Cambodia today counts among the world’s poorest nations, although, as becomes clearer with each page of this blog, about 96% of the countries in the world are currently on the list of the world's poorest, and about 86% of the people living in the countries not on the list also meet the same criteria for defining poverty. We could, of course, resolve the problem of world poverty right now, by redefining the criteria, but that would be like using steroids before a bicycle race or deflating a football,and no politician would ever stoop that low.
But I digress. In Cambodia, most city people work in the garment trade, most non-city people undertake subsistence farming, and $1 a day is the average income though no longer the name of the book used by American and European tourists to plan their travels here (Angkor Wat remains the number one item on the world’s bucket list of must-see places); that has become $2 a day. There is thought to be oil and gas offshore somewhere, but offshore includes the rest of the planet, so who can say if this will ever happen? There is rubber and sugar and there are rumours of mineral inland, but these mostly lead to conflict, as the corrupt political leadership give away land they don’t own to their friends, and the local people who protest find themselves mysteriously “displaced”, an official term with unfortunate Khmer Rouge memories attached. Illegal logging has reduced the ancient forests, and senior government officials are allegedly running that show too. Unexploded land mines left over from the Killing Fields continue to amputate limbs regularly, and border disagreements with Thailand have engaged the military more than once.
Let me now rewrite the opening of that last paragraph, because I have unintentionally made the place sound a touch too nice; and do so by quoting once again from the CIA World FactBook: "Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Cambodian men, women, and children migrate to countries within the region for legitimate work but are subsequently subjected to sex trafficking, domestic servitude, debt bondage, or forced labor; the inability to understand formal obligations, read contracts, or pay processing fees, and inadequate government regulatory oversight renders some Cambodian migrant workers vulnerable to such exploitation; poor Cambodian children are subject to forced labor, including forced begging in Thailand and Vietnam; Cambodian and ethnic Vietnamese women and girls are trafficked from rural areas to urban centers for sexual exploitation; Cambodian men are the main exploiters of child prostitutes, but men from other Asian countries, the US, and Europe travel to Cambodia for child sex tourism." Which is an indictment of Vietnam and Thailand as much as it is of Cambodia. The American government has Cambodia at Tier 2 on its Watch List for these matters. It also notes "narcotics-related corruption reportedly involving some in the government, military, and police; limited methamphetamine production; vulnerable to money laundering due to its cash-based economy and porous border." An Amnesty International posting just a week ago suggests that not much has really changed since the fall of Saloth Sar.
But still there is Angkor Wat, and the lesser known but equally magnificent Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, and Preah Khan and Ta Prohm as well, and no account of Cambodia would be fair and balanced without telling of these. Both are located within the four hundred square kilometres of the Angkor Archaeological Park, and trace Khmer history back to the 9th century, to what was clearly a far more cultured, civilised, sophisticated, intellectually advanced, creative society than most countries of the world, anywhere in the world, today. Preah Khan was probably a teaching hospital, and NeakPoan a practising hospital, something in the manner of the Moslem Bimaristan, which were five hundred years ahead of the hospitals of Europe - established five hundred years before Europe thought to do the same, but also five hundred years ahead in their understanding of anatomy, physiology, diagnosis, treatment, and even a primitive sort of psychology. The quality of art and architecture was of the same order, though literature was less advanced, being mostly copies of Buddhist or pre-Buddhist texts until the 16th century, and the ancient tales passed on orally rather than written down.
The challenge implicit in the above commentary applies to many countries in the world who once had great civilisations but now do not (Greece, Turkey, Mali, Morocco, Zimbabwe, pre-Columban South America, Iraq, Syria, to name just a few). We like to think the world is continually progressing forwards, simply because time moves forward, and we have gained more knowledge of the physical world, and have more sophisticated technologies. But the truth is, it doesn't work like that. As a civilisation, based on benchmarks of human behaviour, universal literacy and numeracy, economic sufficiency and cultural engagement, today's Cambodia inhabits a space of time several centuries earlier than the first Khmer dynasty of the 9th century, just as today's Greece is not ready for a Pericles, let alone a Plato or an Aristotle.
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