Cambodia: complex history and a bright future


We bump along the dusty red road, swerving to avoid potholes and silent under the thrum of the air conditioning as homes and paddy fields flash by. It’s dry season here, though you wouldn’t know it as the air is thick with humidity and the fields are lush and green. I’ve joined the Cambodia Charitable Trust (CCT) group on their yearly visit to the Cambodian schools they’re actively supporting and helping to develop. Founded in New Zealand, led by Denise Arnold and made up of Kiwi volunteers and Cambodian employees, the Trust tackles the complex task of giving children in Cambodia greater access to higher quality education to help advance the nation as a whole.


In the sweltering heat our days in this colourful nation were spent visiting the project schools in the Kampot and Takeo provinces as well as the homes of some sponsored girls. The overarching objective of these visits and meetings was to gather information to better understand what was required short and long term, as well as share the work already taking place. Over the course of our weeks spent in Cambodia I learnt about the different arms of the Trust and the work they’re doing, got a glimpse into the history that still impacts all facets of life, and saw the possibilities for the future.


Welcomed in: witnessing the power of education


We met hundreds of students, their faces bright and quick to break into curiosity or cheekiness; were invited into multiple schools and classrooms, often dusty, quiet and humming with activity; captured stories and data from everywhere we went; drove in the same white van down long, bumpy, red dirt roads to our next destination; and sat anywhere that wasn’t crawling with red ants to take a breath. There were many formal introductions, gratefully accepted coconuts, humble classrooms and homes, questions and answers, dinners and debriefs - all of it coming together to culminate in a revelation of Cambodia and its people, and the indisputable power of education.


One of our questions we posed to the students was: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. The responses were often ‘doctor’ or ‘teacher’, with the occasional ‘policeman’ or ‘farmer’. When we asked the first five girls ever sponsored by the Trust they answered: banker, manager, translator, accountant and entrepreneur. It was explained to us by the teachers and our Cambodian guide that many young people, especially girls, were pulled out of school to take up a job in the farms or one of the many garment factories and didn’t consider a different future for themselves.


Talking to these students and some of their caregivers at home visits was a clear insight into the role education plays in shifting the mindset and perspective of a community or generation. Through access to information, resources and new ideas, students and families we met were able to expand their mindset from what they had always known - a life working on the farms or in garment factories, where school was an afterthought - to considering a future for themselves where they could attend university, start their own business or collaborate with their peers.


Many global bodies have researched the impact of education on developing nations, including the Center for Global Development (CGD). According to the CGD, ‘education gives people the skills they need to help themselves out of poverty and into prosperity’. In fact, in many poor countries, with each additional year of schooling people earn 10% higher wages, which contributes to national economic growth. Not to mention the myriad ways in which education improves health and political stability. According to CGD, no country has ever achieved continuous and rapid growth without reaching an adult literacy rate of at least 40%.


The core focus of CCT is to remove barriers to provide free, quality education, working also with teachers to improve resources in the classroom. When it comes to Cambodia, according to the Trust, education is the largest lever for social change in Cambodia as it breaks the poverty cycle, protects girls from sex slavery and boys from slave labour, and creates greater opportunities for children. At present CCT supports 16 schools in Kampot and Takeo directly impacting 6,000 children, while also sponsoring girls and boys in these areas.


The place of history: what was and what is


Cambodia is still rebuilding from its recent history and a time of great trial. It was a profound experience to meet teachers, parents and grandparents who lived through the Khmer Rouge, and I was struck time and time again by recurring qualities of humility, curiosity and humour. Even before this most recent event, Cambodia’s history is long and complex, involving many foreign influences, times of greatness and times of downfall.


What is now known as Cambodia is thought to have been inhabited by people as far back as 40,000 years ago, however, the time period from 802AD to the 16th century is seen as a prosperous time when the country flourished with many agricultural advancements and feats of craftsmanship. The influence of Indian religions brought Hinduism and Buddhism to the country, resulting in the construction of Angkor Wat - a vast and complex network of more than 1,000 temples which has drawn travellers for many years and where monks still engage in their daily practice.


From the 15th century onwards Cambodia experienced a great deal of time under the ruling of powers other than its own. By the 19th century the country had been occupied by Thailand, been caught in the middle of conflict between Thailand and Vietnam, become a French protectorate, gained postwar independence, been drawn into the Vietnam War, and experienced significant political instability. Then, in 1975 the once thriving nation was overtaken by communist party Khmer Rouge - led by dictator Pol Pot. Initially taking Phnom Penh in 1975, the Khmer Rouge wreaked havoc on its people under the guise of revolution. This culminated in the Cambodian genocide, during which time an unfathomable 1.5 million Cambodians died due to malnutrition, overwork, executions and disease. The Khmer Rouge forcibly turned the nation to agricultural output, banning religion, intellectual pursuits, family ties and anyone who questioned or threatened the party.


This time eventually ended in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and established a protectorate that lasted a decade. Following this, only two decades ago in the 1990s, the country established free elections and a constitutional government once again. In 1997, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party gained power and remain so as of 2018. Today, Cambodia is gradually emerging from this brutal time, reinstating the importance of education and civil structure, and establishing a brighter future for today’s students.


From here on in


Some quiet, some giggly, some serious, and all insatiably curious, it was a unique experience to meet the young people of Cambodia and to hear their stories, as retold to us by teachers and translators. It was the five girls with aspirations far from garment factories, the young men and women studying at the teacher’s training college, and young girls who had been given access to education that showed the tangible reality of what happens when the next generation are given a solid foundation to stand on. One sponsored girl, Chanthay, for instance, had been using computers for independent research and had a plan to start her own vegetable garden to sell produce at the markets. It was humbling too to see that for some children a bicycle was the difference between attending school or not, as there was no way they could walk the many miles, and while many children were receiving help there were those that did get the opportunity. To be in Cambodia at this time was to see, clearly, that as with everywhere in the world small but significant shifts rooted in education and basic needs can lead to change in individuals and communities - change from the ground up, that might seem infinitesimal but is long lasting and can bring forth a nation.

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