While in Cambodia I said several times in conversation that I thought I would need to live there for a couple years to really understand the country – who really has the power and influence, the money and how that interacts with the general population. Who knows – maybe that two year stay will occur at some point.
At this point I would obviously not call myself an expert, but there certainly were some obvious things going on, and a scan of reports on the internet has solidified some ideas I had, particularly regarding Chinese influence and investment.
The most obvious thing you see while in Cambodia, is a huge disparity between the rich and poor. We worked with many people and children who survive on less than one dollar a day, however, every day we saw many very expensive vehicles traveling the streets of Phnom Penh. We also drove and floated past many properties that I could only call Mansions. There is also a lot of construction going on of opulent government and commercial buildings.The conclusion I came to was that someone either was hording the wealth, and/or some outside entity saw opportunity, and was playing the game "Monopoly", buying up all the green and blue and yellow properties, putting up hotels, and expecting the value to increase. With my little bit of knowledge and experience, I would say both of those things are true.
The other thing that was obvious was the reliance Cambodia has on outside aid. There was no sales tax when I bought stuff there, including gifts and computer networking gear. There also is no income tax collected from those millions of people surviving on one dollar a day. But there are NGOs (non-governmental organizations) everywhere, providing services to the people you would normally expect the government to provide. And my quick article scan confirmed that close to half the country's budget is paid for by the West, and China has started to make significant contributions as well. Apparently there are some taxes collected when outside entities make investments in the country, though there is also a lot of bribe money that changes hands as well to make projects happen, and to direct projects to those entities with connections and money.
The quick answer we usually received when we asked people who owned the mansions and cars, was that the person had some sort of tie to the government. My understanding is that many governmental officials also have side-businesses that they direct projects to, to enrich themselves and their friends (similar to Dick Cheney and Halliburton).
Once you learn the recent history of Cambodia, it makes it easier to excuse them for the dysfunctional nature of their government, even if it is still frustrating. In the early 70's, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were killed during the Vietnam war. And it was just 30 years ago that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was pushed from power, after killing millions of Cambodians. During the horrific time of 1975-1979, the combined effects of slave labor, malnutrition, poor medical care, and executions resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 million people, approximately 21% of the Cambodian population. Those deaths were especially concentrated with educated Cambodians, who were considered suspect in the campaign to re-create the country in his vision. The result is a very young population comprised of many who still or until recently grew rice in the provinces.
The latest news that keeps recurring has to with Cambodians being pushed off of land they have lived on for many years, to make way for shiny new houses, roads and casinos. The landscape is continually changing as investment dollars keep flowing in, with a government whose pockets are greased and who don't seem to have much regard for the poor who get significantly impacted by their actions.
It is an opportunity for good-hearted people from around the world to converge and provide energy, support and funds to help the less advantaged people of the country. And my enthusiasm for helping stays strong by remembering that any effort that helps lift up a human, even if temporary, is of great value, and is worth doing. But I also wonder if the macro environment could undo in a second what might take years to build and create.
If you have a few minutes, here are links to some articles and info I found this morning:
The Center for Khmer Studies
Cambodia balances East and West
Chinese ‘Black Gold’ to Flow from Cambodia
China's growing influence in Cambodia
International analysts say China’s policies in Cambodia are only one aspect of its engagement with the region as a whole
CAMBODIA : Chinese influence on the rise