RICH, MIDDLE CLASS AND POOR IN CAMBODIA

RICH IN CAMBODIA

Before the Khmer Rouge era the elite was made up of feudal landowners and people connected with the court. They worshiped high Khmer culture, dance, music and drama; hired nannies; and sent their children to French schools. During the Khmer Rouge years the elite was the Khmer Rouge leadership.

After the Khmer Rouge was ousted, people with connections to the government took control of much of the wealth. Many members of the new elite are political leaders, cronies of political leaders or men who have made money through corruption schemes, illegal logging, drug trafficking, money laundering or running casinos, or have tapped into money brought in by the United Nations or foreign aid organizations.

In the 1990s Theng Bunma was reportedly Cambodia's richest man. With an estimated worth of $400 million, at that time he owned a hotel, a bank, and an import-export business and had been accused by the United States government of being a heroin trafficker.

People with money in Cambodia don’t help the local economy as much as the could. They keep their wealth in foreign accounts, send their children to foreign schools and maintain at least one house abroad to escape to if necessary. These people are also largely above the law and thrive in Cambodia’s climate of corruption. The power they enjoy is sometimes called the “culture of impunity.”

See Land Titles and Land Grabs, See Economics

Wikileaks-Released US Embassy Cables Revelations about Cambodia’s Rich

In July 2011, WikiLeaks released its small cache of Cambodia-related dispatches. The 777 cables from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh span the period from 1992 to 2010, nearly the entire life of democratic Cambodia. Sebastian Strangio wrote in the Asia Times, “Perhaps the most illuminating of the cables, however, is one from August 2007 (07PHNOMPENH1034), titled "Cambodia's Top Ten Tycoons", illuminating the rich nexus of politicians, cronies and businessmen that undergirds the rock-solid rule of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). [Source: Sebastian Strangio, Asia Times, July 27, 2011 #]

“Among those profiled is Australian-born Kith Meng, who is described by one source cited in a cable as "a relatively young and ruthless gangster"; another source claims the head of the Royal Group conglomerate - who is blessed with the alias "Mr Rough Stuff" - is "notorious for using his bodyguards to coerce others into brokering deals". Particularly close to the prime minister, according to the cable, is Mong Reththy - "Hun Sen's money man" - who has built a fortune from agriculture and construction, and owns a private port, naturally named after himself, near Sihanoukville on the country's south coast. The two leaders reportedly spent time together at a Phnom Penh pagoda during secondary school; in 1997, when Mong Reththy's name was raised in connection with a seven-ton marijuana bust, Hun Sen "publicly shielded" him from the accusation, according to the cable. #

“Other tycoons mentioned include CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, who maintains a formidable economic fief in the southwestern province of Koh Kong; Sok Kong, who heads Sokimex, the country's largest petroleum supplier that also controls the lucrative ticket revenues from the famous Angkor Wat temple complex; and Lao Meng Khin, a commercial jack-of-all-trades with a seat in the senate, a powerful, well-connected wife and lucrative construction, logging and agribusiness concessions. #

“According to another leaked cable, Cambodia's leading businessmen are linked to Hun Sen and the political leadership in a tight mesh of personal relationships and economic accommodations. Hun Sen enjoys a "mutually beneficial" relationship with the country's oligarchs who donate money towards the CPP in exchange for his personal backing in their business ventures. This economic in-breeding, the cable concludes, acts to "reinforce the culture of impunity and limit progress on reforms such as Hun Sen's self-declared 'war on corruption'." #

Except for Hor Namhong's angry missive protesting claims he played a significant role in the Khmer Rouge regime, the Cambodian government is unlikely to take the leaks - and their relatively mild disclosures - too seriously. "Information from WikiLeaks is unofficial ... [and] from the perspective of one person," said Phay Siphan, a government spokesman. "It does not represent the official interests of the United States." #

According to Wikileaks: “Prime Minister Hun Sen is making efforts to bridge the gap between the political and private sector by cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with the country’s most prominent business tycoons. These business leaders contribute money to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) and Hun Sen can call on them to fund charities and public works projects and to attract foreign investment, achievements for which the CPP can claim credit. In return, the business tycoons enjoy the added credibility and legitimacy of having the Prime Minister’s support. These symbiotic relationships illustrate the networks of business tycoons, political figures, and government officials that have formed in Cambodia, which reinforce the culture of impunity and limit progress on reforms such as Hun Sen’s self-declared “war on corruption.” Post highlights the storied lives and diverse investment portfolios of ten of the most prominent of these well-connected tycoons. Labels: Kith Meng, Kok An, Lao Meng Khin, Lim Chhiv Ho, Ly Yong Phat, Mong Reththy, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Pung Kheav S, Sok Kong, Sy Kong Triv, Yeay Phu. [Source: WikiLeaks Cable Viewer]

