Cambodia is a small, fundamentally rural Southeast-Asian country that endured a human catastrophe unparalleled for a nation its size. Over a brief, 4-year period from 1975 to 1979, a group of home-grown radicals known as the Khmer Rouge slaughtered nearly 1 in 5 of the Cambodian populace. The group’s sole intent was to forcibly return Cambodia to an all-agrarian society. At gun-point, the group emptied all cities and urban areas, driving the people into the countryside to farm – without machinery. Money, free markets, private property, religion, and formal education of any kind were forbidden. Overworked and undernourished, the people died – or were killed outright – by the thousands. Educated people, especially, were targeted since the group considered them unessential. The ordeal became known as “the killing fields” (a 1980s film of the same name portrays this gruesome period). By the time the Khmer Rouge fell from power, nearly 2 million people had lost their lives, and the country’s basic infrastructure and social services had been destroyed. Cambodia still struggles to recover.
Since hardly any educated Cambodians survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the majority of the remaining 3 million people were illiterate farmers…and widows. This was the populace that had to rebuild a devastated nation. Today, although the free market, private property, religion, and education have returned, corruption is high. Bribes for government officials, police, and anyone in authority are commonplace. Consequently, the socio-economic needs of the populace still suffer. Cambodia has no such thing as unemployment insurance, food stamps, or Medicaid. Outside the capital city of Phnom Penh, poverty and illiteracy are wide-spread. Work is sparse and wages are low. Malnourishment and disease are prevalent – especially in children. Medical facilities are meager, hospitals are many miles from most villages, and motor transportation is a luxury. Cambodia, especially rural Cambodia, is a place of needs – economic, educational, medical…and spiritual. About 85% of the populace is Buddhist – no god , no savior, no hope. Here is a place that sorely needs to hear the Gospel of God’s grace and mercy.
In Cambodia, the older you are, the more respect you deserve. Respect for elders – regardless of how old you are – is of prime importance. Young singles experience pressure to marry, and married couples – pressure to have children. Marriages are often arranged by parents. The husband is generally the breadwinner, providing shelter and food, while the wife maintains the budget. Often as many as three generations live in one household. The older generation usually cares for the children while the younger generation works. Absent an older generation in the house, the older children care for the younger.
Work, other than farming (which primarily constitutes rice farming and cattle raising), is often far away. Large trucks packed with people make their way daily to and from factories of one kind or another (mostly textile). Many men work across the border in Thailand or other neighboring countries, and may be away for weeks or even months at a time. On an unpleasant note, domestic violence and multiple “wives” is not uncommon. Polygamy is technically illegal, but mistresses (plural) are socially acceptable.
Health care is a major issue for families, especially in the rural area. With the closest medical facility or hospital hours away from most villages, childbirth happens at home, with a mid-wife if one is available. But the midwife can’t handle complications, and the mortality rate for infants and mothers is quite high.
Also, beyond superstitious rituals, basic health care is totally absent in most villages. Young children die routinely from the commonest of childhood illnesses…even diarrhea! Knowledge of simple health-care routines and disease-prevention will go a long way toward saving thousands of young Cambodian lives.