While casual visitors often describe Phnom Penh as a dusty and run-down city, the capital still presents a more inviting image than the ravaged ghost town the country’s first NGO workers encountered 20 years ago.
“In 1979, the streets of Phnom Penh were largely vacant,” said David Elder, area secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, as he wrapped up a weeklong visit Tuesday.
“The few people who were in the city walked around with their kramas wrapped across their chests like bandoleers. The tubes of rice carried inside were used for bartering, in the absence of any currency—though, ironically, defunct bills were blowing into the street from the bombed-out National Bank building.”
Elder had a chance to share recollections of the period with hundreds of other NGO officials who gathered in the capital last week to mark the 20th anniversary of NGOs in Cambodia.
Joined by government officials, diplomats and members of the media, he and other veteran NGO representatives received a warm tribute from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who described them in a speech as “friends singled out during hardship.”
The prime minister’s address placed particular emphasis on NGOs’ role as an “important diplomatic channel” during periods of political isolation. In the course of his talk, Hun Sen referred twice to a groundbreaking 1988 report, “Punishing the Poor: the Isolation of Kampuchea,” which detailed the negative effects of international embargoes upon average Cambodians.
The reference wasn’t lost on at least one participant in the ceremony. Eva Mysliwiec, director of the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, compiled the study during her three-year tenure with Oxfam.
Mysliwiec, who has served at four NGOs in Cambodia since her arrival in 1980, came as a field representative of the American Friends Service Committee.
Although she also saw a capital devoid of the basics, Mysliwiec recalled most vividly the “highly traumatized” population.
“Many people were still criss-crossing the country to locate their homes or find surviving relatives,” she said. “People were so traumatized, in fact, that they would just sort of grab your arm on the street and start telling you about everything they had been through.”
Adding to the toll of the Pol Pot regime was the absence of operational machinery. Elder described “mechanical graveyards” of demolished cars, motorbikes and appliances that littered Phnom Penh. And Mysliwiec noted that conditions were even worse in the countryside.
“It was necessary to repair ports, import equipment for offloading, even provide typewriters and paper….Oxfam brought in an incredible number of Bailey bridges to replace those blown up by the retreating Khmer Rouge. Literally, there was nothing left. It’s difficult to imagine.”
Further destabilizing the situation, she added, were propagandistic radio broadcasts issued by the Khmer Rouge and Voice of America, which urged Cambodians to flee to the Thai border to escape the Vietnamese.
Elder and Mysliwiec, like many NGO representatives, were based in Phnom Penh’s Monorom Hotel, where the lobby leaked continually and running water was unavailable beyond rooms on the second floor.
Given the dearth of streetlights, much of the city was pitch black at night, while communications were limited to wind-up phones, mainly located at ministries.
While the central government showed a surprising latitude in its dealings with NGOs, some restrictions were imposed.
“For the first five years, we weren’t even allowed to directly hire our own local personnel,” Elder said. “Even our drivers were appointed by the government. And NGO representatives were required to be driven about in agency cars.”
But Mysliwiec said the level of cooperation was unprecedented compared to other war-ravaged regions—and continues to be.
“NGOs have participated in consultations with the government on issues ranging from land law to election law,” she said. “They are often able to bridge the gap between central levels and what happens on the ground….While there are still weaknesses in the consultative relationship between the government and NGOs, where else do you have human rights groups training the military and police? Here, NGOs are part of the process, rather than merely standing outside criticizing it.”
She attributed this cooperative relationship to “a unique aspect of the Cambodian character.”
“I think Cambodians really do value input and experience,” she said.
Evaluating the changes of the past 20 years, she added, requires an appreciation of the wholesale devastation Cambodia faced at the outset.
“I have always seen more hope here than in many other troubled parts of the world. When you see what people have gone through and what they’ve had to negotiate, you have to wonder what has kept them going. Often, they were the ones who kept me going.”