Instability & Hunger Cambodia

After the Killing Fields: Political Instability and Its Effect on Chronic Hunger in Cambodia

The debilitating effects of hunger contribute to poverty by depriving the poorest of their main, and sometimes only, asset – labor. It is unlikely that the most undernourished can escape poverty without increased access to food. So hunger and poverty are inevitably interdependent.” This statement was made by Dr. William H. Meyers, a Professor of Economics at Iowa State University and a Former Director of the Agriculture and Economic Development Analysis Division of the United Nations in Rome. Few countries can give a better illustration of the heartbreaking truth of his remarks than the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia. Cambodia has long been one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, but thirty years of war, totalitarian government, and natural disaster has raised the country’s malnutrition rates to among the highest in Southeast Asia as well.           

            As Dr. Meyers states, one of Cambodia’s major obstacles in fighting chronic hunger is that they have suffered so many years of war and starvation that they no longer have the resources or even the strength to continue laboring. Without an increase of food supplies, Cambodian society could very easily continue in a vicious cycle of backbreaking labor for minimal agricultural profit. A total  of 60% of farming in Cambodia is still subsistence farming, and with so many Cambodian farmers struggling to just survive, they cannot climb over the poverty line without support from powerful countries. These countries must help them continue the process they have already begun — dismantling the millions of unexploded land mines left from the Khmer Rouge so that more land can be used for agriculture; creating more jobs outside of agriculture; modernizing agricultural methods; and finding jobs for the thousands of rural Cambodians who flee to the cities striving to find employment.           

            A typical Cambodian family usually consists of 5 people. Because Cambodia has lost so many of its men in recent wars, 65% of the population are women.  Due to these losses, many women act as the head of their households, a difficult role in this still patriarchal society. Furthermore, the majority of Cambodians still live in largely undeveloped rural areas, though a migration to urban areas in search of employment is starting to occur. Therefore, a typical hungry Cambodian family would live in a rural area, and could consist of a 39-year-old widow with three children :

2 boys, ages 15 and 11, and a 12-year-old girl. It also is very common to see 3 or 4 generations living together, so their family could include a 62-year-old grandmother.           

            The two main staples of this family’s diet are soup and rice. The soup can include fish, egg, vegetables, or meats. Rice is prepared in several ways and is eaten at every meal. Seafood is also at the core of their diet. All of the children in this family attend school, so the World Food Programme’s school breakfast program helps the family feed their children. Thanks to this program, the children receive a full meal of rice, canned fish, and cooked vegetables every school day.           

            Compulsory education for all children between the ages of 6 and 12 has been introduced, but people still believe that education is more important for men than women. Therefore, while the 15-year-old boy of the family might continue in secondary school, this will be the 12-year-old girl’s last year of education. After this, she will leave school and help at home.           

            While the children attend school, the grandmother and mother must try to eke out a living cultivating rice. While Cambodian women have always worked alongside men in agricultural tasks, today Cambodia suffers from a severe shortage of able-bodied men. Tens of thousands of Cambodian men are drawn away from work by service in the army and in labor battalions along the border. However, 80% of the rural work force are still employed in agriculture. Still, Cambodian women are able to be involved with areas of society they have never participated in before.  After fighting decreased, many women found themselves in jobs like village officials, shopkeepers, and in government departments–jobs traditionally held by men. However, they still struggle with the old prejudices of what roles are acceptable and widows can find it hard to raise their children in a still patriarchal society.           

            Political instability has long been the biggest factor in Cambodian food insecurity. The Cambodians have gone through four coups in the last 30 years, and suffered through one of the bloodiest instances of genocide since the Holocaust.           

            When the war between the Khmer Rouge and the Lo Sol government began in the early 1970s,  the population of Phnom Pen was about 600,000.  Five years later, that number had swollen to roughly two million with the constant flow of refugees generated by the war. For the refugees in particular, living conditions had been horrid. Many had no jobs; and they were forced to live in putrid camps, suffering from malnutrition and disease as the Khmer Rouge rained rockets and artillery fire into their midst.           

