Cambodia: Past and Present

Rebuilding our safety net

At the end of the monsoons, Cambodia is resplendent: sugar-palm silhouettes float like mirages above silver-green rice; flooded paddies glow like mirrors. For thousands of years, the table-flat landscape of central Cambodia has remained essentially unchanged: rivers and rice fields feeding a nation of fishermen and farmers. Along the way, a great Khmer empire rose and fell, leaving its history in stone; Thai, Vietnamese, and French conquerors came and went, leaving behind their influences.

One regime nearly destroyed it all.

On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge communist revolutionaries marched into the capital city as victors of the Cambodian civil war, cut contact with the outside world, and began imposing their dark utopian vision on an unwitting populace. The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities of people; closed schools, hospitals, pagodas, and universities; and transformed Cambodia into a vast forced-labor agrarian collective. Between 1975 and 1979, around one-fifth of the population died by overwork, illness, starvation, and execution; educated professionals, monks, ethnic minorities, and city dwellers were a particular focus of repression. By these and other means, Pol Pot’s murderous regime impoverished a thriving nation and set development back generations.

Nearly four decades later, the country is still recovering. Although the economy has expanded quickly in the past decade, Cambodia is still the fourth poorest country in Southeast Asia, with 14% of the population living below the poverty line. Income inequality is stark; quality education and medical care are still rare resources in the Cambodian countryside; rampant corruption still erodes the nation’s economic gains; and far too many children suffer from malnutrition

Still, there’s reason for hope. Cambodia is modernizing quickly. Access to electricity and clean water has expanded rapidly, and health indicators such as maternal and infant mortality have improved significantly in the past decade. Poverty rates are falling. But around 4.5 million Cambodians still live so close to the poverty line, a minor setback (such as illness or job loss) can send them into destitution.

The international community can’t fix Cambodia’s problems. Big aid groups can’t save us. It’s up to Cambodians to rebuild our own country. At SWDC, we aim to do our small part—by holding up one tiny corner of a safety net for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Stung Treng Province

Stung Treng, in northeastern Cambodia, is among the nation’s poorest—and loveliest—provinces. Vivid blues and reds swirl together at the confluence of the Mekong and Sekong Rivers, and riotous greens tangle along the banks. In Stung Treng town, vegetable and fish vendors arrive by long-tail boat at sunrise and climb the bank to ply their wares at the bustling town market, rich with the aromas of delicious Khmer and Lao street food.

Stung Treng’s painful history lies buried in the lush greenery; its remote location near the Lao border made it a hotbed of communist insurgent activity—and a target for U.S. bombs in the 1960s and 70s. Today, the province is tranquil, but the nation’s economic gains have been slow to reach Stung Treng. Most families survive on subsistence farming, literacy rates are low, and infrastructure (such as roads, clean water, and electricity) is poor.

At SWDC, we strive to address the specific needs of Stung Treng’s vulnerable population, by providing a livelihood to women and their families, free health care for the village, and schooling for area children. Where others see only poverty, we see strength and resilience. Again and again, the women of SWDC have proved to us that a woman with no education can learn many things: to count threads on a loom and weave a masterpiece, and also to weave a life of independence for herself and her family.