In 1979, Cambodia hit the headlines as the horrors perpetrated during the Khmer Rouge regime were revealed. But that was a generation ago. Today the world has largely forgotten Cambodia as fresh tragedies have unfolded elsewhere. So has Cambodia recovered from its traumatic past?
After nearly three decades of civil war, the Khmer Rouge are no more. Pol Pot is dead, other ageing leaders were arrested or pardoned, and the remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers defected to the Government side. Trials of three former Khmer Rouge leaders have concluded and it seems unlikely that there will be any more.
Though war may have come to end, violence continues, whether on the streets or in the home. A culture of impunity and corruption denies justice to the poor and oppressed.
A generation that has no experience of the Khmer Rouge regime has grown up, while their parents and grandparents still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and find difficulty in trusting anyone outside their immediate circle of family and friends.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party is firmly entrenched at every level of national and local government. The main opposition party has been dissolved and it remains to be seen whether a viable alternative opposition can arise to hold the government to account.
Slow economic growth
Although Cambodia is a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations, it lags far behind some of its more prosperous neighbours.
The garment industry has been one of Cambodia's success stories. The International Labour Organisation has commended working conditions, though trade unions have complained of oppression of workers by some employers. The industry's future prosperity depends on Cambodia's ability to compete with manufacturers in other Asian countries such as China and Vietnam and to survive any imposition of sanctions by countries critical of a perceived erosion of democracy.
Before Covid-19, the number of tourist arrivals continued to rise, but many tourists would arrive in Siem Reap (a provincial town) by air, spend two or three days visiting the Angkor temples, and then fly out again, seeing nothing of the rest of the country and contributing little to the economy. Covid-19 travel restrictions decimated Cambodia's tourism industry with nearly half of tourism-related businesses being forced to close their doors.
Cambodia remains one of the poorest, least developed countries in Asia. Cambodia's standard of health, level of education, care for the environment and other indicators of quality of life still need to be improved.
Slum dwellers and squatters have been forcibly evicted or relocated to sites without electricity and sewage disposal facilities and remote from employment opportunities when the land they lived on has been required for development. According to human rights organisation LICADHO, more than 2 million ha of land has been transferred mostly from subsistence farmers to agribusiness and an estimated half a million people have been affected by land disputes since 2000.
Challenges faced by Cambodia today include:
- achieving a measure of political consensus with a viable opposition;
- reducing corruption and creating a competent and impartial judiciary;
- establishing a fair way of resolving land disputes;
- redressing the imbalance between the rural poor and the rising urban middle class;
- recovering from the economic setbacks arising from Covid-19;
- stimulating foreign investment and economic growth;
- dealing with the effects of deforestation, environmental degradation and pollution.