Kith Meng: Cambodia’s Transforming Tycoon

Shawn W. Crispin wrote on Asia Time Online: “Kith Meng's is the bold new face of Cambodian capitalism. Widely considered the country's richest entrepreneur, the Sino-Khmer businessman presides over a sprawling business empire held under his Royal Group of Companies which has leveraged into and helped drive Cambodia's recent economic boom. With impeccable political connections - including not least his role as a personal advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen - Kith Meng, 37, has secured a growing trove of lucrative government concessions, licenses and land deals that his Royal Group has in sometimes controversial fashion translated into big business profits. [Source: Shawn W Crispin, Asia Time Online, September 06, 2007 **]

“Those include his controlling stakes in CTN television, mobile telecom leader Mobitel, the Camlot lottery company and a 45 percent stake in a commercial banking joint venture with Australia's ANZ Bank, where he serves as board chairman and reportedly drives strategic decision-making. In 2006 he purchased the swanky Cambodiana Hotel, newly established the Infinity Insurance company and accumulated extensive property holdings and development concessions in the capital Phnom Penh, in what his critics contend are often opaque deals brokered with various line ministries. **

“His growing service sector empire has drawn both favorable and unfavorable comparisons to neighboring Thailand's telecom tycoon-cum-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's commercial and political ascent. He reportedly will seek a seat on the national senate at upcoming elections and some Phnom Penh-based analysts see him one day as a potential successor to the 55-year-old Hun Sen, who they note rose to political prominence through his military prowess rather than business acumen. **

Life and Early Business Successes of Kith Meng

Raphael Minder of The Financial Times wrote: “ Like most Cambodians born before Pol Pot took power in 1975, Mr Kith Meng experienced the repression first-hand. He calls it “the painful story about my life”. Because his father was a provincial landlord and businessman, his family was an obvious target. They were forcibly separated and both his father and mother starved to death. In 1980, after the Vietnam-led overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, he was reunited with some family members in Phnom Penh. They then travelled as refugees to a United Nations camp in Thailand. From there , they emigrated to Australia, returning to Cambodia in 1991.[Source: Raphael Minder, Financial Times, August 17, 2008]

Shawn W. Crispin wrote on Asia Time Online: “A former refugee from political violence, Kith Meng's is one of Cambodia's most compelling rags to riches stories. His father, Kith Peng Ike, a Sino-Khmer businessman and landlord, was singled out as a "class enemy" during the Khmer Rouge's genocidal purges and he reportedly died from starvation in one of the radical Maoist group's labor camps. Kith Meng and his family fled the country for Australia, where he was raised and educated. He returned to his war-torn homeland in the early 1990s to help his elder brother, Sophan Kith, to develop the resurrected family business, which upon reestablishment was first known as the Royal Cambodia Company. The enterprise started modestly, supplying furniture, food and office equipment to the United Nations authority that ushered Cambodia's rocky transition from civil war to parliamentary democracy. [Source: Shawn W Crispin, Asia Time Online, September 06, 2007 **]

“In 1991 the Royal Group won the rights to distribute exclusively Canon copiers throughout the country and it quickly spun those monopoly revenues into a joint venture in 1993 with Motorola to establish one of Cambodia's first wireless communication networks. It later did a deal with Luxembourg's Millicom International Cellular, which over the years has grown into the country's leading mobile telecom outfit, Mobitel. In 1994 Sophan Kith died under mysterious circumstances and, peculiar to cultural norms of seniority as the youngest sibling, Kith Meng took control over the family business. He now serves as both the company's chairman and chief executive officer and his cut-throat approach to business expansion has rapidly transformed the Royal Group into Cambodia's leading service sector conglomerate. **

Kith Meng’s Business Intrests

Raphael Minder of The Financial Times wrote: “Mr Kith Meng has been at the forefront of Cambodia’s transformation from a backward, war-torn country into one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, averaging 9 per cent growth a year over the past decade. Royal Group’s businesses include the country’s biggest mobile phone company, its first broadband provider and a bank that pioneered ATMs. It is about to launch phone banking. Such activities have put Mr Kith Meng on a very different path from his fellow ethnic Chinese, who have tended to build family businesses in traditional sectors such as farming, mining and logging. “We are going into every sector we can because Cambodia needs every sector to grow,” he says. “After that, we’ll see in what industry we want to be an Asian player.” With such ambitions in mind, he has already started touring financial centres such as Singapore and Hong Kong to see how and when Royal Group should widen its presence in the region as well as list the equity of a company that has already made him a billionaire. (He refuses to value his assets precisely.) [Source: Raphael Minder, Financial Times, August 17, 2008 ==]

