Since the glory days of the Angkor empire of old, the Cambodian people have been on the losing side of many a historical battle, their little country all too often a minnow amid the circling sharks. Popular attitudes have been shaped by this history, the relationship between Cambodia and its powerful neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, based on fear – sometimes loathing.
The Thais are loathed for their patronizing attitudes towards their smaller neighbor, their unwillingness to acknowledge their cultural debt to Cambodia and the popularly held belief that Angkor belongs to Thailand. Most Khmers think of their Thai neighbors as cultural kidnappers who have aided and abetted Cambodia’s decline.
Cambodian attitudes towards the Vietnamese are awkward and ambivalent. Sure they generally loathe them too, but it is balanced with a begrudging respect for their hard work ethic and liberation’ from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. When “liberation” became occupation in the 1980s, most Khmers soon remembered why they didn’t like the Vietnamese after all. Many Cambodians feel the Vietnamese are colonizing their country and stealing their land, but better the devil you know. If most Cambodians had to choose who they mistrusted more, it would probably be the Thais – at least the Vietnamese understand the suffering of the Cambodian people, as they have suffered too.
At first glance, Cambodia appears to be a nation full of shiny, happy people, but look a little deeper and it soon becomes e country of contradictions. Light and dark, rich and poor, love and hate, life and death – all are visible on a journey through the kingdom, but most telling of all is the glorious past set against Cambodia’s tragic present.
Angkor is everywhere: it’s on the flag, it’s the national beer, it’s hotels and guesthouses, it’s cigarettes, it’s anything and everything. It’s a symbol of nationhood, of fierce pride, a fingers-up to the world that says no matter how bad things have become, you can’t forget the fact that we, the Cambodians, built Angkor Wat and it doesn’t come bigger than that. Jayavarman VII, Angkor’s greatest king, is nearly as omnipresent as his temples. The man that vanquished the occupying Chams and took the empire to its greatest glories is a national hero.
Contrast this with the abyss into which the nation was sucked during the hellish years of the Khmer Rouge, which left a people profoundly shocked, suffering inside, stoical on the outside. Pol Pot is a dirty word in Cambodia due to the death and suffering he inflicted on the country. Whenever you hear his name, it will be connected with stories of endless personal tragedy, of dead brothers, mothers and babies, from which most Cambodians have never had the chance to recover. Such suffering takes generations to heal and meanwhile the country is crippled by a short-term mentality that encourages people to live for today, not to think about tomorrow – because not so long ago there was no tomorrow. No-one has tasted justice, the whys and hows remain unanswered and the older generation must live with the shadow of this trauma stalking their everv wakina hour.
If Jayavarman VlI and Angkor are loved and Pol Pot despised, the mercurial Sihanouk, the last of the god-kings who was ultimately shown his human side, is somewhere in between. Many Cambodians love him as the father of the nation, and to them his portrait is ubiquitous, but to others he is the man who failed the nation by his association with the Khmer Rouge. In many ways, his contradictions are those of contemporary Cambodia. Understand him and what he has had to survive and you will understand much of Cambodia.