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Cambodian people enjoy much more freedom than before

Kokthay ENG / Share:
Voters line up to vote during previous commune elections. Khmer Times

Cambodia’s general population census 2019 was released Tuesday, (26 January 2021) with the participation of national and international institutions. Funded by the Cambodian government in collaboration with UNFPA, GIZ, China Aid and Swedish government, the census took two years to complete amidst the pandemic. It was the third time that Cambodia completed such a census  since UNTAC. The first time was in 1998, the second was in 2008 and this time in 2019. The general census was only done once before in pre-Hun Sen period in 1962. This third census has indicated that Cambodian people have more freedom today than they have ever enjoyed in the country’s history. Freedom means improved income, education, healthcare and travel, as well as ability to personally express socially and culturally, leading to overall sense of unrestricted happiness.

First, the GPD per capita has grown to $1690, a strong result of high economic growth since 1998, the year in which the Pol Pot’s political apparatus was effectively destroyed and integrated. This figure indicates that Cambodia is well on her way to become a higher middle income country by 2030, which is nine years from now. The ability to extract oil and gas from the Khmer basin in the Gulf of Thailand will further boost cash reserve.

Second, the census also reveals that Cambodian people are enjoying more luxuries of the modern age. More houses are being built by concrete as opposed to thatch, equipped with TV, air conditioner, gas stow, radio and mobile phones with good internet connection. Many households have a motorcycle, a car or a truck allowing them more freedom to commute far for business, leisure or medical emergency.

Third, there is an increasing trend with the rise of physical infrastructure, roads, bridge, telecommunication networks, that Cambodian people are moving away from the central plain around the Tonle Sap lake which is the traditional center of economic activity toward the plateau region around the border of the country. The ability of Cambodia to provide paved and concrete roads, bridges, water supply and electricity at cheap price to the peripheries have increased economic opportunity in this region, enabling the support of higher population whereas in the past inaccessibly and lack of infrastructure made growing population impossible. In the past, provinces in the north and northeast of Cambodia were economically or politically negligible and tended to become a stronghold of political insurrections used by warlords, Pol Pot or bandits. These provinces, however, have now become a gateway for international trade with neighboring countries, tourist hotspots and agricultural production base for cropping that requires no inundation.

Fourth, the level of mortalities as a result of birth, communicable and none communicable diseases have dropped dramatically, leading to a higher lifespan. This is attributed to better and improving healthcare system (zero death under the Covid-19 pandemic so far) and higher ability to afford international healthcare. Fifth, the education sector has also gained great momentum with teachers being paid more and the education ministry receiving the highest allocated budget from the government.

Sixth, with increased economic activities and personal income, Cambodian people are now more than ever before are capable of travelling abroad for business, education, healthcare and leisure. This has been helped by better diplomatic relations Cambodia has built with other countries, arranging visa free or visa on arrival agreements as well as free trade deals.

The growth of Cambodia in all sectors, contributing to higher sense of freedom, is a direct result of two fundamental factors, namely peace and consistent economic growth. Political and territorial unity is a special social character that Cambodia have never had for the last five hundred years or longer dating back to immediate post-Angkorean period. The loss of territory and population exodus, by force or voluntarily, led to population decline to just around 1.5 million in the 18th century.

Today’s peace has led to unhindered implementation of social development plans under a strong and prudent leadership of the government. The economic growth has been a result of sound macro-economic plans, putting national resources where they are needed most and developing new sectors as a result of careful study. This is not to say that Cambodia was not helped by the international community which has so far contributed approximately $600 million to the nation’s development since the 1990s. Cambodian people are thankful for this assistance and the higher level of freedom in Cambodia is the goal of those international donors in post-war, post-genocide Cambodia. Of course not all sectors are catching up, but the signs are that Cambodia is getting there.

The fact that Cambodia is having  excellent relations with China, correlates with China’s increased role in global economic activities and becoming the global center for investment. This is the same with all other countries in Southeast Asia, with Thailand and Vietnam having a much higher trading activities with China than Cambodia does. Higher trade means higher political relations and vice versa. This brings us to the fact that any economic sanctions would  counter political or diplomatic gains and it is a direct attempt at disrupting growth and expanding freedom that the international community always wants Cambodia to achieve after the genocide orchestrated by the infamous, bloodthirsty Saloth Sar.

Kokthay ENG, Ph.D.

Cambodian Freedom Project

Cambodian Institute for Peace and Development

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