“Mr Kith Meng also has casino interests in Cambodia and one of his recent trips abroad was to Macao, the world’s largest gaming centre, accompanied by western bankers. His conclusion is unambiguous, and typical of a man who believes Cambodians must shed their inferiority complex towards other Asians. “Macao is already so crowded,” he says. “I think people in Macao should be looking here, not us looking there.” ==

“Although he has so far confined his activities to his homeland, his ascent has started to draw comparisons with more renowned and far-reaching Asian tycoons, including Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai businessman and ousted former prime minister. Mr Kith Meng scoffs at that particular comparison, insisting he has no desire to use his wealth as a political launchpad as Mr Thaksin did in Thailand, where he created his own political party. “I am a businessman and just don’t have any of that [political] ambition,” he says. In fact, insiders say Mr Kith Meng’s allegiance to Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-standing prime minister, has been crucial to his success. Royal Group’s meeting rooms are adorned with pictures of the Hun Sen family, confirming what he describes as “very good relations with the government”. ==

“Even though he also holds the honorific title of Okhna, the Cambodian equivalent of a British peerage, associates and some other local businessmen say he steers clear of fellow Cambodian high-flyers. While Royal Group is set to build one of the skyscrapers that are redrawing Phnom Penh’s skyline, the company’s headquarters are in a nondescript office block and are entered via an electronics dealership with peeling walls. Asked about this surprisingly low-key location, Mark Hanna, his Irish chief financial officer, says: “It might seem strange but I don’t think he’ll ever move from here. Perhaps it’s a mix of feng shui, good luck and superstition.” Meanwhile, Mr Kith Meng has his own take on good fortune: “Luck is about intelligence and timing.” Mr Kith Meng’s workplace may be modest but he does have some flashy tastes. His oversized Cartier gold watch is overshadowed only by his diamond ring. He also has a penchant for luxury cars, owning a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley. He has no plans to settle down. “I’m single because when you’re a workaholic you don’t have time for that,’’ he grins. ==

“Now, Royal Group’s most important Australian connection is its joint venture with ANZ bank. Meanwhile, its telecoms business is a partnership with Luxembourg-registered Millicom International Cellular. Mr Kith Meng also has exclusive distribution rights in Cambodia for a gamut of multinationals, including Canon, Siemens and Motorola, as well as the restaurant chains Pizza Hut and KFC. Mr Hanna is among a dozen English-speaking executives working for the group, including a team of former bankers from Macquarie, hired to set up an investment bank for the sprawling business empire. “We, as Cambodians, need outside expertise,” says Mr Kith Meng. ==

Kith Meng: the Face of Cambodian Business

Shawn W. Crispin wrote on Asia Time Online: “As a Western-educated, 37-year-old entrepreneur, Kith Meng's resume stands out among the older generation of ethnic Chinese businessmen who dominate Cambodia's traditional economy. Cambodian politicians have long relied on Sino-Khmer businessmen to run crucial sectors of the national economy, similar to the ethnic-based government-business nexuses seen in Thailand and Indonesia. In Cambodia that privilege comes with a royal title known as Okhna, which is bestowed on those who make sizable financial contributions to the royal family. Kith Meng is believed to be one of the youngest businessmen to ever receive the honorific and his meteoric commercial rise includes his recent selection as the head the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce.[Source: Shawn W Crispin, Asia Time Online, September 06, 2007 **]

“As Cambodia becomes more integrated into the global economy, Kith Meng has emerged as the government's de facto spokesman for selling the country to potential foreign investors as a profitable and desirable place to do business. He is regularly seen on local television wining and dining foreign business delegations. On the Royal Group's website is a pitch to potential foreign investors to help build its proposed Royal Caesar Casino, which it's billing as "the largest and most dazzling gaming facility in the Cambodia hemisphere". **