            However, when the Khmer Republic surrendered in April 1975, the situation quickly grew worse. Under the pretense that the Americans were going to bomb the city, the Khmer Rouge forced the entire population of Phnom Pen to evacuate to the countryside. The same scene occurred in nearly all of Cambodia’s major cities and towns. Stragglers and those who refused to obey were often executed on the spot. The stocks of food and water accumulated for the refugees were inadequate, and many of the young and elderly were struck down by  heat and exhaustion. All in all, it is estimated that some 20,000 people died in the evacuation.           

            It soon became clear that the Khmer Rouge was not going to allow them to return to the cities. Their goal was to transform Cambodia into a completely self-sufficient agrarian communist state. Cambodians were deported to virgin forest, where they were first ordered to build their own shelter, then to clear the land and plant rice. This planting and cultivation of rice was the cornerstone of the Rouge’s vision for the future. 

            How, then, did a  government built on the foundation of growing rice cause the starvation and death of thousands of people, not to mention the horrific genocide? It’s because the main cause of the famine was not that rice was in short supply, rather that the rice was not distributed to the people. Ironically, the people growing the rice under the Khmer Rouge were not the ones that received it. Production quotas for each region were determined by the government, and local authorities were expected to send a certain amount of rice to the central government. These quotas, however, were wildly unrealistic, and when they were not met local leaders were faced with a choice: send the amount requested to Phnom Pen and let their people starve, or admit failure to their superiors. Given the manner in which the regime dealt with failure and dissent, it is not surprising that many chose to pretend that the quota had been met.      

            In some areas people were allowed to forage for food when they were not working; they sometimes managed to catch fish or rabbits, and they could occasionally pick fruit. The less fortunate settled for field crabs, rats, lizards, or snakes. In still other areas, however, foraging for food was strictly forbidden.

            Between the famine, unhealthy living conditions, shortages of doctors, and mass genocide, more than two million Cambodians died during the three and half year rule of the Khmer Rouge.           

            Today, the people of Cambodia are still trying to rebuild their government so that they may live in a stable environment free from hunger. In 1991, the U.N. returned 370,000 refugees to Cambodia, where they began  to start a new life. However, the toll of three decades of war had ravaged the country, and many cities and villages were completely destroyed, creating a massive lack of jobs. In 1993,  the first democratic elections were held in Cambodia. Though Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC won the election, he feared that the country would be ungovernable without a larger consensus. The Prince then consented to allow Hun Sun, leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, and a former Khmer Rouge member, to assume the role of “co-prime minister.”           

            In July 1997, Hun Sun dispensed with any pretense of cooperation and  overthrew Ranariddh in a coup. The UN estimated that at least 90 members of Ranariddh’s party were murdered during and immediately after the coup. Ranariddh returned to Cambodia to participate in the elections scheduled for July 1998. However, Hun Sen’s forces continued their campaign of intimidation: a dozen opposition candidates were murdered in the weeks preceding the elections. The violence made a mockery of the international community’s pledges to uphold “free and fair” elections. Hun Sun won the elections, but the opposition protested the results. Again responding with force, Hun Sun dispatched riot police to quell the protests. At least 18 people were killed. The protests brought the country’s government to a virtual halt. In November of 1998, an agreement was reached under which Hun Sun became the Prime Minister, while Ranariddh accepted a position as President of the National Assembly.           

            Under this arrangement, the political situation of Cambodia stayed fairly stable until the last election, which was held last July. Though the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won the majority, they did not get the two-thirds vote needed to form a government in their own right, and the other two political parties are thus far refusing to form a coalition government until Hun Sen leaves office. On September 27, the opening session of Parliament was held with only the CPP members in attendance, even the King chose to boycott the ceremonies. However, recent talks suggest that FUNCINPEC may be considering joining in another coalition with the CPP. However, if a resolution is not reached quickly, political turmoil could once again jeopardize the Cambodian people and undo the work that is being done to rebuild the country.           

