Cambodia Culture

Cambodia’s recent history contains tragedy that has had profound, lasting effects on its people and culture. It is important that you are aware of this as you prepare to set foot in Cambodia, as it will help you to be sensitive and to better understand the people.

Between the years 1975-1979, Cambodia was controlled by a communist regime called the Khmer Rouge, led by the extremely oppressive dictator, Pol Pot. During this time, Pol Pot managed to inflict a massive-scale genocide which wiped out close to two million Cambodians – more than twenty percent of its entire population.57

The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 and Pol Pot turned the entire country upside down, starting by declaring it “Year Zero”. With the goal to transform the country into a Maoist agrarian state that would be completely autonomous, he immediately instituted a program designed to eradicate any trace of capitalism, religion, or foreign influences (specifically Western) from Cambodia. It was a brutal, systematic process: foreigners were extradited, embassies were shut down, and the currency was abolished. Shops and markets became illegal. Private property was absorbed by the regime. Schools, newspapers, and religious practices were forbidden. Anyone who opposed the regime or could be suspected of opposition was murdered: members of the Lon Nol government, public servants, police, military officers, teachers, ethnic Vietnamese, Christian clergy, Muslim leaders, members of the Cham Muslim minority, members of the middle-class and the educated. 58

Agricultural labor camps the size of soccer fields were set up, and the Khmer Rouge proceeded to force the country’s entire population to live and work in the camps. These camps, which infamously became known as the “killing fields,” were surrounded by farmland and contained mass graves for around 20,000 Cambodians.59 Conditions for inmates were extremely primitive. Families were not allowed to stay together, religious leaders were not allowed to practice their beliefs, large-scale political indoctrination and brainwashing was aggressively instituted, and children were taught to spy on adults, including their parents.60

Within these camps, millions died from over-work, starvation, disease, and execution for punishable crimes. Such “crimes” included not working hard enough, complaining, grieving for deceased loved ones, any expression of religious connotation, engaging in sexual contact, collecting food, and wearing jewelry.61

On January 7, 1979, after three years, eight months, and twenty days of the Khmer Rouge’s terrorizing rule, the Vietnamese invaded and freed the Cambodian people. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled to refugee camps at the Thai border. Their homeland had become a place of nightmares, and many Cambodians chose to immigrate to places like the United States, France, or Australia instead of returning home.62

This genocide and these “killing fields” have left a lasting effect on the people of Cambodia. Those that survived were subjected to working conditions that kept them at the brink of death daily, they saw family and friends die of starvation or horrific violence, and they received no reprieve from the terror. Because of this, many struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or severe depression.63

All of this has led to the breakdown of the family structure, a survival mentality, and a cheap view of the value of life. These three outcomes contribute to a false perception that it is not that big of a deal for parents to sell and traffic their children to ensure that they will never be hungry again.

When you are in Cambodia, do not be surprised by some families’ and communities’ calloused perceptions of the buying and selling of human life. Pray for the healing and softening of their hearts, that they would not simply bury their pain but that they would find healing and redemption in Christ.

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57 “Cambodian Genocide Program,” Yale University Genocide Studies Program, 2010, (accessed October 2, 2012).
58 “The Cambodian Killing Fields,” The Killing Fields Museum, (accessed October 2, 2012).
59 Zoltan Istvan, “Killing Fields Lure Tourists in Cambodia,” National Geographic, January 10, 2003, (accessed October 2, 2012).
60 “The Cambodian Killing Fields,” The Killing Fields Museum, (accessed October 2, 2012).
61 Ibid.
62 Ibid.
63 Grant N. Marshall, et. al. “Mental Health of Cambodian Refugees 2 Decades After Resettlement in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 3 Aug. 2005, Vol. 294, No. 5; Shane Carney, “Cambodian Refugees and the Effects of Surviving Genocide,” Yahoo News, April 5, 2006, (accessed October 3, 2012).

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