“Beyond the diplomacy and hype, there is much more at play to Kith Meng's growing prominence than mere spin-doctoring. Some political analysts contend that Hun Sen has played an instrumental role in cultivating and mobilizing the young entrepreneur's modern business image in a vigorous public relations effort to shirk his and his government's notorious reputation as the "Mafia on the Mekong". It is unknown whether Kith Meng contributes funds directly to Hun Sen and his Cambodia People's Party's (CPP), but his concession payments to line ministries are no doubt bolstering state coffers. One Phnom Penh-based Western businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity and claims to have personally conducted the due diligence research on the Royal Group's recent joint venture with Australia's ANZ Bank says that his in-depth investigations failed to turn up any "dirty laundry" in Kith Meng's past or present business dealings. **

Kith Meng’s Business Style

Raphael Minder of The Financial Times wrote: “About an hour into our meeting, Kith Meng, Cambodia’s leading entrepreneur, dips a finger into an intriguing little flask on his coffee table and applies a fragrant yellow ointment to his neck and temples. “It’s Chinese,” he says. “When you have a muscle cramp, it helps take the pain away.” The massage brings a smile to the face of a man who seems to find it hard to wind down. A self-confessed workaholic, the 39-year-old cannot imagine ever retiring or selling his Royal Group conglomerate because, he says, “this business is my passion”. He adds: “If I don’t work, I get sick. I don’t like to take it easy, I like to get things done.” Such energy and intensity set him apart from the more relaxed attitude of the average Cambodian. [Source: Raphael Minder, Financial Times, August 17, 2008 ==]

“Unsurprisingly, he likes to monitor any international news or report relating to Cambodia. He cites reading as a favourite hobby, although he has to check with an assistant for the exact title of the book he is currently enjoying. “Hey, what’s the name of that book that I’m reading, that you bought for me?” he shouts across the room. “ Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson,” comes the answer. Wise advice, perhaps, but probably something Mr Kith Meng worked out long before starting the first chapter. ==

“ He makes no qualms about taking a different stance from the local elite, which tends to close ranks rather than open its doors to foreigners. “I [make joint ventures] with international companies, not Cambodian ones,” he says. That openness may stem from an adolescence spent in Australia in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime (see below). However, despite having Australian citizenship and maintaining a home there, Mr Kith Meng has “mixed memories” from his youth in Canberra. “In the late 1980s, Australia was a very discriminatory society,” he says. “I think that society has now changed completely.” ==

Kith Meng: Controversy and Critics

Raphael Minder of The Financial Times wrote: “Mr Kith Meng’s meteoric rise has drawn a mix of envy and disdain from some rival businessmen.“I can assure you that he has plenty of enemies here,” says a local financier. But he denies feeling threatened, describing his bodyguards as assistants who are “just here to support me”.[Source: Raphael Minder, Financial Times, August 17, 2008]

Shawn W. Crispin wrote on Asia Time Online: “Kith Meng's style has reportedly ruffled feathers among the more established Okhna represented in the Cambodia Chamber of Commerce, whereby the older generation of Sino-Khmer businessmen have bristled at his perceived patronizing lectures about globalization and at what some of them reportedly view as his overly direct Western-style of interaction. Whether those complaints stem from genuine pique or instead heartfelt fear of Kith Meng's expanding reach into other Okhna's once monopolized markets is unclear. One Western aid agency representative, who spoke with Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, says that soon after launching last year’s joint venture with ANZ Bank, Kith Meng pushed to expand the bank's local branch network much faster than ANZ first planned. That aggressive strategy, it turns, has paid off handsomely through a fast growing market share of deposits and the lion's share of loans in the nascent home mortgage market. [Source: Shawn W Crispin, Asia Time Online, September 06, 2007 **]

“Other times, critics say, Kith Meng's Royal Group pushes too hard. In June 2006 police armed with batons, tear gas and AK47 assault rifles evicted at least 20 families from a contested land plot worth several million dollars next to Phnom Penh's Preah Monivong Hospital which the government had controversially awarded to the Royal Group for development. The resident families were reportedly given US$500-$1,500 in compensation and trucked to a relocation site 30 kilometers outside the capital which lacked electricity and water. **

“Similar complaints have arisen from his plans for the landmark Bassac Theater. In 2005, the culture ministry granted the concession, which called on the Royal Group to rehabilitate the damaged structure in exchange for the rights to outfit the theater's surrounding land with new offices and a conference center. The company has since decided to demolish the historic building and evict the scores of artists who after the Khmer Rouge's "class enemy" purges took refuge in the old theater. Those same artists have resurrected the traditional Khmer art forms that the Maoist movement aimed to destroy and after squatting at the historic site for over a decade, each has received $300 to abandon an area where land prices now top $1,000 per square meter. The irony of such deals is not lost on Kith Meng's critics, who contend that the Royal Group is capitalizing on the legal vacuum for adjudicating land ownership rights created by the Khmer Rouge's destruction of the national land registries. **

