Waiting to break free
A trip through Cambodia reveals a corrupt but growing country still dealing with the effects of the Khmer Rouge and a culture of aid dependency
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CAMBODIA—Radha Manickam decided to commit suicide one night in 1978 by singing, “This World Is Not My Home.” He was lying atop a termite hill in a rice field in northwestern Cambodia. After three years under the brutal regime of the communist Khmer Rouge, he weighed 90 pounds. It was raining.
Manickam, a Christian, began singing in English: “The angels beckon me / From heaven’s open door / And I can’t feel at home / In this world anymore.”
A patrol soon appeared out of the dark. “Comrade,” demanded a teenage, AK-47-toting revolutionary named Sal, “what language are you singing in?” Manickam intended to say, “English,” and be shot immediately as a counterrevolutionary.
But he says he then heard a voice say to him, “I have a plan for your life.” So instead Manickam lied and told Sal it wasn’t a language, he was just making sounds to amuse himself. The patrol left.
By God’s grace Manickam was not among the roughly 1.7 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, that the Khmer Rouge murdered by execution, disease, or starvation in its vicious attempt to create an agrarian utopia. April 17 marked the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh.
The devastation of those four years lingers among Cambodia’s 14.7 million citizens. Today Manickam lives in Seattle and runs a small ministry for Khmer churches and pastors in the northwest United States and Cambodia. Last December he took me to see what Cambodia has become—in many ways an aid-dependent society—and how Khmer churches and other Christians are trying to deal with that reality.
ON THE FIRST DAY, we left Phnom Penh in a borrowed Rav 4, heading north on Highway 5 to Battambang. Open-air vendors crowded the roadside and tiny taverns of uncertain hygiene bore signs for Angkor Beer and Metfone cell phones. A common billboard showed Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party, the CPP, smiling benevolently as he “sampeahs” passing motorists in the palms-together gesture of respect.
Hun is the poster boy of corrupt Southeast Asian dictators. The ex–Khmer Rouge officer deserted to Vietnam shortly before that country ousted Pol Pot in 1979; his reward was a high position in Cambodia’s puppet government. In 1989 the Vietnamese left; Hun and his cronies have basically ruled Cambodia since a 1997 coup.
On Highway 5’s two semi-smooth lanes, when we passed oxcarts and farm tractors, oncoming scooters swerved to the shoulder; we dodged when trucks, Mercedes sedans, and Lexus SUVs approached in our lane. Right of way belongs to the bigger vehicle carrying wealthier people.
That’s about how Cambodia’s crony capitalism works. The Hun government has in recent years approved projects that “resettled” tens of thousands of poor Phnom Penh residents into tarp towns to clear downtown land for condos and high-end shopping centers. Diamond Island City, for example, features the “Elite Golf” driving range, a water park, and million-dollar villas.
Watchdogs charge the CPP has sold off billions of dollars of timber, oil, and other natural resources with the benefits going to Hun’s patronage network of military and business insiders. The garment industry has exploded since 2008 into a $5.5 billion per year export business; the well-connected families who own the factories pay below-subsistence wages to the young women who migrate to Phnom Penh for work.
The Hun government has, to its credit, liberalized its economy somewhat. Late that afternoon in Battambang we pulled into the driveway of Heng Kheang Pastry, a large house with a high cinder-block fence. The ovens were in a big metal outbuilding where several women sat around a low table wrapping meat-filled snacks. Delivery scooters came empty and left with large cardboard boxes on the saddle stacked higher than the driver’s head. Vorn Ravuth, the son of the Christian owners, explained that they distribute all over the region and just set up a new bakery in a rented house in Phnom Penh.
Cambodians with business experience and some capital, like the Vorns, can thrive. Per capita income has quadrupled to $1,000 per year since 2003. Poor folks used to rely on bicycles, but now throngs of scooters, often carrying three people, pack city streets. People check phones, swig water, and clutch babies while weaving through heavy traffic. Helmets are optional.
Cambodia’s poor rural areas are also a bit better off. We went south of Battambang to see what was left of Tuol Mateh, a forced labor cooperative where Manickam lived. Amid acres of table-flat rice fields, thatched huts without power huddled next to groves of banana trees, and farmers dipped water for washing and drinking from nearby ponds. A World Bank study released last year said 20 percent of Cambodians lived in poverty with another 20 percent on the verge; but it called the country “one of the best performers in poverty reduction worldwide,” because in 2004 the poverty rate was 53 percent.
Manickam pointed out canals, still in use, that he helped dig with a hoe 35 years ago. By 1979, his father and five of his seven siblings had died of disease or starvation; the sixth was beaten to death.
THE NEXT DAY we drove to Siem Reap to visit Cambodia’s biggest tourist draw and the symbol of Khmer identity: Angkor Wat. A brutal emperor built the massive temple complex, now a World Heritage Site, in the 12th century. The five-towered ruins are covered in stunning carvings of Hindu and Buddhist imagery.
Here Buddhism meets politics. Opposition politicians allege that the corporation collecting entrance fees from the 4.2 million annual visitors skims millions of dollars off the top. Sebastian Strangio reports in Hun Sen’s Cambodia how top monks swap blessings and legitimacy for large donations: “The Cambodian path to Nirvana, it seems, now runs directly through the CPP.”
