The Kingdom of Cambodia
Cambodia (or Kampuchea), also known as the “Kingdom of Wonders” is a beautiful nation in South-east Asia bordered by Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. It is known for its gentle people and bright green rice paddy fields. Centuries ago, it was the centre of the vast Khmer Empire located at Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. The Chinese used to have a saying, “as rich as Cambodia,” which alludes to its very fertile land and abundant natural resources. Every year, the Tonle Sap Lake floods and covers the surrounding areas, creating a perfect environment for rice cultivation, as well as fishing. Cambodia is also home to the Cardamom Mountain range, whose wildlife and biodiversity is unfortunately being threatened by illegal deforestation.
An untold story of genocide
In the late 1960’s and early 70’s the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Cambodia, a non-participant in the war, was being used by the North Vietnamese Communists as a secret supply route to reinforce their troops in South Vietnam. The US response was to illegally (congress was not informed) commence the most concentrated conventional bombing campaign in history against neutral Cambodia. Much of the bombing was indiscriminate.
A total of 2,756,941 tonnes of bombs dropped on Cambodia.
Fear and the devastating civilian casualties drove the bewildered and largely rural population into the arms of the communist Khmer Rouge. Under their influence, rural society was radicalized and trained to destroy all things associated with the “West”.
In 1975, after a long and brutal civil war, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. Pol Pot, the leader of this communist movement, desired national strength and purity. He wanted to return Cambodia to the ancient days of the Khmer Empire when Cambodia was great. To this end he instituted a program of political, economic, religious and ethnic cleansing, which demanded the complete eradication of the modern culture and society because, he insisted, the “West” had tainted it.
What followed was one of the most brutal revolutions in history.
The cities were emptied and the entire population subjected to enforced starvation, mass execution, slave labour and unchecked disease in what became internationally known as “The Killing Fields”. All the public institutions of society were systematically dismantled. Money and the ownership of all personal property were made illegal. Music was banned. Doctors, teachers, engineers, academics and all other educated professionals were executed along with their extended families.
The Vietnamese invaded and put an end to the slaughter in 1978. They installed their own communist government. This provoked a devastating embargo that isolated the traumatized population from the international aid they so desperately needed and produced a second civil war, which raged until 1992. All the warring factions planted millions of uncharted landmines leaving a legacy of destruction that continues to terrify and disable the population.
Without trained doctors and any basic medical understanding, Cambodia’s AIDS epidemic became the fastest growing in Asia. Many died and thousands more orphans were added to those left abandoned by years of political turmoil. Medical services, such as they were, were completely incapable of coping. Social services were non-existent. This would have a devastating impact in fuelling the human trafficking industry in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970’s and subsequent civil war into the 1990’s dismantled every part of Cambodian society. However, Cambodian women have faced slavery and sexual abuse even before this devastating era.
There is an old Khmer saying:
“Men are like gold and women are white cloth.” When white cloth is stained, it is ruined and worthless, but gold always retains its value.
Civil war, genocide and the subsequent impact of post-traumatic stress have allowed the social fabric of society to unravel. Unresolved anger and pain felt by so many has resulted in extensive domestic violence and an environment where the weakest can be taken advantage of and abused. Substance abuse and gambling have led many Cambodians, already living in extreme poverty, into further debt. Families become desperate for income and, many become vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.