Cambodia



The Impact of the Past on the Present

Cambodia, then, like so many other nations in the developing world, is an agricultural country, and, in terms of the cash incomes of its people, desperately poor.
In the past, Cambodia was able to earn foreign exchange to pay for imported goods by selling agricultural surpluses-of rice and corn, for example-or plant crops, such as pepper, rubber, and cotton. Its normal patterns of trade were broken up in the wars of the 1970\'s. When the fighting died down, Cambodian trade became lively again, but more informal, which benefited many individual traders but deprived the government of money it needed to pay for essential services, like electricity, schools, water, and highways. There was some question at the end of the 1980\'s if Cambodia would ever be able to trade its way back into the kind of prosperity that it had enjoyed in earlier times.
Of course, the word "prosperity" is a relative one. Even in the peaceful 1960\'s, Cambodia was one of the poorest countries in eastern Asia, at least in terms of individual income. It is hard for even a relatively poor Westerner to imagine just how poor-in terms of cash, choices about the future, and possessions-a Cambodian farmer or unskilled laborer has always been, or what an annual income of less than the equivalent of two hundred dollars means in terms of the everyday life of farmers and their families. In nearly all Cambodian families, everyone works hard to grow the food and earn the money needed to survive. Even so, by international standards most Cambodians are very poor.
Being poor in Cambodia means eating less than a pound of meat a month, and a family\'s earning less than six hundred dollars from a rice crop that has occupied most of its labor, intensively, for the equivalent of three months. For most Cambodians, there is a little question of new clothes, gadgets, or vacations. The money from the rice crop has to last the farming family for an entire year, unless the husband leaves home to find another job-as a laborer in Phnom Penh, for example-or the wife manages to supplement their income by selling fruit, cloth, or cigarettes in the local market. Most Cambodians live below the poverty line and struggle hard to find enough food for themselves and their children. The difficulties are intensified because in the late 1980\'s a large proportion of the rural population-statistics are not precise, but perhaps as many as one in four-consists of families headed by women widowed in the wars of the 1970\'s and 1980\'s.
Women have always worked hard as or harder than men in agricultural tasks, but usually alongside them, and today Cambodia suffers from a shortage of able-bodied men. Tens of thousands of other men are drawn away from productive work by service in the army and in labor battalions along the Thai-Cambodian frontier.
In some ways, of course, it\'s easier to be poor in Cambodia than the West. First, there is the warm weather. Houses are not expensive to build, heating isn\'t needed, as people don\'t wear heavy clothes. In the second place, rice is cheap to buy, and for much of the year supplementary foods-fish, fruit, and vegetables-are easy to grow, catch, or barter. Third, the country is not yet overcrowded, at least in the east and the northwest, and there is still unoccupied fertile land that can be brought under cultivation.
If it is difficult for Cambodians to freeze or starve to death, it would be wrong for us to think of Cambodia as a tropical paradise. A Cambodian farmer, a widow living in Phnom Penh, or a day laborer usually has no savings or any valuable property. The state has almost no way to help them. In an emergency-an accident, a sudden illness, or a fire-death is much closer for such people than it would be for most North American, and the possibilities of their raising money, or receiving proper medical care, are much more remote. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians live on the edge of survival, eking a bare living form the soil or from poorly paid casual labor. Most men and women in Phnom Penh have two or even three competing jobs. They are uncertain about the future and what it will