Foreign Familiar

When Modernity Came to Cambodia

The advent of thousands of UN personnel brought strange menus to Phnom Penh’s riverside cafes.

Although the Vietnamese ended the genocidal Pol Pot regime in 1979, they did not bring complete peace and security for Cambodia. Cambodia was isolated from Western countries until the “Paris Peace Agreement” in 1991, which brought diplomatic and economic relations with the USA, European Union and the rest of the world. However, the pressing challenges for Cambodia were to lift the citizens out of poverty, stabilize national economy and strengthen good governance and respect for human rights. In 1991, UN blue helmets (UNTAC / United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) were starting to pave the way for the Kingdom’s first general election in 1993 – a turning point in recent Cambodian history.

When UNTAC arrived in mid-March 1992, the Cambodian economy was in a rapid and uncoordinated transition from a centralized command system to a full market economy. Research shows that during 1991-92, UNTAC spent USD $1.7 billion, equivalent to about 75 percent of Cambodia’s GDP at the time. It also led to foreign currency deposits at Cambodian banks, the dollarization of our economy and the rise of the local sex industry. At this time, I was living in San Francisco / USA, where my extended family operates a restaurant chain. Having been raised under poor conditions in Kampong Cham during the 1980s Cambodian civil war, I was eager to explore foreign cultures and food for the first time. In the following years – through constant exposure to Western values – I got rid of my “tunnel vision” and became an empowered female Cambodian “expat”. This helped me to resettle in Phnom Penh in the year 2000, where I – much later – started a career in media.

After my return at the beginning of the new millennium, I was excited to witness that Cambodia was not only at peace, but it had also transformed into an aspiring tourist destination. The legacy of the French colonial rule was fading fast. Late King Father Sihanouk was part of a generation, who grew up at a time, when France considered Cambodia, in the words of a spokesman for the French Council of Ministers in 1970, “an island of French culture in the Far East”. When I came back, that generation was rapidly ageing. Many had died. Colonial buildings were slowly being destroyed. Young Cambodians in Phnom Penh began to favor American action films, Hip-Hop-music and fast food. Due to globalization and technological improvements (internet/mobile phones), Cambodian youth – accounting for almost 70% of the whole population – were starting to change the culture handed down by their ancestors, which often resulted in strong criticism by older people.

Tim Page (born 1944) is an English photographer who made his name during the Vietnam War and is now based in Brisbane, Australia. He is celebrated for his work as a freelance accredited press photographer in Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1960s. I have been meeting Tim for the first time in 2009 during his exhibition at the Cambodian-German Cultural Center “Meta House Phnom Penh”, where I continue to work as “Creative Director”.

In the following years we have had many opportunities to talk. On numerous occasions, the famous war reporter was sharing his rich experiences in Cambodia before / after Khmer Rouge and UNTAC. In return, I briefed him about the mindset of my generation, whose members often felt disconnected from their (traumatized) parents. What we wanted in the early 2000s was to leave the Pol Pot legacy behind and start anew. We wanted to be able to study and to travel. We wanted to redefine what it means “to be Khmer”. We wanted the right to self-determination. We wanted re-build our society in a way, which prevents history from repeating itself.

Did we succeed? How will the future Cambodia look like? There’s no clear answer yet, as Cambodia currently enters a new development phase. China is trying to spread its political and economic influence across the region, particularly through its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure-development initiative. The same country, which once bankrolled the Pol Pot regime, was Cambodia’s largest foreign direct investor from 2013-2017, with over 1 billion USD annually. Amid dwindling support from the West, China has been a willing patron to front the Cambodian government’s industry and infrastructure projects.

This trend is likely to continue. Rumor has it, that in the coming 10 years millions and millions of Mainland Chinese will be resettled in Cambodia. For example, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Sihanoukville, a beach town of 90,000, hit 120,000 in 2017. There, the Cambodian government has allowed extraordinary levels of Chinese investment. So far, 30 casinos have already been built, and 70 more are under construction. Restaurants, banks, landlords, pawnshops, duty-free stores, supermarkets and hotels all display signs in Chinese. Most Western business owners have already left; on the market, Chinese fruit sellers make better business than their Cambodian competitors. Is now the time for Cambodia to wean itself off “UNTAC’s greenback”? And if so, do we consider adopting the Yuan as common currency here? From my point of view, we should be wary of foreign domination from the East and West alike without falling into the trap of nationalism or segregation. As reconciliation also involves the reframing of identity, we’ll have to understand who we are and where we could be within our modern globalized world, which has much more to offer than fast food, fast fashion, smartphones, facebook, shopping malls or slot machines.

Sopheak Sao and Tim Page

Sopheak Sao (born 1981) is a Cambodian filmmaker and “Creative Director” at Meta House Goethe-Center Phnom Penh. She has produced and directed a number of documentary films. In February 2013, she was the first Cambodian filmmaker to be invited to the Berlin International Film Festival “Berlinale Paronama” in Germany. Her film “Two Girls Against the Rain”, was included as part of the 2013 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and screened at numerous international festivals in Asia and Europe winning “Best Documentary Short” at KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival 2013 (India).


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