by Allison Furlong
Less than a decade before I was born, when the Bee Gees were climbing up the US charts and Bill Gates just founded Microsoft, Cambodians were enduring sleepless nights. The Communist party – the Khmer Rouge – led by notorious tyrant Pol Pot were attempting to force Cambodia to an agrarian society. Backed by the Northern Vietnamese, they were using powerful force to push people from their homes into mass labour camps. And Pol Pot had a dream of returning his country back to “year zero”.
Education came to a standstill. Books, religion and any forms of free expression were outlawed. Anybody who was educated or questioned the new government was mass-murdered in the most brutal fashion. Speaking of fashion, even wearing glasses was enough to get you murdered (because you looked smart)
During the Khmer Rouge’s brutal and horrific four years of power, it’s estimated that over 2 million Cambodians died, most by execution in the Killing Fields with thousands of others dying from starvation and disease.
Truthfully, I didn’t truly enjoy my time in Cambodia because I felt guilty about visiting an impoverished country that had endured far too much hardship. But if you are thinking of going, I recommend seeing the Killing Fields. While it may be a bit too much for some to experience, I believe it serves as a reminder that humanity should never have to witness such awful atrocities again. While now filled with butterflies and greenery, you can actually still see human remains beneath your feet.
As you can imagine, Cambodia is still very much feeling the affects of this awful tragedy today. And nowhere is this more apparent than the NGO presence in the country. According to the Corporation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), there are approximately 3500 active NGOs in the country today, numbers only surpassed by Rwanda (you can see the common denominator here – both having endured mass genocide within the last few decades). And according to the CCC’s 2012 report, between 20 and 30 percent of Cambodia’s population benefit directly from the activities of NGOs.
The average Cambodian makes about 750 dollars a year, which means that many of its people have to resort to desperate ways of making a living. Parents often sell their daughters’ virginity to the highest bidder, with many of these girls naturally entering into the sex trade. Trade in virgins is also popular, with buyers paying anywhere from hundreds to thousands of USD to purchase a young girl’s virginity. Walking the streets of Phnom Penh, you can see this disturbing trend play out. Foreign men with shifty eyes and somber faces can be seen in run-down bars and restaurants. Many come to have sex with children.
Some of the girls in the brothels are just 5 years old. According to a 2011 study by ECPAT Cambodia, around 75 percent of the victims of sex trafficking within Cambodia were children. The study also shows that the age of the victims has decreased over the years.
What can we do? Well, perhaps we can create awareness about this disturbing trend. Perhaps we can guilt trip disgusting men into staying home. Perhaps we can put pressure on their government to follow through on broken promises. In either case, the situation is truly disturbing. Cambodia is at a crossroads. Lets hope it can make it through.