History of Cambodia : Modern Cambodia
If there was a symbol to capture the essence of Cambodia today, a rock concert on the steps of Angkor Wat must surely be it. A free rock concert, sponsored by a branch of MTV called MTV Exit dedicated to end human trafficking, was held for one night in Dec 2008. Modern Cambodia is gritty and determined to join the world ranks and yet is tied to a past, a large part of which is glorious and unrivalled, and a lesser and gruesome part of which needs to be healed and put behind.
In November 1998, nearly ten years after the Vietnamese rolled out, elections were held and a new coalition government was formed between the two leading parties, ushering in a period of relative political peace. A new king now sits at on the throne, and is proving to be a popular choice since he has no previous political links and is known to be a strong crusader of Cambodian culture. Economic growth has been more than brisk yet poverty is painfully rampant and one-third of its people survive on less than US$1 a day.
A Country of Contradictions
This is a country of contradictions, where adult and child beggars stick their hands out in front of tourists who step out of their US$1000 a day hotel suites. It has a warm and gentle people who are painstakingly reviving traditional art forms that were almost completely eradicated. Yet reports of corruption and the dark side of sex tourism are rampant.
Recent elections, although falling short of international standards according to the EU observing team, were much better than the ones held in 2003. The country is still enjoying sufficient political peace to support a rock concert on ancient grounds where not too long ago, Khmer Rouge guerillas were using the temples as target practice.
A Country of Promise
There is so much promise in Cambodia – a pristine environment and a consciousness to support eco-tourism, blindingly white beaches without the tourist crowds, a cuisine about to explode onto the international culinary map and a cultural renaissance that is exciting and refreshing. And above it all, a symbol of nationhood – the Angkor Wat – that is a reminder of a kingdom once unrivalled in glory and strength. If its people can remember that these fabled temples were overrun, by the jungles, but have emerged relatively intact, then the Cambodians too can heal from the ravages to the psyche.
One of the most iconic images of Angkor is the enigmatic smiling face – all 216 of them – at the Bayon Temple. The faces express a superb balance of power and tranquility and resemble King Jayavarman VII who drove the Cham invaders out and took the empire to its greatest heights. It is up to Cambodia to regain that balance, and it does not appear to have too, too much to do to get there. What it needs is not to sacrifice national long-term interests and the well being of its people for short-term gains. With that in mind, the Cambodians may soon have much to smile about again.