Exploring Appalling Untold Stories in Cambodia: Why We Need to Use Privilege to Serve Communities

  • Social Justice
Mifuyu H. ('21)

I never thought I would spend my summer holidays helping school students learn English, especially in another country like Cambodia, when I could have been holidaying in Phuket enjoying the comforts of a five-star hotel and the cool ocean breeze. 

The entirety of the experience has changed me in ways that I would never have anticipated, especially living comfortably as a young, healthy, educated woman in Tokyo. Today, I look at the horrors of the world through a different lens, seeing not solely the tragic events superficially, but instead, empathizing with those who are left to horrific circumstances. It has been 44 years since the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. Yet, why is the country’s recovery being ignored by the rest of the world? Approximately half of the Cambodians do not have running water, electricity, food, nor sufficient shelter, and barely make $50 a month, $1.61 a day. In Japan, this is barely a bottle worth of tea from the vending machines. While most of us put no thought into slipping our change into vending machines, for Cambodians, that sum of money is the daily income. Furthermore, 46% of the Cambodian population is classified as “multi-dimensionally poor,” with its GNI per capita among the lowest in the world. In addition to prevalent and physical dire poverty, the population suffers from psychological trauma due to Khmer Rouge and government corruption. The Khmer Rouge brought a great deal of violence in the late 1900s, leaving millions traumatized. This trauma has lead to adults being unable to properly care for their children, showcasing the immense repercussions of the war. So what can I do for the Cambodian children? Very simply, shower them with loveーsomething they seldom or never receive. The predicaments of Cambodian families are not inexorable. We can continuously love the children to quell the cycle of toxic parenting caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), enabling them to genuinely love their future children. 

Now, I can assume that you are sitting here thinking: this is another typical calamity or tragedy. Before my trip, I was culpable of this too. Due to the normalization and constant portrayal of ongoing terrors across the globe, especially in third-world countries, in the media, we have developed a tendency to turn a blind eye.  We are immune to bleeding children, starving communities, and bodies decorated in gun wounds. Hearing the victim’s narratives and the pain in their voice snapped me out of this numbness. Now I know that the plight of the Khmer Rouge is not an issue to discuss in the past tense. Its effect is still very much extant and plaguing Cambodia, with the everyday person having to worry about safety and basic human necessities. 

In contrast, what have you been recently concerned about? Your grades? Your exams? Your future? The Cambodian children, many of whom are younger than me, have been through a lifetime of agony, one which I cannot even fathom. Have you ever felt like a burden to your family to an extent that you felt obligated to escape home and become a monk, simply out of the shared preconceived notion that asking for help would impose stress and pain upon your family? Has your mother ever attempted to murder you? Have you ever witnessed your mother’s hand being chopped off by her cousin, have you had to pick up the remains of her fingers in the middle of the night at the age of 5? I felt ashamed for not doing enough. The least we can do is to serve these people in any way possible. 

Brokenness, poverty, and desolation are three words that stand out to me when seeing their day-to-day hardships at home. We responded with humility, gratitude, and modesty. This trip enlightened me about how vital it is to find long-term ways of giving back to the community, whether it be to a populous suffered the devastations of war or to the elderlies who sit in the nursing home around the corner from my house who are most likely lonely. 

Starting our trip in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killings Fields. From 1975 to 1979, the lives of up to 2 million people were taken by the brutal regime in power, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. Pol Pot acted upon his fanatical scheme to create a rural classless society in his twisted attempt to lift Cambodia out of poverty and turn it into a utopian society. Hence, they systematically and bloodily eradicated those who represented the “old society”: intellectuals, merchants, Buddhist monks, former government officials, and former soldiers. The Khmer Rouge came to a halt in 1979 when the Vietnamese troops deposed the Khmer rouge by annexing Phnom Penh. The 14,000 inmates, painted as innocuous, were brought to Tuol Sleng to be interrogated, where they were tortured to impose false confessions, and then transferred to the Killing Fields, where they were executed and buried in mass graves of silent screams. There were a mere 7 survivors. 

