The Kingdom of Cambodia is a country with a horrific past, but its people, especially the young, are determined to move beyond the genocide of 2 million innocents by the infamous Pol Pot and his Khymer Rouge revolutionaries and enter the new global economy.
I visited the country recently and saw both the terrible legacy of mass murder in the torture chambers used by the Khymer Rouge and the hope for a better future that fills the air in the major cities like Phnom Penh and the quiet villages that dot the lush countryside. Everywhere there is hustle and bustle ( the constant noise from millions of Honda motorbikes) and a firm belief in the capitalist ethic ( the US corporate presence is everywhere). From the small shop owners to the burgeoning tourist trade around the Angkor Wat temple region, Cambodia is now open for business.
But as with all less developed countries, particularly those that have suffered through a period of internal chaos and destruction, Cambodia is a country with a sad underside that is not immediately visible to the foreign tourist. I visited orphanages where sad eyed children begged to be taken to America, HIV group homes where kids whose parents died from the disease are taken care of, as they too have contracted the disease, and makeshift school houses where five year olds from the most desperate of conditions are given English language training only because the headmaster gives their parents extra rice rations to permit the children to stay in school.
The study of English is a national phenomenon as I visited a major university where each day there are hundreds of classes taught to eager students who believe that facility in the world’s dominant language will give them a leg up in new global business environment. Many Cambodians have used their facility in English to leave the country and head at least temporarily to the United States. Long Beach, California is now the center of Cambodian immigrant life with Lowell, Massachusetts a close second.
The Cambodian people are filled with beauty and grace; they have preserved their heritage and overcome unbelieveable tragedies. Yet reviving a country thirty years after the killing fields destroyed the professional class has made national revival difficult. It is said that time heals all wounds, and Cambodia is an example of this wisdom.