Contemporary Cambodia defined by bloody history

This article first appeared in Melbourne University’s articulation newsletter.

It was only 34 years ago that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge held power in Cambodia, leading a brutal regime of intense agrarian labour, civil war, and mass genocide. It is estimated that up to three million Khmer people died during this four-year period, leaving a bloody stain on contemporary political history.

The S-21 Genocide Prison in Phnom Penh

The S-21 Genocide Prison in Phnom Penh

For an Australian who has spent the past 22 years living in the comfort and safety of Melbourne, such circumstances are difficult to fathom. Only when you’re standing in the killing fields of Phnom Penh, and speaking face-to-face with survivors of this atrocity can you even begin to contemplate the scale of this massacre. But even then it’s still difficult.

Thanks to financial support from the University of Melbourne Arts Faculty, the School of Political and Social Sciences, and the School of Culture and Communications, I recently had the opportunity to visit Cambodia and learn about how this nation is lifting itself out of poverty four decades on from disaster. I did so as part of Oaktree’s Our Generation’s Challenge programme, a three-week ambassadorial trip that enables volunteers from the anti-poverty organisation to improve their understanding of aid and development.

In many ways, the Khmer Rouge defines the attitudes of the Cambodian nation. Those who survived this dark period care first and foremost about security; their wishes for their children and grandchildren is for safety and to live in peace. They fear that what happened to them in the 1970s may repeat, at the cost of another generation. For such people, voting for the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party is their means of guaranteeing the tragedies of the past will not repeat themselves. And I personally think that’s fair enough.

Cambodia’s younger generation, however, are more optimistic. Their future is not defined by the past, but by their dreams. With social media at their fingertips and an increasing capacity to speak English, the youth are the ones changing Cambodia. You see it in political rallies, where they support the progressive National Rescue Party as though it were a footy team. You see it in the classroom, where they set no limits on their aspirations. You see it in the NGO sector, where they experiment with innovative solutions.


Having studied Political Science at Melbourne for almost four years, I’ve learnt about all kinds of grassroots political movements. Likewise, as a volunteer at Oaktree, I’ve engaged with numerous concepts of aid and development. Being in Cambodia at such a critical juncture in its history, however, gives so much more clarity to these theories. There’s so much more you can learn from being stuck the middle of a political rally than from reading a Powerpoint presentation. That isn’t to dismiss the usefulness or relevance of my studies, but to highlight how much direct international engagement – especially at the right time and place – can complements one’s degree.

My final day in Cambodia conveniently fell on the same day as the national election, which saw the government retain power – but not before losing over 20 parliamentary seats. Issues of corruption and election rigging aside, the results suggest a truly democratic future is not as far away as what many imagine.

A week later, when Kevin Rudd called an election back at home, it all seemed so much less significant. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care who wins the upcoming federal poll. But when I go to the booths on September 7, issues of personal safety, protection of democracy, and national security will be the last things on my mind. And for that I am thankful.

With that said, I do find myself slightly jealous of the young people and NGO leaders who I met in Cambodia. While I might not envy their history or their perennial insecurity, I envy their passion for politics, their refusal to accept the status quo, and their earnest belief that they can change their nation for the better.