Tuol Sleng showcased the torture devices such as electrocuting and drowning the prisoners’ heads submerged in water and the raw unembellished photos of brutality. Sauntering around the Killing Fields, we witnessed the notorious “Killing Tree.” This is where laughing executionersーa sign of indifference to prevent themselves from becoming victimsーbashed infants’ heads against the trunk of the tree before their parents, as they watched in pain and futility. We were also informed that loud music was played over a loudspeaker to mask the cries of the victims. Visiting the two sites shed light on how the Khmer Rouge plays an immense role in affecting today’s socioeconomic status of Cambodia, whether it is through the destitution, or the parents and grandparents suffering from PTSD. Learning the plight of the Cambodians and the pain experienced by such brutality was a constant reminder of how fortunate I am. Such sadness I witnessed provided the catalyst to reinforce my purpose for visiting Cambodia, to help the children. 

The days after my revelations, we were lucky to visit two villages on the outskirts of the city center to spend time teaching English and play games. All the students were eager to learn, walking several hours to get to school. When my friends and I alighted from the van to step foot into the village, the warm glow permeated every part of their body, their eyes lifted upwards. Just the simple sight of us, something out of their routine, was enough to make them be full of the joys of spring. Some children exclaimed, “Teacher!” Others pushed their way through the crowd of well-wishers to embrace us. The contagious warmth rushed through the students and to us. 

We were also given the unique opportunity to visit the homes of their families, where we witnessed a severe contrast to the happy-go-lucky students at school. Visiting homes of families and hearing the stories of their life was appalling. One of the families we visited was Sona and Soni, two sisters aged 17 and 14 who are currently living alone without a guardian. Their parents are divorced, and although it is only human nature for parents to battle over child custody in the process of a divorce, in this case, neither of the parents wanted the children and abandoned them. This left the teenage girls under the care of their grandmother. Their grandmother, however, recently passed away, and when the father was informed of the grandmother’s critical condition, he returned home, accompanied by his new family. Although he pledged to stay, he ultimately fled again. With no income, Sona had no choice but to leave school, where she had been seen as a high achiever, to supplement remuneration for survival, as well as to keep Soni in school. She worked at the border of Thailand for a few months, with work being too difficult, she ultimately quit and returned to be with Soni. She is still yet to find a job. 

Another family we visited was Tavan and Chan, cousins aged 15 and 10 respectively. At a young age, one of Tavan’s uncles took his own life, whilst her other uncle was killed. Her father also abandoned his family and fled with a neighbors’ cow, precipitating his mother to commit suicide. As a result, Tavan was left under the care of her grandmother. A few years later, however, the grandmother lost her life to tuberculosis. Tavan had no choice but to live alone. Soon after Chan’s parents opted to coercively take Tavan and live in Thailand to work against her will as they were in debt, Chan was left alone. Fortunately, the devout Cambodian teachers were able to get into contact with the parents and convince them to bring Tavan back. While the parents did bring Tavan back home, they left the two children to live alone. However, a few months later, Chan’s parents took Tavan again, where she is currently. Chan, a mere 10 years old, lives alone. 

These circumstances are not uncommon. Many parents abandon their children, leaving the grandparents to care for and provide a home for their grandchildren. Once the grandparents die, the children are left alone to supplement income, precluding them from attending school, prohibiting them from being able to gain opportunities to better their lives. Although it may appear that the blame falls on the irresponsible parents, this is a direct result of the Khmer Rouge. In many instances, the grandparents, who suffer from PTSD due to the Khmer Rouge, could not love the parents. The parents, as a result, cannot love the children and often flee to Thailand as an escape. 

The plane from Cambodia back to Japan was silentーwords could not do justice to what we had witnessed. As cliché as it sounds, how privileged are we? How selfish are we? And what are our justifications for acting so egotistically? Nothing. We have everything.

  • Cambodia
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