The Buddhist hierarchy sometimes uses its political clout to harass Christians, but seldom fatally. About 2,000 mostly tiny churches have registered with the government; an unknown number have not. In 2007 the Ministry of Cults and Religions forbade evangelizing and distributing religious literature outside church grounds. Officials said Christian churches had been buying converts with food and clothing.
Enforcement of the ban depends on local authorities, Manickam said as we bounced down a red dirt road outside Siem Reap toward the two-story training center of Cambodian Ministries for Christ (CMC), where Manickam runs pastoral training seminars. After the 2007 edict CMC set up a well-drilling program and now sinks over 30 wells annually on rural church properties in villages that lack water in the dry season. Villagers come for the water, Manickam said, “then we share the gospel and it’s legal.”
CMC still faces official harassment. Local authorities expect to collect “licensing fees” from Christian charities. “At CMC we don’t do that,” he said. “But when they don’t get the money, they keep giving us problems. It’s like a communist country.”
Near the end of the week we drove south back to Phnom Penh. The “Play Penh” is a comfortable posting for tens of thousands of foreign aid workers. The city is exotic, cheap, and fairly safe. My fudge MooLatte from a spotless Dairy Queen overlooking the Mekong River was quite tasty. It helped me forget seeing the Stung Meanchey dump west of town where workers, including many children, pick recyclables from an enormous and putrid “trash mountain.”
The NGO presence is pervasive. Expensive SUVs with aid agency logos are common, and development jargon pops up everywhere. One store sign read, “Sonatra Microloans” in a misspelled reference to the crooner. It’s a pawnshop, Manickam explained.
Cambodia’s aid culture began when Vietnam permitted World Vision into Cambodia to help avert a famine after the Khmer Rouge fell. It mushroomed in 1992 after a decade of civil war ended and the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia shoveled $3 billion and an army of aid workers into the country. All that money encouraged inflation, brothels, AIDS, and more corruption.
Since then crisis after crisis—from AIDS orphans to landmine amputees to human trafficking—has attracted worldwide attention. The 2,600 government-registered NGOs range from the 24 UN agencies to faith-based humanitarian giants like Samaritan’s Purse to dozens of Christian missions of varying sizes.
Year after year governments and NGOs have sent billions of dollars of well-intentioned aid in exchange for Hun Sen’s empty promises of reform, writes Strangio. The result is a “dependence spiral,” enabled by a massive development complex that entrenches a predatory elite.
The Khmer Christian leaders I spoke with were not quite that negative, but the aid culture troubled them. Training and resources can help people emerge from poverty, said Samnang Tep, principal of Phnom Penh Bible School, but churches that depend on foreign aid struggle to develop strong leadership or support their own pastors and ministries.
“When they start a church, it is the same thing,” said Timothy Ith, a Khmer Rouge survivor and board chairman of the Khmer Evangelical Association. “They wait for the [mission agency] to give them something. Some of the church members are waiting for a gift from the church, too.”
Manickam added that some Khmer Christian leaders chase titles or exaggerate the impact of their ministries to raise money from Western donors.
But some churches are struggling to break free. Ith, who oversees 28 tiny rural churches in 10 provinces, developed a program that helps people earn a living and reinforces biblical teaching on work and giving. At a 60-member congregation in Takeo province, for example, new members receive rice seed or a cow; they tithe seed at the next harvest or the first two calves back to the church. Those go in turn to the church’s newest members.
An innovative Western program is Asian Hope’s Catch-Up Schools. Three centers work with 600 children in poor Phnom Penh neighborhoods. The public schools are awful, said Asian Hope president Tom Matuschka. Teachers are poorly paid and many demand daily micro-bribes from the children for books, paper, snacks, and passing grades. The Catch-Up Schools get students up to grade level while sharing the gospel. Tuition from the ministry’s private school, Logos International, subsidizes the program. The idea is to prepare young Cambodian Christians who can lead the culture out of aid dependence.
Matuschka seems hopeful, overall. The government is trying to shut down corrupt orphanages that parade pathetic-looking children in front of Western visitors to generate donations, for example. The Cambodian Minister of Education enforced a no-bribes, no-cheating standard on the 2014 national high-school diploma exams, and then stood up to the political firestorm when less than 25 percent of students passed. “That’s the kind of leader Cambodia needs,” Matuschka said, “and they’ve got a few of them.”
AT WEEK’S END Manickam took me to Tuol Sleng, the prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured about 12,000 “traitors.” Glass cases held the racks, manacles, and knives the guards used to extract absurd confessions of, for example, spying for the CIA. We then visited the “Killing Fields” memorial at Choeung Ek. A Buddhist stupa displays thousands of human skulls, and signs next to grassy hollows say, “Please don’t walk through the mass grave!”
Manickam showed little emotion; he’s seen it before. But he has said that while living under the Khmer Rouge he was deeply angry with the communists and with God, who he thought was punishing the whole country for its unbelief.
Manickam could have fled his homeland before the Khmer Rouge took over, but he didn’t and now believes God preserved the church in Cambodia through those horrific years to bring good out of great evil. The few hundred Khmer Christians alive in 1979 have become, despite leadership problems, 150,000 believers, maybe more. “God protected my life so many times,” he said. “If I hadn’t stayed in Cambodia, I wouldn’t know the pain of the people.”