When Cambodia emerged from the isolation and silence imposed by the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the sight of devastation and misery in the country convinced relief organizations that help could not wait.
But sending Cambodians food, medicine, agricultural tools or building equipment was to become a matter of international politics. It ended up being Soviet Union-aligned countries, a few humanitarian agencies and NGOs that came to Cambodia’s rescue.
In the 1980s, Cambodians found themselves with an international boycott over their heads, and under constant threat of attacks by Khmer Rouge forces who had rearmed and set up camp along the Thai border.
Vietnamese forces had taken Phnom Penh on Jan 7, 1979, putting an end to the Khmer Rouge’s four-year regime. Slowly, thousands of people started their walk home, hoping to find their families.
“They were all skeletal, malnourished, in tatters, and sick,” said My Samedy, secretary-general of the Cambodian Red Cross.
Of the 450 Cambodian doctors prior to 1975, maybe 48 had survived; the government appealed to them to get to work in any way they could.
“The hardest thing for us doctors was to have to let the sick die for lack of medicine,” he said.
Russian Ambassador Victor Samoilenko, who was based at the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow at the time, recalls seeing reports from the first Russian team sent to look into the situation.
“They wrote back, ‘Cambodia needs everything,’ from plates to pencils. The medical system, the municipal system, the sewage system, water supply, electricity, everything had been destroyed during Pol Pot,” said Samoilenko.
The Soviet Union became Cambodia’s major donor, giving approximately $80 million per year in the 1980s, and it also called on its allies in the Eastern Bloc to help the country. Poland sent “a big plane load of medical supplies and medicine,” said Polish Ambassador Kazimierz Duchowski.
During the 1980s, those countries would provide development support, technical assistance and hundreds of university scholarships. In her book “Punishing the Poor,” published by Oxfam in 1988, Eva Mysliwiec estimated at $100 million the grants given by socialist countries to Cambodia each year.
Still, Cambodia was under siege, and attacks by armies of the various Cambodian political factions, and especially the Khmer Rouge, could happen at any time.
“Cambodia was considered a hardship posting,” said Indian Ambassador PK Kapur. India during the 1980s was the only non-alligned country to recognize Cambodia. The Indian team of archeologists working at Angkor became used to taking cover in the temples whenever fighting would erupt, he said.
In 1983, the Khmer Rouge killed eight Soviet cotton experts who were working in a field in Kompong Cham province. Afterward, Soviet authorities imposed strict security measures on their nationals, said Kristina Chhim, program coordinator for the German Development Service, who came to Phnom Penh in 1983 to study Khmer.
Phsar Tuol Tumpong, known in English as the Russian market, got its more colloquial name from the fact that Soviets would be picked up by buses and escorted to the market where they would shop for a few hours under heavy security, she said.
And yet, Chhim traveled on her bicycle in Phnom Penh.
“I felt safe—East German students were not Khmer Rouge targets.”
She would even visit Cambodian friends on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and occasionally pedal home after the 9 pm curfew. Cambodian soldiers would stop her, but the offer of a cigarette or chewing gum would get her through, she said.
To reopen the Faculty of Medicine, My Samedy contacted his old friends from the pre-war period in Hanoi. Many Cambodian and Vietnamese doctors had been trained in the French language; so he decided that teaching would be in French and asked his friends for French-speaking professors.
Teaching was normally done in Russian and socialist-country languages in post-secondary education but, My Samedy said, “The government gave me a free hand.”
Cuba ran a technical exchange program in the agriculture and health sectors, with three- to 12- month training courses in Cuba, said Cuban Ambassador Nirsia Castro Guevara. That country also gave 60 university scholarships to Cambodian students between 1980 and 1989, she said. During that same period, 70 to 80 students received scholarships from Poland, Duchowski said.
In spite of the support provided by socialist countries and some organizations, the international boycott on development assistance had affected Cambodia, as observers noted toward the end of the 1980s.
Humanitarian aid had been allowed, but not development aid, which amounted to giving people fish but not a fishnet, said Mysliwiec in her book. In 1980, Unicef sent sawmill equipment to rebuild schools. However, the organization could not send a technician to help Cambodians put the sawmill together nor a representative to assess the project, she said.
As a result, between 1979 and the end of 1981, UN organizations spent about eight times more on each Cambodian refugee on the Thai border than on Cambodians who had stayed in their country, wrote William Shawcross in his book “Quality of Mercy.” Unicef coordinated UN efforts in Cambodia, working with the International Committee of the Red Cross as a joint mission, he said.
In spite of the boycott, numerous religious and humanitarian organizations also came to Cambodia’s rescue—from Oxfam and World Vision, to American Friends Service Committee, Save the Children Australia, Church World Service, and the Japan International Volunteer Center. By 1988, the 27 NGOs then working in Cambodia were providing about $10 million per year in relief and development assistance, said Mysliwiec.
Toward the end of the 1980s, Cambodian government services were in place, Vietnam was withdrawing its troops, and the political map of the world was about to change.
“The Soviet Union seized to exist in December 1991,” said Samoilenko. “We stopped our assistance in early 1990s, but some of our specialists worked here until 1994.”
Today, Cuba, Bulgaria, Poland and Russia still maintain embassies in Phnom Penh.
Russia resumed its activities in Cambodia in the late 1990s with a few aid projects and the promotion of trade relations, said Samoilenko. Poland also must limit its involvement in Cambodia to small projects, said Duchowski.
A portion of the support provided by the Soviet Union consisted of long-term, low interest loans. The International Monetary Fund estimates them at $1.5 billion—probably as much was given through grants, said Samoilenko. The IMF has been discussing some reimbursement with the Cambodian and Russian governments, but this remains to be resolved.
C ambodia also owes Poland around $2 million, said Duchowski. Poland has offered to write off this debt if the Cambodian government agrees to invest the money into the restoration of the Silver Pagoda’s wall paintings on Royal Palace grounds, he said.
During the 1980s, a team of Polish experts had restored those paintings with the help of Cambodians they had trained. The artwork has since deteriorated and needs urgent repair, said Duchowski. The Cambodian government has not yet decided on this matter, he said.