The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

Out of the Shadows

Cambodia’s Good Fortunes

When speaking of the Asian tigers, Cambodia isn’t one of the countries that come to mind. For most of the past 40 years this Southeast Asian nation has been plagued by civil war, foreign domination, and even genocide. The reprehensible, murderous Khmer Rouge was beaten back long ago but it continued to play spoiler in the west and northwest near the Thai border until just five years ago, emerging from jungle sanctuaries under cover of darkness to battle despairingly against government soldiers. Ordinary Cambodians hated them.

Despite Rouge devastation, the highest HIV infection rate in Asia, widespread corruption, and ineffective and unresponsive government, it is perhaps astonishing then that Cambodia saw 13% GDP growth in 2005 according to the IMF. For a Cambodian or any visitor to the country though this is unsurprising: having endured so much privation and devastation for longer than most can remember, Cambodians are ecstatic to know peace and ready to get on with things.

Angkor Wat: At least they didn’t destroy this one

Helped by tranquility and the friendly and sanguine attitudes of the Khmer people (as Cambodians are known), tourism has been a boon. Cambodia has possibly the world’s most awe-inspiring and fantastic attraction in the world: the temples of Angkor. Each year brings increasing numbers of visitors flooding north from the capital and east from more prosperous Thailand to visit Angkor Wat, bringing with them valuable cash to a region often ignored –political retribution, many suspect, for the Rouge’s former influence in the area – by the central government in distant Phnom Penh. Instead, informal patronage networks distribute cash to those who need it most. Tourist operators ferrying busloads of foreigners to their destination slow while passing cash to women on foot along the muddy roads. Less blithely, they are also required to make payment to government soldiers manning antiquated checkpoints.

While Cambodians won’t leave their future to the whim of outsiders, there is much that other nations can do to assist. Governments and aid agencies looking for a positive model of development aid should look to Japan’s grant that established the building of National Route 6. Ask any resident of Siem Reap – the busy town adjacent to the Angkor temples – what he is most proud of and he is likely to name the flat and evenly tarred road, a bustling artery that facilitates so much commerce and industry. Other laudable assistance include efforts to create sustainable aid by rebuilding temples destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, thus generating greater tourist revenue in future. A solid next step would be the paving of the 100-or-so-mile ruin that runs from the Thai border to Siem Reap, and which takes about 8 nerve-wracking hours to traverse. And after that, the replacement of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-serving, ruthless, inexorable, one-eyed Prime Minister.


 2006. All rights reserved.

May 17, 2006 Posted by | Asia, Author: DML, Business, Cambodia, Country Profiles, Emerging Markets, Foreign Aid | Leave a comment