Pol Pot’s regime systematically eliminated the educated and attempted to do the same with all of Cambodia’s traditional institutions.
One person in every three was either killed or died from forced labor, disease or starvation, and yet others survived to rebuild the country.
The end of the Khmer Rouge era did not bring peace; through the 1980s and 1990s the country was fraught with conflict and tension that only subsided in 1998.
“If we could look at a nation as one human body, it is beyond my imagination how a body can endure such chronic pain—but it does,” said trauma psychologist Peg LeVine, who first treated Cambodians in the 1980s.
For the more than half of the Cambodian population that was born after 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime is history. But the social, mental and physical effects of the Khmer Rouge era cast a long shadow that continues to cloak the country today.
“Cambodia lost three things that are difficult to recover: Time, trust and talent,” said Shyam Bajpai, country director for the Asian Development Bank.
“A person born right after the Khmer Rouge period is 26 years old today. Is that person a substitute for the educated 40-year-old person (the country) might have had?” Bajpai asked.
Jim Tulloch, representative of the World Health Organization in Cambodia, said the effect of the Khmer Rouge regime on the country’s health system continues to be profound.
“Anyone who is today between the ages of 30 to 50 had either their primary, secondary or tertiary education disrupted in some way, often very seriously. So we have a health system staffed with less trained people than it needs and by people who have not had the educational opportunities that they should have,” Tulloch said.
It is not just the loss of trained people during the Khmer Rouge period, but also the loss of their thinking, which would have contributed to the country’s collective knowledge and wisdom, Tulloch said.
“Many other countries involved in conflict would not have suffered the same devastating impact on the education of their professionals.”
Jean-Francois Frys of the NGO Karol and Setha, which deals with values and sexuality in Cambodian society, said those who were 12 to 20 years old during the Khmer Rouge regime appear to be the worst affected.
“[They] seem broken, tired,” Frys said. “They tend to resist change, afraid to take initiatives,” he said.
Robert Hagemann, resident representative for the International Monetary Fund, noted that it has only been since 1998 that Cambodia has been at peace.
“It’s taken this time to instill an amount of confidence [in peace] for people to begin planning ahead,” Hagemann said.
Even though normal evolution creates generational changes, the gap between people born before and after the Khmer Rouge era is uncommonly deep, said Ang Choulean, an ethnologist and historical anthropology teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
The fact that one group experienced pain that the others can only try to understand already profoundly divides Cambodians, he said.
Moreover, growing up in a country that is still trying to rebuild its traditions, the post-Khmer Rouge generation has shed many of the old customs and developed their own attitudes and visions, Ang Choulean said.
“Some young people can barely recite the simplest prayers,” he said, adding that this affects family relations since families traditionally gather for Buddhist celebrations.
Young people no longer have the unconditional respect for parents that was so fundamental in Cambodian society prior to 1975 and which played a key role in the transmission of customs and traditions, he said.
Rapid change is also taking place all over Cambodia and further disconnecting the country’s youth from their already fractured links to traditional Khmer culture.
In the 1990s, young women converged on Phnom Penh to work in burgeoning garment factories, causing yet another rupture at the family’s core and a transformation of city and rural communities, Ang Choulean said.
Phnom Penh and the countryside have traditionally been separate entities with lives of their own. Rural people were sustained in their villages and stayed and worked at their trades. Today, mostly out of economic necessity, young people rush to cities, he said.
Television has also penetrated rural areas, and is radically altering attitudes, said Ly Daravuth, director of the Reyum Institute.
Young people working in the city, whose ties with Cambodia’s cultural past have been severed, also travel back and forth between city and countryside, passing on new attitudes and values to young people living in rural areas, he said.
Preserving important customs and cultural traditions which were crushed by the Khmer Rouge and which dissipate as the older generations pass away will depend on political will, Ly Daravuth said.
For Peg LeVine, the psycho-social effects of the Khmer Rouge regime have done the longest lasting damage to Cambodia.
“The Khmer Rouge attempted to kill the internal structure of a culture—its essence,” she said. “This is a crime that resonates deeper [and longer] than genocide because it involves psycho-social-spirit breakdown.”