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Young and searching in Cambodia

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Although the school year had recently ended, about 20 university students sat cross-legged on a tile floor in heated discussion. Books and note pads were scattered about, and a plan of action was sketched out on newsprint pinned to a board in front of the group.

While many of their peers were flocking the same day to the city’s first all-enclosed, air conditioned shopping mall, this group was preparing a trip to a rural village where they were to host a day of activities and education on the theme of community environmental health.

These students are, in the words of organizer Chea Mouy Kry, the future of Cambodia, a country trying desperately to emerge from three decades of war and isolation from the international community, an era punctuated by the horrific genocide by communist rebel forces of more than 1 million of its citizens. That episode was captured for the rest of the world in the 1984 movie, “The Killing Fields.”

The scene of the students organizing the trip captures many of the tensions, ironies and obstacles faced by those left to do the work of resurrecting a culture. So much has been destroyed that it is difficult to know where to begin. It was clear in interviews conducted here last fall, and in subsequent correspondence by e-mail, that if openness to the wider world brings new opportunities, it also means increased consumerism, materialism and the influences of other cultures that some see as new threats to Cambodia’s survival.

While most of the students were born after the communist Khmer Rouge massacres of the mid-1970s, they face the legacy of those times -- fear, poverty and a deep suspicion of any organized group activities. They are the bridge between the horrors of the past and the promise of a future. In some sense, too, their link to the outside world could be an example for other regions -- Sudan, the Balkans, Rwanda, Ethiopia, areas of Latin America -- where massive death has been caused by political disputes, wars, natural disasters and genocide.

“Their lives are clearly divided between two distinct periods,” said Maryknoll Sr. Maria Leonor Montiel, who assists Chea in running the Youth Resource Development Program. Chea, a secondary school teacher by training, has been with the program since its inception and also spent time in a Fellowship of Reconciliation course in nonviolence in South Africa. Maryknoll is a U.S.-based mission order whose men and women members traditionally minister to the poor and marginalized throughout the world.

Reminders of the past

Though too young to have memories of Khmer Rouge rule, the students in the program have been raised by survivors of that regime. They constantly run into reminders of that brutal period, in the museums dedicated to memories of the massacres and in public kiosks where glass cases are filled with skulls and bones, testament to the Cambodian genocide.

Most of the students spent 10 years of their lives in the “Vietnamese isolation,” when a Vietnamese-installed government held power and fought a jungle war. Chea sums up the effect this early period had on youth in a single word: “stifling.”

The second period came after the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia, and the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1991. What followed was a two-year period during which the country was administered by the United Nations in preparation for general elections. It was a period that ushered in modernization with all of its pluses and minuses. Many re-entered the world of commerce and made enough money to purchase modern consumer goods -- televisions, cell phones and motorbikes. But the new age also ushered in exploitative tourism, AIDS and prostitution, uncontrolled capitalism, the exploitation of natural resources (especially unrestricted logging and mining) and impunity from the rule of law.

The significance of the students becomes more evident when one realizes they are now the majority in a culture that traditionally gave little voice to children. Young people have very little status in Khmer culture, Chea explained. A person has no voice until after beginning a career, getting married and beginning a family. Even then deference is always paid to elders.

However, in Cambodia at the turn of the millennium, the World Health Organization estimates that 40 percent of Cambodia’s 11.5 million people are under 15 years old. Fifty percent are under 17. University students, then, are in a unique position. They are members of an elite class that will quickly become business and government leaders.

“Youth do not think enough,” Chea said, adding that university studies, which emphasize rote learning of facts and figures, do little to build critical thinking. That is why students in Chea’s program use small-group discussions, role-playing and other group activities to explore concepts like trust, duty, responsibility, freedom and expression.

“Here we value their opinions. They feel trusted and are treated as equals,” she said. “They are given the opportunity to talk for themselves and act for themselves. It is a big deal for them to arrange an appointment and visit an NGO [nongovernmental organization] or a foreigner,” she said.

Four graduates of the Youth Resource Development Program have taken that training in critical thinking and founded Youth for Peace, a program that teaches active nonviolence and conflict resolution to high school students.

Culture of violence

“The youth of Cambodia have lived in a culture of violence for a long time, so their spirits are trapped by that world,” said Outh Renne. Most young people, he said, do not know that Khmer culture, rooted as it is in Buddhism, is a peaceful and tolerant culture.

Violence seems to follow a loss of tradition and cultural values. Fr. Verachai Sripramong, a member of the Thai Mission Society now stationed in Cambodia, works mainly with youth. He meets with 260 youth every Sunday afternoon for catechism and activities. Among the Khmer youth, he sees many parallels with young people in his native Thailand. Mostly he worries about the loss of the good traditions.

