This country is beautiful – deep red earth and vibrant green fields. The people too are wonderful - hard-working peasant farmers, still deeply religious; my greetings in French largely met with friendly incomprehension. And yet when I tell you the name of this country, you will probably think first of bad things: the terrible genocide, and the resulting poverty.
Next year it will be 40 years since the genocide in Cambodia. It was in 1975 when the notorious Khmer Rouge swept to power and unleashed the terrible Killing Fields. Pol Pot’s 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of terror, which led to the death of over 2 million Cambodians.
I have recently returned from two years volunteering in Cambodia, as a health management advisor for Voluntary Service Overseas.
For that whole time I never stopped asking ‘why’ – and never really got a satisfactory answer: the corrupt legacy of colonial rule; failure by the international community, fixated on the cold war being fought out in neighbouring Vietnam; a culture of fatalism; radicalised, misguided leaders creating a system where everyone could be an enemy of the people - take your pick.
Although nearly 40 years ago, Cambodia has far from dealt with its past. Most of the people remain poor. The education and health systems still lag way behind neighbouring countries.
There has been little reconciliation: People hardly talk of the genocide - but the effects have not gone away. It’s no surprise that researchers have diagnosed the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in many who survived the Killing Fields. What is much more surprising, and deeply disturbing, is that they have also found all the symptoms in the new generation of Cambodians. The effects of the genocide have not been dealt with, but passed on to the next generation to suffer.
There has been little political improvement: Hun Sen is a de facto dictator, 29 years in power, and has presided over the systematic corruption of the country. Everything is for sale in Cambodia – land, people, power. Just a few months ago Hun Sen stole yet another election, and is in the process of suppressing opposition protests.
There has been little justice following the genocide: the UN-backed trials have cost over $173m so far; and they have held completed the trial of just 1 person. Perhaps this is hardly surprising, as Hun Sen himself used to be part of the Khmer Rouge regime.
There is a glimmer of hope. There have at least been 40 years of relative peace following the genocide. Tourists now flock to Angkor Wat to wonder at the jungle temples. Phnom Penh is now a thriving capital - a few have even become wealthy on the back of land deals, cars, mobile phones – the so-called ‘Khmer Riche’. Whilst Hun Sen shows no sign of loosening his grip, a new generation of opposition is growing. And the new generation is challenging and curious to learn about and from their country’s turbulent history. Perhaps there is some hope?
This country is beautiful – deep red earth and vibrant green fields. The people too are wonderful – hard-working peasant farmers, still deeply religious; my greetings in French largely met with friendly incomprehension. And yet when I tell you the name of this country, you will probably think first of bad things: the terrible genocide, and the resulting poverty.
This year it is also 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda. It was as recently as 1994 when up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered - all in just 100 days.
I also volunteered for around 6 months in Rwanda, as a hospital management advisor.
Again, I spend that whole time asking ‘why’ – and again never really got a satisfactory answer: the corrupt legacy of colonial rule; radicalised, misguided political leaders, and an absence of condemnation by most church leaders; failure of the international community, with a weak UN mandate and US terrified by setbacks in Somalia - again, take your pick… And yet Rwanda has made great strides in dealing with its past.
There has been a great deal of justice. It seemed slow at first, and with most of the country’s judges killed and a backlog of 130,000 suspects. It was estimated it would take 200 years to try everyone in prison, let alone those still at large. But in Rwanda they found a solution: whilst the high-level genocidaires were tried at the UN courts in Arusia, Tanzania, Rwanda adapted its traditional community ‘Gacaca’ courts to deliver a kind of truth & reconciliation system. It was imperfect, but between 1996 and 2000 they tried an estimated 1m people. By the time I was there in 2009, the trials were all over, and prisoners were well into their sentences: I saw large numbers: the modest hospital where I worked had a whole ward set aside for them; orange pajamas if awaiting trial; pink if convicted of murder (or if they’d run out of orange ones). Although imperfect, there was some justice, and some closure - the country was moving on.
And I think this allowed for a significant amount of reconciliation: whilst I’m sure there are still issues bubbing below the surface, people do talk of the genocide. You can’t miss it in Rwanda: every small town has a bright purple genocide memorial, prominently located on the main road. And the country has no less than 3 months every year of mourning, from April to July.
There has been some political improvement: Paul Kigame, the president, is a strong leader, but at least he was part of the solution, the liberating force (in contrast to Hun Sen who was part of the problem, the Khmer Rouge). Some describe him as a benevolent dictator; many question his activities on and over the border with Congo. But he is smart, measured, and has a positive vision to transform Rwanda into a middle income country by 2020 – no mean feat for a landlocked country, consisting almost entirely of peasant famers, and with little or no natural resources - let alone one so recently ravised by genocide. And yet the people I met there were thirsty to learn and develop - I think they might just get there.
For Rwanda, I am much more positive: I really think that the issue of genocide has been and is being addressed, lessons have been learned, and that there is hope for the future.
Two wonderful peoples - neither of whom would speak French with me.
One with quite a distant genocide, but which I think it has never really dealt with;
and surprisingly, the other, poorer one with a much more recent genocide, but where great strides have been taken and where there is real hope for the future. Thank you for thinking of them both, for highlighting their troubles and successes, and for trying to ensure such things never happen again.