Cambodia- Recently.

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Cambodia is not one of those countries that hits the news media too often. Which is why it is no surprise to see the general lack of knowledge many have about it’s recent past. Cambodia’s people have suffered one major catastrophe after another: a major genocide, decades of civil war, and more recently a 1997 coup d’état. All this in a span that is likely within your lifetime. Yes, Your lifetime. Wondering why you haven’t heard more about it? Us too.

Today, Cambodia has a rapidly growing economy (projected to grow by 6-7 percent this year). It has a booming workforce and is emerging onto the platform of world economics. With half of it’s population under 25 years old, it is not hard to see that Cambodia is rapidly going places. But how is it that HALF of Cambodia’s population is under 25? Half, no matter how you consider it, is an atrociously large percentage. The ‘why’ behind this matter is brings us back to Cambodia’s recent past.

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In 1975 The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. I could go into more detail here, but plenty of online documents will undoubtedly do a better job of recounting the details. In summary, this new government wished to create a classless society. The new leaders abolished the school system, the banking system, and currency all together. Historical sites were destroyed and cities were left to crumble. Educated people were killed, and urban areas were evacuated. The population was forced into farmlands to work under organized slave labor for the government. Over the following 4 years, it is estimated that 1.7-2 million people were starved, tortured, died of disease, or killed. During this time, even the appearance as an influential or educated person was certain death: The Khmer Rouge rounded up and killed people for wearing eyeglasses, for showing interest in philosophy, or for being the child of an educated adult (to avoid retaliation later, according to documents at the genocide museum).

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To visit the sites dedicated to this horrible time in history is to become enraged at the lack of justice that has followed. While the Khmer Rouge were driven out of office in 1979, these leaders actually held a seat on the UN until the early 1990′s. This is a fact that leaves me entirely speechless- 1990.. A seat on the UN… It is impossible to begin to understand this. And as the country struggled to rebuild itself, violence continued to prevail as a result of all the damage this government had left behind. While the Khmer Rouge leaders continued to live prosperous lives- even holding a seat on the UN- the people of Cambodia continued to suffer in the wake of the genocide.

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To come to Cambodia– to interact with the people of a society still repairing after such devastation– is to feel somewhat devastated by your own lack of knowledge. I couldn’t help but feel like we abandoned them- that my ignorance played a part in their suffering. This was a holocaust much more recent than the one we learn about repeatedly year after year in school. Where is our responsibility as a human race to see to it that history does not repeat itself? To leave this in the hands of our politicians is a proven failure. We speak about being ‘connected to the world’. We teach about (some) of the horrible times in history as if these times are long behind us. Our ignorance is the worst weapon.

There remains a need to be our own ambassadors- to be active, remain aware of the world we reside in, and to think as a human race that is actively connected to the others we share the world with. We have a responsibility to each other that goes way beyond our national borders, our news media, our classrooms.

That is what Cambodia taught me.

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