The young people of his parish, he said, “are poor and know they are poor. They know they have been isolated for so long. This makes them eager to learn about all new things. They want their country and themselves to develop very fast. They have electricity, TV, karaoke and discos. They see many things and want to copy fashions and ideas.”

Bishop Émile Destombes of the Paris Foreign Missions, agreed, saying Cambodia today is a society built on a culture of guns and money, so different from the past, but he adds that when people do not have the means to eat more than once a day the situation is ripe for families to disintegrate. Ponchaud said, “[Cambodia] is a state without law. The law is the gun.”

Thun Saray, a lawyer and president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (commonly known as ADHOC), documents the sentiments the church people express. Through its 16 provincial offices, his group monitors cases of land disputes, extrajudicial killings and violations of security rights and freedom of association and assembly. “Because of the problem with impunity and corruption in Cambodia today, we cannot put these people in jail,” Thun said. Since ADHOC was founded in 1993, Thun has seen improvements in the police, the military and politicians, but he also concedes powerful people still kill, intimidate and bribe to get their way.

One of the biggest and oldest divides in both the Cambodian Catholic church and the wider culture is between the Khmer and the Vietnamese.

Maryknoll Fr. Jim Noonan, who directs a health program for people with AIDS in Phnom Penh, proudly points to a sign above the door to the program’s clinic. In all seriousness, he said, “I think that is the only sign like it in Phnom Penh, maybe in all Cambodia.” The sign is unique because it presents side by side the name of the place and a greeting in Khmer and Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s was just one of several over the last thousand years. The two countries have been fighting for centuries. Vietnamese have lived in what is now Cambodia for generations. The Vietnamese are a minority of a couple of million in Cambodia today.

Fr. Françios Ponchaud, also of the Paris Foreign Mission, speaks frankly: “Usually the Vietnamese look down on the Cambodians, and the Cambodians hate the Vietnamese. So we have to build a bridge. It is not easy. I teach Vietnamese [catechists] in Cambodian so they can speak to Cambodians about their faith. When I teach seminars to Cambodian Catholics, I take two or three Vietnamese with me so the relationship between Vietnamese and Cambodians will build. We [Catholics] are a small community. Very few people. We want to help the Vietnamese and Cambodians to be together.”

Outh, 25, started the peace group as part of his training in the Youth Resource Development Program. It spun off as a separate entity in 1997 and became an official nongovernmental organization in 1999. Outh supports himself by working as a freelance translator and helps coordinate an annual peace walk through Cambodia.

Those who join may not realize at first the purpose of the group. “They are not interested in social problems when they come here,” Outh said, “but they are interested in activities.”

The students are quickly linked up with groups involved with AIDS education, street people, rural development and reforestation and other work.

Over the course of the program, the students are led through modules on personal, moral, social and cultural development. They look at themselves and Cambodian society and try to identify elements of violence and nonviolence in themselves and others.

“We want them to have peace in their hearts,” Outh said. “We want to tell them to know the violent culture is from [within] ourselves and not just from the outside.”

Cambodia time line
1954. France withdraws from Cambodia. Prince Norodom Sihanouk rules for 16 years. He tries to keep the country from getting into the neighboring Vietnam War by balancing off the communist and capitalist blocs. He is unsuccessful.
1970. Sihanouk is ousted by Gen. Lon Nol, his pro-American military chief.
April 1975. Days before the fall of Saigon, Phnom Penh falls to the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge empties the capital and other urban areas at gunpoint and starts trying to transform Cambodia into a Maoist “year zero” agrarian utopia. Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror leaves more than 1 million Cambodians dead.
1978. Vietnam, incensed by cross-border raids by its former Khmer Rouge allies, invades in December, ousts Pol Pot and replaces the government with a puppet government of Khmer Rouge defectors.
1979-91. The Khmer Rouge, joined by two noncommunist factions, fights a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh regime. The United States, other Western powers and China back the guerrillas by funneling arms and other supplies through Thailand to their favored factions.
September 1989. Vietnam announces the withdrawal of its troops from Cambodia.
October 1991. Phnom Penh, the resistance factions and their international backers sign a peace accord in Paris calling for the dismantling of the Phnom Penh regime and installing a caretaker government until United Nations-supervised elections.
1993. U.N.-run elections produce a victory for Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s royalist party, one of the former guerrilla factions. But he is obliged to share power in an uneasy coalition with Hun Sen, whose people’s party still controls the government bureaucracy. At the last minute, the Khmer Rouge refuses to participate in the election. The new government continues battling the Khmer Rouge in the countryside.
May 1997. After years of dwindling outside support and severely weakened by defections, the Khmer Rouge is desperate and divided.
July 25, 1997. Khmer Rouge leaders denounce Pol Pot during a “people’s trial.” An ailing Pol Pot is sentenced to life imprisonment.
April 15, 1998. Pol Pot dies at age 73.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000