“On the Royal Group's website, Kith Meng says in a statement that the company's origins trace "back to the early days of the Khmer Rouge occupation" – meaning, presumably, the property and businesses his father maintained before the radical Maoist movement killed him and drove his family, including a young Kith Meng, into exile. In Cambodia's latest capitalist incarnation, government connections often trump historical claims and reassert old social class divisions, of which Kith Meng's and the Royal Group's fast expanding commercial domain is living proof.” **

Middle Class in Cambodia

The small middle class in Cambodia has traditionally included both Khmer and non-Khmer of medium prestige. Members of this class included businessmen, white-collar workers, teachers, physicians, most of the Buddhist clergy, shopkeepers, clerks, and military officers of lower and middle rank. Many Chinese, Vietnamese, and members of other ethnic minorities belonged to the middle class. The Khmer were a majority only among the military and among the civil servants. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Cambodia’s middle class and professional class were pretty much killed off by the Khmer Rouge, whose attitude towards them was summed up by the slogan: “To keep you is no profit; to destroy you is no loss.” Only a handful of doctors, teachers, bureaucrats, lawyers, judges and other professionals survived.

Since the end of the Khmer Rouge era, Cambodia has had to build a middle class and professional class from scratch. The process has been slow. Not only have people had to be trained but in many cases facilities to train them have had to be built.

Some members of the middle class survived the Khmer Rouge years by hiding their identity. Others escaped from Cambodia. Most of those who escaped have set up new lives in their adopted countries. Some have returned to help out in Cambodia. Without a middle class as a moderating force, society remains intrinsically feudal and democracy has a hard time taking root.

Poverty and Poor People in Cambodia

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia. According to World Bank estimates, the country's gross domestic product was 597 dollars per capita in 2007, when the average of the 182 nations surveyed was 8,219 dollars. UNICEF estimates at least one third of the 14.2 million people in Cambodia struggle to survive on less than 1 dollar a day, and the number is believed to be higher in rural areas. In 2008, The World Food Program was still feeding about 1.8 million of the country's 14 million people. In 2005, Cambodians had a life expectancy of 58 years, the lowest in Asia, and more than a quarter of adults were illiterate, according to the UN's 2007-2008 Human Development Report.

According to the World Bank the poverty level in Cambodia fell from around 47 percent in 1994 to 35 percent in 2004 to 27.3 percent in 2010. Still only one quarter of the Cambodian population has access to electricity, compared with nearly full coverage in Vietnam and Thailand. About one-third of the Cambodian population does not have running water at home. Son Chhay, an opposition lawmaker, said an estimated 50 percent of Cambodians live on less than US$1 a day.

Many people survive on rice with fermented fish sauce for three meals a day. The conditions for many of the poor has steadily gotten worse rather than better, in part because they have been bullied by people who are more powerful than them. The average yearly income for many villagers in the 1990s was $40.

The lower classes in November have traditionally consisted of rural small farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, and blue-collar urban workers. The majority of Cambodians belong to this group. Most of the members of the lower class are Khmer, but other ethnic groups, including most of the Cham, Khmer Loeu, some Vietnamese, and a few Chinese, are included. This class was virtually isolated from, and was uninterested in, the activities of the much smaller urban middle and upper classes. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Within the lower class, fewer status distinctions exist; those that do depended upon attributes such as age, sex, moral behavior, and religious piety. Traditional Buddhist values are important on the village level. Old age is respected, and older men and women receive deferential treatment in terms of language and behavior. All else being equal, males generally are accorded a higher social status than females. Good character—honesty, generosity, compassion, avoidance of quarrels, chastity, warmth—and personal religious piety increased status. Generosity toward others and to the wat are important. Villagers accord respect and honor to those whom they perceive as having authority or prestige. Buddhist monks and nuns, teachers, high-ranking government officials, and members of the hereditary aristocracy make up this category. Persons associated with those who possess prestige tend to derive prestige and to be accorded respect therefrom. *

There are some extremely poor people in Cambodia. Large numbers of landless poor fill both the cities and the countryside. One man who described himself as the “powerless person, the poorest farmer you can find” told the New York Times he spent years migrating from one refugee camp to another, and one plot of land to the next, barely able to feed himself from day to day.

