I believe the future of Cambodia depends on how the country supports its poor, discriminated, and marginalised people. Inequality will always exist, but all countries that neglect their downtrodden will bear the weight of reproach and the constant risk that immense talent, prospects, and capabilities of the future are being abandoned and lost forever.
In the spirit of helping one of the poorer and more marginalised communities in Cambodia, Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) plans to pilot a new development program in Anlong Veng in 2021. At the foot of the Dangrek Mountains on the remote northern border with Thailand, Anlong Veng has deep connections to Cambodia’s dark past.
Following their brief but brutal rule characterised by the “killing fields” and the deaths of up to two million Cambodians, the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power by Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation Army and Vietnamese forces. It was to the mountains and jungles of Anlong Veng that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime fled, and from this place continued a guerrilla war for twenty more years.
Finally in late December 1998, the last of the Khmer Rouge agreed to put down their arms and return to ordinary society. But the last twenty years of peace have not erased the history of this place, or the physical sites of factional violence, forced labour, brutal killings, and even the detention house, cremation site, and grave of Pol Pot himself.
Nearly 80 percent of the residents of Anlong Veng today are ex-Khmer Rouge, most of whom make their living from slash and burn agriculture that has resulted in some of the worst deforestation in the country. DC-Cam has begun a process of reconciliation, engagement, and education by transforming a clifftop house in the Dangrek Mountains used by Pol Pot and other senior Khmer Rouge to plan their violence, into the Anlong Veng Peace Center, directed by Dr. Ly Sok-Kheang.
The Ministry of Tourism and DC-Cam’s Research Team have identified at least fourteen historical sites along the way from Anlong village to the top of Dangrek Mountain, and our proposal links them together into a winding walk through city and agricultural hinterland. Each person who arrives at Anlong Veng Lake receives a map and a seedling tree as they set out on their three-day journey. Along the way, each person plants their tree in their designated location, and becomes a participant in the healing of the landscape of Anlong Veng. The process of learning about history and the process of healing the landscape are brought together into a single, powerful experience. The journey concludes on the morning of the third day, watching the sun-rise from the Anlong Veng Peace Center on the cliffs atop Dangrek Mountain.
The Khmer Rouge history is what makes Anlong Veng uniquely compelling, but it is not the only facet of local history that is important. There are a number of historic military zones where Cambodian military forces were based, and stories about military clashes, confrontations, and manoeuvres abound in the region.
Military history, like Khmer Rouge history, provides important insights into not only the history of Cambodia but also the struggle and resilience of the Cambodian people. Our approach is to develop the area not by erasing the memories of violence and trauma, but by transforming them from sites of suffering to sites of regeneration.
For example, a place of violence to women, where a former factional leader’s wife and children were raped and murdered can be transformed into a women’s centre for training and counselling. A warehouse where land mines were stored and built can be transformed into a site where people manufacture crutches, wheelchairs, and bicycles.
DC-Cam also wants to re-invent how tourism occurs in Cambodia. Most tourist activities in Cambodia involve activities focused on cliché- or even dark tourism, but in a country where most of the population makes less than $6 a day, some tourist activities should involve, if not education, at least some nominal, direct support to the poor. DC-Cam is planning pilot activities that provide direct support to local Cambodians by way of tutoring in English, and possibly French and Chinese, languages in exchange for catered events to learn about the countryside, history, and culture. Tourism can be mutually supportive to the poor or marginalised peoples, as much as fun, pleasurable, and comforting for tourists. Tourists involved in this type of tourism can (and should) receive verifiable proof that they have given back to the local community while experiencing some adventure or escape from the everyday world.
DC-Cam also wants to integrate outdoor sporting activities in Cambodian tourism. Walking, hiking, and other outdoor activities can play an important part in not only re-inventing how outsiders see Cambodia, but also how Cambodian youth enjoy their country, and local Cambodians showcase their community, culture, and life stories. DC-Cam wants to establish Anlong Veng as a location where outdoor sporting events can occur, in a safe and well-organised manner. Marathons, hikes, and other sporting events can be ways in which physical fitness can be combined with tourism and social and economic development. Tourists can experience an adventurous, but safe, outdoor physical event that exposes them to the unique culture of the local area with the assurance that their participation is contributing to the local and regional economy and a prioritisation of the local poor and marginalised populations.
Cambodia’s future depends as much on innovation and investment in new ideas and technologies as it does investments in its people. To become a more developed, advanced participant of the world economy, the country must make equal investments in its people and technology, without sacrificing one or the other. To this end, DC-Cam will be integrating an IT educational component within all of its development work in the area. Young Cambodians can be given the most advanced and sophisticated computers and IT tools, but if they do not have the basic skills, knowledge and competencies to use these tools, and learn about ones yet invented, then no amount of investment in new ideas or technologies will matter.
Twenty-five percent (25%) of Anlong Veng’s population also have physical disabilities as a result of land mines and the long guerrilla war. DC-Cam endeavours to have a disabled persons’ component to all facets of its piloting plan. Through this process of transformation, ‘a place’ that injured people can be transformed to a place that gives people jobs through enhancing mobility and rehabilitating society.
Post-conflict countries struggle and fail or overcome and succeed based on a complex and ever-changing set of variables. Despite what some people may think, these variables are not all within the present. The struggle or success of a nation is as much dependent on how the country confronts its past as much as its present, and no amount of success in the past can prepare one for the challenges of the future. The Khmer Rouge regime may be in the past, but the history nevertheless continues to resonate today in many of Cambodia’s present-day circumstances, and it remains a lesson for all, including the international community.
I believe the future of Cambodia depends on how the country supports its poor, discriminated, and marginalised people because so much of Cambodia’s present and future have depended on the power of its people. But in the same light, Cambodia’s future depends as much on innovation and investment in new ideas and technologies as it does investments in its people. To become a more developed, advanced participant of the world economy, the country must make equal investments in its people and technology, without sacrificing one or the other. DC-Cam is eager to pilot this daring agenda in Anlong Veng in 2021.
Youk Chhang is Director of Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). Recently, DC-Cam has officially established the Queen Mother Library in order to pay homage to Her Majesty the Queen Mother NORODOM MONINEATH SIHANOUK, who has dedicated her life to serve Cambodia, His Late Majesty the King Father NORODOM SIHANOUK, and the people of Cambodia.