The Next Cambodia

The youth of a nation is that country’s future. While this is true for all countries, the weight of carrying this heavy responsibility rests especially heavy on the shoulders of the Cambodian youth. According to the C.I.A. World Fact Book, an amazing 50% of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 22.

To outsiders, mention Cambodia and two images come to mind: the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979, led by the notorious Pol Pot, and the majestic Hindu temple complex at Angkor Wat. The common perception is that Cambodia is a small Indochinese country that is fun to visit—as long as you keep away from the fields still littered with landmines, or the slums filled with hungry, AIDS-stricken residents. Yet, what do young Cambodians think about their country? What comes to the minds of a young population that didn’t live through a bloody civil war, a hellish genocide, the Vietnamese invasion of the late 1970s, or American bombings a decade before that? What are the perceptions of those who have never been to visit the great temples of their country’s ancient past?

It has been thirty years since the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge ended, which means that more than half of Cambodia's current population was born after the regime; half of the population has no recollection of the atrocities of the country’s recent past. The United Nations has completed its first round in a series of war tribunals charging former Cambodian leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Khmer Rouge’s chief jailer, Kaing Guek Eav, was convicted in July and sentenced to 19 years in prison.

These tribunals are most certainly important to many survivors, as well as human rights activists around the world. But young Cambodians are not regularly taught in school about the war, and the older generations don’t typically share the pain of their past with the youth. So how should these young people understand the significance of these tribunals, or why should they even care in the first place? How is Cambodia’s violent past shaping the identity of the emerging generation?

Today, Cambodians endure the hardships of everyday life, but while everyday struggles are tied to recent history, the past is not always an immediate concern.

*

I first visited Cambodia in January 2009, exploring the beautiful country at my own leisure. Taken by the country’s rich history, its resilient nature, and of course the friendly people of Cambodia, I decided to enroll in an intensive study abroad class on Cambodian history and politics. When I returned to Cambodia for the course, I arrived a better informed photographer and videographer.

On both occasions I was able to spend a significant amount of time at a school, an orphanage, a Buddhist monastery, and a family guest house in the town of Siem Reap, one of the country’s fastest growing cities, located in the northwest near fabled Angkor.

Whenever I travel, I use my camera as a conversation starter, as a way to see things in a little more detail, a little more close-up. In putting this photo essay together, it occurred to me that while I did not intentionally focus my lens on the generational gap issue, the phenomenon was a reality from which I could not escape. The issue became more apparent when I spoke to students and people of my age (mid-20s) and younger who bear an incredible amount of responsibility in leading their country into the twenty-first century.

 *

All photos copyright Jika González

 

A young soldier marches in a parade celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge (K.R.). I wonder about his family’s history: is he the son or grandson of survivors, or of the perpetrators? Does he know what his family experienced under the K.R.’s rule?

 

Buddhist studies have traditionally been one of the best ways for males to receive an education. Under the K.R. regime, many monasteries were destroyed and many Buddhists killed. Most intellectuals and professionals were also eliminated by the K.R. during the years of the regime.

 

This boy lives in an orphanage on the outskirts of Siem Reap. He lives among dozens of other children who are now his adoptive family. I am told that some of the children here are HIV positive; he may or may not be one of them. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of HIV occurrence in Asia; UNICEF estimates that there are some 12,000 children living with AIDS in the country, many having lost one or both of their parents to the disease. It is projected that HIV/AIDS will account for one in four orphans. Ponheary Ly, a K.R. survivor, told me that AIDS is a legacy of foreign intervention in Cambodia, that the disease was not widespread until foreigners arrived.

 

A young women working at a stall in one of Siem Reap’s main markets. The market is used by locals but it also caters to tourists, many of them American. I wonder if she knows that more bombs were dropped in Cambodia by the United States during the Vietnam War than during all of World War II.

 

Two generations born after the K.R. regime.

 

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the K.R., this woman, like the hundreds of spectators around her, does not seem to be particularly happy. Signs supporting Prime Minister Hun Sen and his political party surround her. I can't help but wonder if the people here truly support their government. Hun Sen has been the only man in power during the past 30 years; he was also once part of the K.R.

 

A young girl in a school supported by Life and Hope Association, a non-profit started by Buddhist monks in Siem Reap.

 

Poverty is widespread in rural Cambodia. Many young girls end up migrating to the cities looking for work. Often these young girls end up in vulnerable situations, such as working in hazardous factory jobs for very low wages. Meanwhile, predators in the sex industry are always looking for prey.

 

According to the Cambodia Center for the Protection of Children's Rights, there are approximately 14-24,000 street children roaming the streets of Cambodia. It’s scary to be in a city where, if you have the means, “you can get in a tuk-tuk (an auto rickshaw or three-wheeler) and buy a child in half an hour,” says Lori Carlson, an American activist working and living in Cambodia.

 

The first Cambodian textbook teaching the history of the K.R. was published earlier this year. The history of the K.R. has not typically been taught in Cambodian schools. The principal of Peak Sneng Junior High School said that while the textbooks would be available for the students, there was still no plan to use them in the current curriculum.

 

I saw this boy walking barefoot and alone on a long dirt road in the outskirts of Siem Reap. According to the Cambodia Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, 35% of Cambodian’s live under the poverty line, and 90% of them live in rural areas.

 

The cost of school supplies, uniforms, and registration fees prevent many families from sending their children to school. In many families, the children have to work in the rice fields rather than attend school; many see their participation in the home life to be a better investment than formal education.

 

Rethy Ly, 26 years old, works in the tourism industry of Siem Reap as a driver. He hopes to one day become a tour guide. Cambodia has become a major tourist attraction in South East Asia; most travelers come to see the temples of Angkor Wat and to catch a glimpse of the K.R.’s legacy. Tourism is one of the most profitable industries in the country.

 

A young boy in a fishing village outside Siem Reap.

September 13, 2010

All photos copyright Jika González

Jika González is a freelance journalist, photographer and multimedia producer from Mexico City. She is currently pursuing her master's degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. Jika has gained experience at Magnum Photos, BizBash Media, Conde Nast Traveler, and CNN's Mexico City bureau. For more information please visit www.jikagonzalez.com. Follow Jika on Twitter @JikaGlez.