatic relations with Washington because of its direct military engagement in Vietnam, which further weakened the kingdom's strength.

When Viet Cong soldiers moved into Cambodia, a secret bombing campaign by the United States ensued. Hundreds of thousands were killed. No one knows the exact number because the victims were largely peasants in remote villages.

The population of Phnom Penh swelled to more than a million, and in 1970 Cambodia lost its king to a U.S.-backed leader named Lon Nol in a coup. Social structures broke down with the flood of refugees, and a relatively small army of Maoist-inspired revolutionaries named the Khmer Rouge found traumatized peasants an easy population of potential soldiers.

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge overtook Phnom Penh and forced all of its citizens to the countryside to work in "agrarian utopia" farming communes. Postal services, western medicine, factories, schools, flights (except to Beijing, a Khmer Rouge supporter), education, etc., were banned. The country came to a complete standstill, and millions of people died in an attempt to reduce Cambodia into a land of illiterate peasants.

The "new people"— that is, anyone who was educated, spoke French, wore glasses, etc. — were singled out for extermination. Cambodia lost a whole generation of teachers, artists, lawyers, doctors and other people deemed to be enemies of the state.

Future tourist draw

Cambodia's situation improved to a degree when the Vietnamese, irritated by incursions from the Khmer Rouge on their shared border, overtook and occupied the country in 1979.

In the early 1990s, United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia had deployed 16,000 troops to Cambodia to oversee the Paris Agreement of 1991. Most Cambodians I've spoken to welcomed the UNTAC in the early 1990s, but the soldiers spread HIV/AIDS heavily among the people. To this day, Cambodia has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Asia, with a whole generation having been affected by the lasting effects of the disease.

Most of the population in Cambodia is under age 30, a population without grandparents and often without parents.

This, I've found, seems to have made Khmer people some of the more individualistic and creative people I've ever run across. Life here is like a complicated balance of do-it-yourself self-reliance and live-for-today ingenuity.

Cambodia will become more popular with tourists as the country's population heals and tries to look forward to a better life. With so many of the people so young, it'll be interesting to see how life evolves here.

But, Cambodia is a heart-shaped country and, like a heart, it continues to beat.

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