Shadows beneath the light: Six feet under, but not dead

Cambodia is getting richer, particularly Phnom Penh. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) lists Cambodia as the 14th most rapidly growing economy in the world in 2011-2012, measured by percent change in GDP.

It is no wonder the streets are bustling with tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and cars; all seemingly following their own traffic rules when zooming past a red light…No wonder Phnom Penh is now home to a new Intercontinental Hotel or Canadia Bank’s new 29-floor ICOC Tower. No wonder Western-style coffee shops seem to be readily available everywhere, feeding the work-induced, caffeine-needs of a growing business sector.

Motorcycle traffic jam in Phnom Penh

Motorcycle traffic jam in Phnom Penh

There are now another 49 high-rise developments scheduled for Phnom Penh, including plans to build a new international university, at least 3 new International Finance Headquarters and over a dozen high-rise luxury apartment condominiums with views over the Mekong River. It appears it’s ‘business as usual’ for Cambodia’s capital city – but, what lies beneath the surface of this intense economic fervour? And, to whose expense?

Phnom Penh Development Plans: published on Skyscraper City,

Phnom Penh Development Plans: published on Skyscraper City,

I suppose, there’s genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, when the West focused on Vietnam and the  containment of the Chino-Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, it is believed that 1 in 3 Cambodians – an estimated total of approximately 2 million people – were executed by Pol Pot’s totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime. What of the rest? The remaining 2 out of 3 Cambodians carry the living memory of lost loved ones in their daily pursuit of re-establishing some sort of faith in Cambodia’s social, political and economic future. And, whilst zig-zagging through scores of smiling street vendors wearing pyjamas – you could hardly notice!

Image from S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Image from S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Then, there is also the question of land ownership. Pol Pot’s regime eliminated all private property and ordered the incineration of all existing land titles. At the same time, his Maoist ideal of forging ‘agrarian socialism’ upon his people triggered a nationwide dispersement: some people were sent to killing fields for torture or execution; others were forced to relocate to fulfil an ideologically-motivated agrarian lifestyle in rural communities; and others succeeded an escape, achieving ‘refugee-status’, albeit malnourished and without a Kip to their name.

Dispersements of people during Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge Regime (source: Phnom Penh Genocide Museum pamphlet)

Dispersements of people during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge Regime (source: Phnom Penh Genocide Museum pamphlet)

So, then: the difficult question. Who owns the lands of Cambodia? The Khmer Rouge regime is denounced by both the State of Cambodia and the international community. Surely, then, land ownership should be re-instated to pre-Pol Pot times? But with no records to prove or support any potential landowners’ claims, a lucrative vacuum seems unjustly open to exploitation.

Locations of 'Killing Fields' - or mass grave sites - around Cambodia: Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge genocide (source: Phnom Penh's Genocide Museum pamphlet)

Locations of ‘Killing Fields’ – or mass grave sites – around Cambodia: Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge genocide (source: Phnom Penh’s Genocide Museum pamphlet)

According to an IMF report, Cambodia has ‘a low standard corporate income tax rate and an even lower rate for export-oriented FDI projects’. Combine these incentives with a new ‘investor-friendly’ Land Law passed in 2001, and you have the formula for land evictions at a mass scale: all in the name of ‘skills and technology transfers, a strong economy and more jobs’.

Mukul Devichand from the BBC reports that 15% of Cambodia’s land has been offered to foreign investors in the form of land grants. This comes as no surprise as wood and wood products currently account for 20% of FDI in Cambodia today. But how have 27,156 square kilometres suddenly become available to investors? At what human cost?

The face of Cambodian housing in Phnom Penh

The face of Cambodian housing in Phnom Penh

First, there’s the story of Ho Mai, a Cambodian woman accused of ‘illegally farming’ on what she believed was her own land. Despite being pregnant, she appealed, and was later imprisoned. Her baby was born in prison.

Then, there’s the story of the Jarai people of Kong Yu village. They were approached by government officials requesting land for ‘disabled soldiers’. 50-hectares later, they were invited to an official party, a ‘party’ that ended in drunkenness and a sham deal. The villagers, many who claim to be unable to read and write, thumb-printed documents they couldn’t understand. They later found out, that night, they signed 400-hectares of land away to a private company.

Ramon Fil from the Jarai people in Cambodia (Source: Ho Mai (Source:

Ramon Fil from the Jarai people in Cambodia (Source: Ho Mai (Source:

The most recent injustice involves the fatal shooting by officials of Chut Wutty, a human rights protester concerned with the evictions of 117 families in Phnom Penh. He is one of several protesters who’ve become victims of the race for Cambodian money. But how much poorer must the poor get to satisfy the increasingly rich?

Chut Wutty at a Cambodian national park where he exposed illegal logging (Source:

Chut Wutty at a Cambodian national park where he exposed illegal logging (Source:

We see here clear evidence of the challenges of democratic transition. The United Nations and the State of Cambodia set up a transitional authority called UNTAC, headed by a Japanese bureaucrat, Yasushi Akashi, to work towards achieving democracy in Cambodia between 1992-1993. Much can be said about the eventual success of this partnership: the setting up of ‘free’ elections; the disarmament of Cambodian militant factions; the establishment of civil peace; the withdrawal and non-return of foreign forces; assistance with landmine clearance and the re-settlement of displaced persons and refugees, to name but a few.

However, a lot more work needs to be done: particularly against corruption, dual-pricing, and the abuse of peaceful protesters. The question is: how? How can we invoke change and equity within Cambodia, if the very architects of Cambodian society are profiting from the problems?

Additionally, let’s not forget about the other social hazards that emerge from weak law enforcement. As in many densely urbanised cities in the world, the glitz and jazz are often overshadowed by a parallel underworld of drugs, prostitution and – in Phnom Penh, in particular – child sex trafficking. Thus, whilst some criminals dance in the limelight of growth and get richer, the poorest rural families are still in the shadows: landless, penniless, self-censored and desperate. Desperate enough to sell their young children as sex slaves.

What Phnom Penh needs now is closure. Pol Pot may be ‘6 feet under’, but – sadly – his legacies are very much alive. Our overall experience in Phnom Penh was generally positive, and it was in this city that we contemplated a future abroad as ‘expats’, being involved in the very ‘skills and technology’ transfer that I’ve now criticised. The Cambodian people are friendly and heartfelt, and deserve democracy, justice and freedom from peril. Investors need to inject, rather than exploit, in Cambodia; to inject capital, skills and values for equity and sustainable growth for the long-term future.


3 thoughts on “Shadows beneath the light: Six feet under, but not dead

  1. Pingback: Disabled Cambodia: Limbs lost from landmines « Time Out – New Beginnings

  2. Excellent post. I am living in Cambodia for the next 3 months, working for a Juvenile Justice NGO, and despite having a thorough knowledge of the country’s history, I had a very similar reaction upon arrival. At first I took it as culture shock, but now I understand it to be a reaction to the incredibly strong contradictions that are imposed on Cambodian society. It is difficult to imagine a way out of the corruption that is so widely accepted as a normality.

  3. All problems in Cambodia, including poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses, are interrelated to the country tragic recent past, namely, the Khmer Rouge and the use of Cambodia as turf for Cold War adversaries.

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