Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cambodia: First, the Khmer Rouge's Legacy

Our birding trip in Cambodia was organized by the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, based in Siem Reap (the city close to the famed temples of Angkor Wat). The center's work in meshing ecotourism with village economies is the most impressive example I've ever seen of bringing tourism dollars to very poor communities, to build local support for conserving wildlife and necessary habitat.

But we need to back up before we get to the spectacular species and the impressive efforts at conservation: we need to put that work into the context of Cambodia's recent past.

A street scene in Cambodia, where bikes and motorbikes far outnumber cars. (Photos by Narca)

A woman cooks breakfast for sale by the roadside.

Why is Cambodia so poor? In a nutshell, it is a battered society, still pulling itself together after the horror of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodians call themselves the Khmer, the People. The Khmer Rouge was the brutal Communist regime headed by Pol Pot, which during the 1970s brought genocide to its own people, killing 1-2.5 million men, women and children (by various estimates), or about 20% of the Cambodians then alive. This was a regime that separated children from parents, and trained those children to carry out torture and executions. For a much fuller account, see Wikipedia.

I remember when news of the Khmer Rouge atrocities hit the Western media, and my feeling of utter inability to do something about an intolerable outrage. Younger people who are unfamiliar with that grim period can learn a hint of the anguish from the movie The Killing Fields.

Ironically, the rise of the Khmer Rouge was likely helped by US carpet-bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, when over 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, according to official US records. That gives Cambodia the dubious distinction of being the most-bombed country ever. The total tonnage of bombs dropped during World War 2, including the two nuclear bombs, was less than what Cambodia suffered. Tragically, the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the bombing became willing supporters of Pol Pot's insurgency and regime, not realizing what they were in for.

One legacy of the Khmer Rouge that still affects people and livestock today was Pol Pot's planting of millions of land mines across the country. The effort to remove those mines is expected to continue for another 10-20 years. Casualties from the land mines have been dropping each year; in 2008 the number was 270. About 1/3 of the deaths are children, because they are more inclined to examine or play with a bomb that they find.

Areas visited by tourists are considered safe, though it's still a good idea to stay on established trails! Thousands of visitors pour into the country each year, primarily to visit the astounding ruins of the Angkor Wat complex.

One of many temples in the Angkor complex near Siem Reap

Now birders are discovering this fascinating country, and finding a warm and welcoming––if poor––populace, which benefits tremendously from any ecotourism money that finds its way into the impoverished villages.

I loved Cambodia's people and its marvelous birds. Future posts will feature the wildlife. And a word to butterfly-lovers: you simply must go!

Asian Emerald Cuckoo

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