11:28 P.M. January 2
Our first full day in Cambodia, and what a day. I felt like I was working backwards a bit all day, learning about organizations' initiatives to empower their people before I really understood what they were being empowered from. I came here knowing basically nothing. Here's what I am gathering:
Cambodia has an incredibly long, rich, complex history, and is the proud home of the temple complex at Siem Reap - one of the seven wonders of the world (I'll be there at the end of this visit, where I'll learn more). Many other countries have tried to control Cambodia over the years, including their Thai and Vietnamese neighbors, but it was the French that claimed Cambodia as a colony from the 1864 - 1953. During the escalating conflict in Vietnam and Laos in the 1960's, Cambodia's King Sihanouk tried unsuccessfully to keep Cambodia neutral. The North Vietnamese army used Cambodian land for bases, and in 1969 the U.S. and South Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. According to my Lonely Planet guide, the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia than were used by all sides in WWII, killing some 250,000 Cambodians. Weakened by years of war, Cambodia was overtaken by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, a brutal regime that in under 4 years slaughtered between 2-3 million people, targeting the educated and professional class first. In 1979 the Vietnamese toppled the Khmer Rouge and installed a new government, and for the next fourteen years the country struggled with famine, another outside leader, and the legacy of war and genocide- which include the destruction of infrastructure (government, education, health care, industry),deep ruptures of social and civil society, and the damage caused to the human spirit. It was not until 1993 that the country had their first partially democratic election and they are still working towards putting democratic principles fully into practice in their country. It is amazing, given all this, how much work has been done. And how much is left to do.
Here's a snapshot of my day.
9:00 Breakfast in the hotel, followed by a brisk walk to start to get my bearings on Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capitol city, and home to 2 million.
11:00 Visit VBNK - Cambodia's premier leadership development training organization, which works to inspire people to articulate a vision for their future and to take risks in advancing that vision - things which a generation ago were unthinkable and dangerous. They work in concert with technical trainings, like teaching agricultural workers to use new technology to improve their yields, and microlending, to provide capital to access new technology. VBNK recognizes that sometimes people's fears hold them back, even when the technical training and economic resource is available.
12:00 Lunch. Delicious Khmer buffet.
2:30 Visit Women's Media Centre of Cambodia - a women run tv and radio station that works to advance women's rights by process and product. They train and employ women and have news content that educates the country about issues critical to women's issues and status. The news director told me about visiting the concentration camp at Dachau, the pain of learning such a thing had also happened outside his country, and the bewilderment that it could happen at all.
4:00 Visit The Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, a coalition of over 155 NGO's working to promote a civil society in Cambodia that is just, transparent and effective. Their Director described Camodia today as stable, dependent and unbalanced. Stable in that there is an absence of war, dependent in that the government - and the people - don't stand on their own feet, and rely on aid, direction, and vision from others. And imbalanced in that much of the economic development that is happening is deepening the divides between the rich and the poor.
6:00 Welcome dinner. Another delicious Khmer feast, complete with morning glory, sour soup and sticky rice, and inspirational message of hope from Khim Sok Heng, training director of H.E.D.C. International (Bopha's organization). He said, "What we are doing is helping people to fall in love with life." And then we worked on falling in love with each other, which is not so hard to do.