When a Vietnam Airlines plane crashed near Phnom Penh airport in 1997, the first people on the scene were villagers who took wallets and purses from corpses, carted away luggage and took clothes off the dead. Police officers joined in rather than tried to stop them. Villagers even made off with the black box flight recorder and didn’t return it until they received a reward. One villager told AP, "It was a stroke of good luck for a lot of people living around here.”

Sokha Chen: An Orphan Who Rose Up from Poverty

In March 2011, Newsweek reported: “The city dump in Phnom Penh was the foulest 100 acres in Cambodia. The smell was nauseating, the smoke was choking, and the garbage itself was dangerous. Sokha Chen's legs still bear the scars of countless cuts, stabs, and burns from the four years she spent scavenging for bits of metal and plastic. But today those scars are covered by the bright yellow socks that are part of her uniform at Zaman Academy, one of Cambodia's best private schools. At 16, Sokha is a top student, as well as an accomplished classical dancer. Her life now would have seemed an impossible dream just a few years ago. [Source: Newsweek, March 6, 2011 /\]

Orphaned at age 9, Sokha left her village for Phnom Penh, where one of the few ways a child can earn money is to pick through the dump. That's where Chicagoan Bill Smith found her three years ago. Smith had come to Cambodia a few years earlier to adopt. But instead of just returning home with one child, he wound up founding a center that is home to 100 children from the dump and surrounding slums. Called A New Day Cambodia, it gave Sokha her first real chance to show what she could achieve, not simply what she could endure. She has been moved to successively better schools as she outstrips the other students, demonstrating a remarkable talent for languages. What is most remarkable, though, is her resilience and her optimism. She doesn't mind talking about her painful past, but she prefers to describe the school she will open for poor kids, and the house she wants to buy for her sister. "I have a bright future," she says with a grin. "I want all Cambodian kids to have a bright future too." /\

Urban Poor and Squatters in Cambodia

Describing Phnom Penh in the 1990s, Philip Shenon wrote in the New York Times, “In what before 1970 was one of Southeast Asia's cleanest cities. large sections now consists of shacks packed against one another, surrounded by children and heaps of fetid garbage that stays and stays."

Poor people kicked off their land in the early 2000s camped out near the parliament building in Phnom Penh, subsisting on handouts from aid groups, rice given them by King Sihanouk and leaves picked from tamarind trees at their camp.

Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are full of beggars. Many of the are amputees or children. Parents of one girl plucked out her eyeball so she would look more pitiful and more easily beg from tourists at Angkor Wat.

Explaining why there are so many squatters and landless poor in Cambodia, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: “The brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge began in 1975 with an evacuation of Phnom Penh, forcing millions of people into the countryside and emptying the city. It ended in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into Thailand. Many of the refugees returned in the 1990s, joining a rootless population displaced by the Khmer Rouge and the decade of civil war that followed in the 1980s. Many ended their journeys in Phnom Penh, creating huge colonies of squatters. Now, many of these people are being forced to move again, from Phnom Penh and from around the country, victims of the latest scourge of the poor: national prosperity. Whichever way the winds of history blow, some people here say, life only gets worse for the poor. If it is not “pakdivat,” revolution, that is buffeting the poor, they say, it is “akdivat,” development. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, July 27, 2008]

Rural Poor and Living in Trees

A good proportion of Cambodians that are living in the rural areas are not experiencing the prosperities especially in the plateau and mountainous region where more than 80.5 percent of the population reside. 2 They are mainly employed in the agricultural sector and many small-scale farmers practice agriculture at subsistence level, using traditional methods that are low in productivity. Two thirds of the country's 1.6 million rural households face seasonal food shortages each year. Rice alone accounts for as much as 30 per cent of household expenditures. [Source: Wikipedia]

Many village farmers earn less than $40 a year. They generally don’t go hungry because there are enough nearby banana trees, mango trees and coconut palms to provide them with food.

Many poor have been driven off their land by rich landowners. People who lose their land have no rights or avenues of recourse. Without land they have no food. They often end up in squatter camps or shanty towns in the cities because they have nowhere else to go. One group set up a camp near the parliament building in Phnom Penh and demanded that something be done to help them.

Some people who were driven off their land in the Tonle Sap area moved into trees above the water and slept, ate and lived there. They fished from the branches for their food and climbed up and down the tree as the water rose and fell. One peasant who lived liked this told the New York Times, “It is not an easy way to live, especially when you drop a pot or a glass or a knife in the water. There’s nothing you can do until the dry season, when you can go down and look for them.” The villagers were eventually evicted from the trees when local fishermen with a fishing concession for that area complained.

See Land Seizures

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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