            If Cambodia can manage to stay on the path that it has been on for the last five years, there is hope at the end of the tunnel. However, it must first struggle to deal with the internal corruption and violence that still dwells within its political system before equal benefits of their growing affluence will reach every member in Cambodian society. When political stability is achieved in Cambodia, the central government can spend less time squabbling and more time setting up programs to help its many impoverished citizens. 

            One of the successes Cambodia’s government has achieved toward ending hunger is its induction into the World Trade Organization (WTO) on September 12, 2003. This alliance was quite controversial, because Cambodia is one of the first countries that is classified as a least-developed country to be admitted into WTO. This affiliation  will help Cambodia fight malnutrition and hunger by creating more jobs, particularly in the garment business. Garments are a mainstay of Cambodia’s export sector, and create 200,000 jobs for Cambodians. However, the cut throat competition in the garment business will still make Cambodia’s access to markets very vulnerable.           

            Likewise, Cambodia’s accession into the World Trade Organization may damage its agricultural business as well. Rural areas continue to struggle because of lack of infrastructure and essential services. Rice is still cultivated by traditional practices by over 80% of Cambodia’s farmers, and 60%  of these farmers produce purely for substantial needs. While Cambodia’s farmers must struggle to feed their families, their neighbors in Thailand and Vietnam are doubling their productivity because of government aid and more current cultivation methods. Efforts must be made to update Cambodian farmer’s equipment and planting methods so that they can reach maximum production levels and begin to export more rice. If production is increased, and more of the rice can be used for exports, the WTO could help trigger a very healthy growth in Cambodian markets. However, in its negotiations with the WTO, Cambodia has given less protection for its vulnerable agricultural sectors than the United States, the European Union, and Canada. While being a member of the WTO may help Cambodia finally break away from its image as a poor, war-stricken country, it could also hinder its growth because of the poor deal that was given in regards to tariffs and benefits. For example, the cost of medicine needed to treat the thousands of Cambodians suffering from HIV and AIDS will skyrocket enormously now that Cambodia is a member of the WTO. 

            Today, Cambodia has the one of the highest rates of physical disability of any country in the world. While census data for Cambodia is sketchy, it is generally accepted that more than 40,000 Cambodians have suffered amputations as a result of mine injuries since 1979. That represents an average of nearly forty victims a week for a period of twenty years. The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) estimates that there may be as many as four to six million mines and unexploded ordinances in Cambodia. At the current rate of progress, it may take as many as 100 years to clear all the mines in Cambodia. That is not acceptable. If Cambodians are going to become self-sufficient in agriculture, they can not live in fear of these hidden mines. Each farmer who is severely injured by land mines while working his or her crop leaves another empty mouth. The Cambodia Mine Action Center has been working for many years to dismantle the mines, and have received donations of demining equipment from many countries. Japan has been especially generous in this area. However, more countries must give more aid to this cause, because the dismantling of land mines is an imperative issue that will help to decrease malnutrition and hunger in Cambodia. 

            In conclusion, Cambodians must focus on solving the problems that are keeping them the victims of chronic hunger. They must demand the free and fair elections that their constitution guarantees, and appeal to other world organizations to help them bring the criminals of the Khmer Rouge to justice. The government must also address the small landholdings of  the Cambodian people, for no worthwhile revenue can be made when a large family owns very little land. The estimated growth in rural population growth between 2001 and 2006 is 1.3 million people. Already, hundreds of Cambodians are landless, and if the government does not address the problem and redistribute land, the problem could grow until it is past repair. Cambodians must own land to become self-sufficient. 

            Cambodia’s government must also provide more non-agricultural job opportunities to its people. Though agriculture will always be an incredibly important tool in fighting hunger, new types of jobs will raise the amount of money being put into the economy, and could rejuvenate some of Cambodia’s export markets. Above all,  Cambodians must address the internal corruption still present in their government if they wish to create an environment in which food is plentiful. Cambodia has already suffered much turmoil and death, but with the help of other world organizations and the support and will of the Cambodian people, they can win the war against hunger and become a developed country with a strong, stable government.