Legacies of the Khmer Rouge

After my trip to Bangkok, it was straight on to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, about a 50 minute flight away, to spend a week meeting, observing and learning from VSO Cambodia staff, volunteers and partner NGOs. Phnom Penh was fascinating, chaotic ….and extremely hot! I was met everywhere by a warm smile, and only the gentlest entreaties to buy (in a market), try (some street food) or hire (a moto or tuk-tuk). I was rapidly beguiled by the place and it’s people.

A pagoda in the Royal Palace gardens, Phnom PenhJan's iPhone 2H12 095

But, all this is set against the awful history and legacy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, which led to the deaths of two million Cambodians. On my first day there, I visited the Genocide Museum, which is on the site of the notorious Security-21 prison where professionals and academics were systematically tortured and executed – only 7 of the 17,000 who entered survived. It’s an eerie, dirty, shiver-inducing and profoundly sad place, filled with fading portraits of the victim – some of them very gruesome – and the instruments of torture used against them.

Some of the legacy of this unimaginably dreadful time I learned about later while visiting one of VSO’s partner organisations, the Cambodian Independent Teachers Union (CITA). Before the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had 200,000 teachers; only 5,000 survived the genocide. There are now about 60,000 teachers in Cambodia, however currently only 10% of teachers belong to CITA, despite incredibly poor pay and working conditions. It seems there is still widespread unease of confronting authority and government, and the feeling that the ruling party takes a dim view of teachers who join the union, and can block their appointment and career progression. I also heard stories of school text books being purloined and resold in the market, of part of teachers’ pay being creamed off and pocketed, and various other backhanders and siphoning of school budgets. All so depressing – but it makes you realise just how important advocacy work is to drive change to all of this….and also just how much optimism and staying power it requires in the face of what seemed to me sometimes overwhelming odds!

VSO Volunteer John Friend showing me round CITAphnom penh 009

Spending time in the VSO Cambodia Office and meeting some of the partner NGOs they work with really enriched my understanding of what I’ve been doing in far off London, and I certainly gained a deeper empathy for how it feels to be in the receiving end of the regular missives, requests and deadlines coming from head office….so I had plenty of feedback to take back to London! The VSO staff and volunteers really took me under their wing while I was in Phnom Penh and made me incredibly welcome. Hearing the perspectives and life stories of such a diverse, interesting and fun bunch of people, ranging in age from 19 to 71, was an absolute delight and I do hope we keep in touch.

As this is probably my last blog of 2012, I’d really like to take this opportunity to thank everyone back at GSK who made this PULSE assignment possible for me, particularly Judith Millard, who has been looking after my team so well. I wish you all much fun, relaxation and happy times with your nearest and dearest over the holidays.

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