Forty Years Ago: Part 4

In the year leading up to the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975 we are publishing extracts from the newsletters produced by Cambodia for Christ.

Newsletter 3, March 1974

“The greatest of the Cambodian war’s tragedies is that no one knows how to end it. Militarily and diplomatically there simply is no end in sight for what surely must be the world’s saddest, least honourable, and most unnecessary war. More than two million of Cambodia’s seven million have been made homeless by it; the casualties are uncounted but estimated in the hundreds of thousands. The Cambodian economy has been destroyed, and, as one diplomat put it: ‘You sense the national spirit has been broken. There are so many beggars in Phnom Penh now, but you pass many other people and you know they are hungry and would like to beg, but it is the only shred of their self-respect they have left.'”

The struggle goes on, and this recent report by a leading British newspaper sums up the awfulness of life in Cambodia today.

Politically little has changed in Cambodia since our last letter. The Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communists, backed by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese) still hold large areas of the country while the government defends a series of outposts, major cities and the capital, Phnom Penh – about ten to twenty per cent of the land mass. Although over 80 per cent of the country is under insurgent control, 85 per cent of the people live in government controlled areas. The fact is that the large majority of Cambodians remain unconquered.

Day and night artillery and rocket attacks, more intense since Chinese New Year, have left large areas of the capital in ruins. Over two hundred have died in the shelling since Christmas, with hundreds injured, and in January over half the French population of 1,000 left Phnom Penh. All roads out of the city are cut and the price of a plane ticket to safer cities such as Battambang and Kampong Cham is out of reach of most Cambodians. There is no way out for the poor but to cross the front lines and no one is contemplating that. Food shortage, looting, inflated prices and student unrest all add to the troubles in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge claim to have 14,000 troops and say they will continue bombarding the capital, attack Mekong River convoys and finally enter the city, but this last claim is not likely unless things rapidly deteriorate. As things are at present this stalemate could continue indefinitely as neither side has the resources to win an outright victory; it seems that Cambodia is in for a long and wasteful struggle for survival.

Normal life is difficult; most schools have had to shut down, especially those with French teachers. Many shops have been closed too and a strict curfew has existed for some weeks now. French doctors in Phnom Penh report that as a consequence of the privations of war, cases of night-blindness – induced by vitamin deficiencies – are appearing for the first time in Cambodia since medical records were started by the French in 1861.

Please pray. Humanly speaking little can be done to alleviate the situation, but we must ask God for deliverance and a second chance for a people who need to hear of the One who loves and died for them. The Khmer Christians need and should have our prayers, for grace and strength, wisdom and hope. Even in the most difficult situation God controls and the Holy Spirit is active. Cambodian believers have ample opportunity to share a living faith, made more real to them perhaps by the nature of their circumstances. When the American bombing was halted in August 1973, the Cambodian church fell on its knees before God in prayer and fasting for their nation. Christians believe that divine intervention has turned a despairing situation to one of hope and rejoicing – the hand of Almighty God, El Shaddai, is overshadowing Cambodia. Let us keep this in mind when we hear of all the negative elements in Cambodia. The National Church continues to be involved in practical ways, and co-operation with the government is good. The missionaries are planning to remain, and although women and children of missionaries had left Phnom Penh, women missionaries have now returned to continue their work. Reverend Merle Graven of the Christian and Missionary Alliance says, “Opportunities abound for an unlimited ministry. We are trusting for a great swell of prayer around the world for further miracles.”

During the week leading up to Christmas Day 1973 the Bible Shop in Phnom Penh put on a special window display of Bibles, portions and selections. Every day crowds of people gathered outside the shop to look at the window; these were mainly young folk and Buddhist monks. Nearly 6,000 copies of the Bible, portions and selections were sold in the week, in Khmer, French, English and Chinese. Many read them and came back for more, and over the whole week including free distribution 75,000 scriptures went out. Every Buddhist priest studying at the University has received a Bible. One Buddhist priest said recently, “You simply cannot read what the Bible says and believe that Jesus Christ was just an ordinary man.”

In a letter from Phnom Penh in January Taing Chhirc a Cambodian Christian wrote, “I thank the Lord for giving real opportunities to serve Him among our people at this time of harvest. Hungry souls have poured into our 15 churches in the capital each week, and there has been a shortage of Bibles for many months. We are running out of almost everything here, but not of the sweet love of Jesus our dear Lord and Saviour who is manifesting Himself mightily in our land.”

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