Kampuchea looks ahead

JUST 15 years ago, Kampuchea (Cambodia) seemed an oasis of peace in a region in torment. Tourists from around the world arrived regularly to enjoy the sparkling beaches and to marvel at the remains of centuries-old temples at Angkor. For the most part, Kampuchea had escaped the fighting which raged in Vietnam to the east and Laos to the north.

This was not to last. The battles which swept through Kampuchea between 1970 and 1975 exacted a heavy toll. For many, the peace which followed was as bad as the war. In the four years of Khmer Rouge rule, hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - were executed or died of disease, overwork, or malnutrition.

Vietnamese troops drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, but the turmoil has not ended. Some 160,000 Vietnamese soldiers remain, battling guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge and of resistance groups loyal to prince Nordom Sihanouk and former prime minister Son Sann.

Today, though peace seems a distant hope, the people of Kampuchea are attempting to reweave the threads of a more normal life.

The image of water buffalo and cattle pulling ox carts along country roads, bringing rice from the fields to the threshing grounds, seems timeless. In farming villages, wooden houses on stilts shelter people above and livestock below. Small boats or rafts of bamboo with thatched shelters on them are home to many fishing families. Farming and fishing - rice and fish are the main food in the Khmer diet - are carried on today much as they must have been in the days of the Angkor temples.

Music and dance inherited from ancient times are kept alive in orphanages as well as the Fine Arts Institute in the capital, Phnom Penh. They coexist with more modern art forms, which are frequently employed in the service of propaganda - commercials for the regime in power, reminders of the suffering of the recent past.

If Kampuchea has begun its recovery by relying on past traditions, it must look to its young generation to find future prosperity. It will take technicians to coax enough production from the country's fields and factories. But Khmer Rouge misrule, along with war and emigration, have cost Kampuchea the better part of a trained generation.

It is today's schoolchildren who will determine whether Kampuchea can again feed and clothe its people, and whether the people can chart their country's course in the world.

These students show a zest for their tasks as they copy the letters of the Khmer alphabet on their slates in first-year classrooms or work out algebra problems in the seventh year. They have too few textbooks, and often must share. But thanks to the help of international relief organizations, they do have notebooks and pens.

Is it too much to ask of children that they take on the responsibility for the rebirth of their nation? Perhaps. But even if they do feel a burden, it does not dampen their enjoyment of a snack of sugar cane or a game of jump rope. The sense of perspective comes naturally, and these students will need it as they face a difficult future.

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