You are here

Undergraduate Feature: Cambodia's Search for Identity

Abigail Chen

by Abigail Chen, undergraduate in government and China and Asia-Pacifc studies

 July 13, 2016. Wat Chas, Phnom Penh. Along with hundreds of Cambodian mourners, I waited in line, inside the Buddhist pagoda, to pay my deepest respect to Dr. Kem Ley, who was murdered in a downtown coffee shop three days earlier. The execution-style killing of Cambodia’s most prominent political analyst, known as a frequent critic of the ruling government, left the nation shocked and grieving. Most vividly I remembered the question that a Cambodian friend posed to me: “What does it mean to be a ‘Cambodian,’ if even speaking the truth means risking your life?” I was left speechless.

         My two-month internship in Cambodia at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) generated more puzzles than answers. After more than thirty years of authoritarian rule, Cambodia is left struggling to articulate a cohesive national identity. The search for a Cambodian identity is an unsettling exploration.

Reconciling with the Past

I remember my first sight of the massive, deserted runway in Kompong Chhang’s airport during the winter 2016 Cornell in Cambodia program. The runway is set in an idyllic plain of coconut palm groves and vast rice paddies. It was unnerving and extraordinary. Arguably the most grandiose construction during the Khmer Rouge regime, the airport is actually one of the lesser known killing fields. By the late 1970s, an estimated 350,000 people, mostly political prisoners labeled “enemies” of the state, were lost in building the airport. The remnants of murder and the ghosts of the past are even more chilling at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21. The unfurnished small cellblocks, iron beds, and manacles, along with photos of murder victims, powerfully perpetuate the horrible suffering of 1975–79.

         Grappling with these memories of terror, misery, and death is a harrowing endeavor. In this respect, Cambodia is a divided nation. In a country with an exceptionally high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, a segment of Cambodians share a silent and tacit consensus to bury the murderous past of 1975–79. This code of silence is also supported by the Buddhist belief of “individual helplessness,” as ninety-five percent of the people are Theravada Buddhists.

         The other segment of the country acknowledges that this attitude of strategic forgetfulness obstructs the democratic discourse in Cambodia. They actively seek advocacy for finding justice and accountability. During my two summer months in Cambodia, I interacted with several researchers at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), who had implemented a wide range of social reconciliation projects. Soon I became familiar with a DC-Cam initiative, the Peace Center, established in the city of Anlong Veng, which was the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge regime. Despite the intimidating complexity of building and sustaining open-minded discussions of such a difficult past, the Peace Center has made significant strides to understand violent and nonviolent behaviors. Additionally, by collaborating with schools and educating the local communities since its inception in 2014, the Peace Center has created structural mechanisms that serve to prevent conflict.

 A Country of Contradictions

In today’s Cambodia, other contradictions abound such as a disconnect between the country’s ancient spiritualism and modern materialism; the friction between the “top five percent” and the socially underprivileged; and perhaps most important, the gap between the peoples’ aspiration for democracy and the authoritarian governance under Hun Sen, who was awarded for being “the longest serving head of government in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (he has ruled the country under various titles since 1985). It seems that the country has yet to explore these deepening tensions. The hope is that once Cambodia recognizes and reconciles these dualities, it will become a more pluralistic and resilient nation.

             The most problematic tension to me, however, lies in the growing distrust of the incumbent government that is felt by the people, especially among the youth. The assassination of Kem Ley the summer I was in Cambodia and the protests it triggered reflect this societal unrest. The tensions have intensified in recent years due to a conflation of domestic and international factors. The people have vocalized their demands that, among other things, the present government make fundamental changes such as eliminating the culture of impunity, corruption, and nepotism; improving the human rights record; preventing deforestation, and creating a transparent National Election Committee. On the international level, concerns surrounding Cambodia’s lack of national identity have deepened due to the increasingly intrusive political and economic presence of China in the country.

         During my summer internship at the CICP, I was able to see firsthand how the South China Sea conflicts affect China’s relations with Cambodia. What struck me most was the frustration felt by Cambodian students and researchers. Extremely dependent upon China’s infrastructure and money, Cambodia lacks autonomy in its foreign policy making, which further decreases Cambodians’ faith in finding a national identity that is uniquely Cambodian.

         I do not intend to portray only the grim realities of the Cambodian society that I saw. Although Cambodia faces serious political, economic, and social limitations, various mechanisms exist, which allow the incorporation of diverse interests and preferences that enable newer political actors to advocate for clean politics and government accountability. For example, social media drives youth involvement in politics, despite many fears of the political costs associated with explicitly criticizing the ruling party. Hope for truly liberal reforms and good governance also exists in the increasingly dynamic political discussions organized by groups of young, enthusiastic, and social-media-savvy Cambodians. In new youth-led platforms such as the Politikoffee, one can find Cambodian researchers and students heatedly debating topics, ranging from electoral reform and rule of law to gender expression and labor migration policy. 

         It has been twenty-six years since the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement that ended the Cambodia conflict, but peace remains fragile in Cambodia. This is, in part, because of the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions that the Cambodian society both inherited from its chaotic 70s and nurtured in the years afterward as it rapidly modernized. Cambodia is not alone in facing such societal conflicts, though its challenges are steep. The need to reconcile differences and negotiate a Cambodian identity among opposing perspectives is critical to achieving lasting peace.

         August 1. CICP, Phnom Penh. On the last day of my internship, the deputy director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, Mr. Sovachana Pou, left me a message: “Thank you for your contribution. Here is the advice from Joseph Mussomeli, the former US Ambassador to Cambodia: ‘Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.’ I hope by exposing you to the political reality of what happens today, Cambodia hasn’t broken your heart yet. Best wishes!”

            “What does it mean to be a ‘Cambodian’ today?” My friend’s question still lingered and prompted me to reflect more. In all honesty, I still don't know how to sufficiently answer that question, but at least now I am more certain that the topic of negotiating national identity is what I would like to explore in my studies at Cornell.

Author bio:

Abigail Chen is a junior at Cornell University, where she majors in government and China and Asia-Pacific studies. A native of the bustling southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, she has traveled to over half of the Southeast Asian countries. She visited Cambodia for the first time through the Cornell in Cambodia program, led by Professor Andrew Mertha, during the winter of 2016 and went back for a two-month internship at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace the summer afterward. In Abigail's words:

"I am truly indebted to the people and institutions that made my summer experience in Cambodia possible and meaningful. I am greatly thankful for Professor Andrew Mertha. It was through his Cornell in Cambodia program and seminar on the history of political violence in Cambodia that I fell madly in love with the country. His continued support for my research on Cambodian politics convinced me to undertake the summer internship at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP). Mr. Pou Sovachana, my supervisor at CICP, has taught me the invaluable lessons of compassion and persistence in striving for the democratic development of Cambodia. Moreover, SEAP generously funded my summer experience. My passion for studying Cambodian society has also been supported by the unique Khmer language learning resources that Cornell provides. Studying Khmer in the fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters with Professor Hannah Phan was a formative experience for me. Learning this graceful language, I came to better understand the history and culture of Cambodia, a country that continues to fascinate me."