A brief look at Cambodia reveals a volatile, chaotic, and ultimately tragic history during the last half of the 20th century. At the beginning of this period, the late l960’s and early l970’s, civil war existed between the Khmer Rouge communists under Pol Pot and the government of Cambodia under Prince Sihanouk and later General Lon Nol. The United States became involved because the communists in North Vietnam were using Cambodia to transport supplies to their troops in the south over the Ho Chi Min trail. The U.S. bombing of that trail resulted in the death of thousands of innocent Cambodians (500,000 in a six-month period) and drove the communists deeper into Cambodia.

By late l974, the Khmer Rouge (KR) had gained control of the rural areas. The civil war became much more intense as the KR neared the urban areas. General Lon Nol gradually lost control, despite U.S. support in the form of arms and food shipments. In April l975, tragedy struck. Lon Nol resigned and fled to the United States. The U.S. began the evacuation of its embassy in Phnom Penh on April 12, and by April 17 the city had fallen to the KR. In the next four years, no news reached the outside world. Here is what happened during that time period:

  1. The Khmer Rouge (KR) forced everyone out of the cities. They told people that the U.S. would bomb the city in 3 days. Even the hospitals were emptied. Patients had to be carried out on stretchers by family members.
  2. The KR told people they were going to create a new society. They asked all the educated people, the professionals, doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, government workers, college students, to step forward and identify themselves so they could assist in creating this new society. Anyone who wore glasses was also asked to step forward (if you wore glasses it was assumed that you were educated). They were then told they would be going to an “orientation”. Tragically, they were marched off to dig their own graves and were then executed, either by bullets or by being bashed in the head with the shovels they were given. All Buddhist, Roman Catholic, and other religious leaders were executed. This mass reign of terror and genocide is documented in the movie, The Killing Fields, and several books, including First They Killed My Father, by Loung Ung, featured on the United Methodist Women’s reading list.
  3. Families were separated and focibly removed to resettlement areas without water or toilet facilities. Fathers were executed if they were not peasants; mothers and children were sent off to labor camps where they were put to work digging rice paddies and planting or harvesting rice. They were not allowed to eat what they produced, as the KR sold the rice to buy weapons. Children were encouraged to spy on their parents and adults turned on each other in order to survive; the “offender” then disappeared. Whoever didn’t die by the hands of the KR guards, died by the hundreds of thousands from starvation and lack of medical care. Doctors and nurses were non-existent, either having been executed or having left the country ahead of the purge. Nearly 2,000,000 people lost their lives. The infrastructure of the country, already fragile, was totally destroyed.

In January l979, after two years of skirmishing and mutual aggression between the KR and communist Vietnam, and after the Vietnamese had established a liberated zone in Cambodia, the Vietnamese army captured Phnom Penh and gradually liberated surviving Cambodians in forced labor camps. After another 10 years of conflict, the Vietnamese withdrew their troops. In October l991, the Paris Peace Agreement ended the fighting and laid the groundwork for U.N. supervised general elections. Power struggles and warring among political factions continued. In May l998, Mr. Hun Sen was elected Prime Minister. He continues in that role up to this time (2012), having forced out or eliminated rival political leaders. Under Hun Sen, corruption continues to flourish.

Clean Water: Clean water is essential to good health, but in most places in Cambodia it does not exist. All open water sources are contaminated and cause disease, especially diarrhea, which can be fatal to children and the elderly. City water piped into homes and hotels is also unsafe. Gift loans can defray the cost of water filters so families can drink clean water, thereby reducing death and disease. One such filter consists of a clay pot painted with a bacteria-killing substance which is placed inside and on top of a much taller plastic receptacle. When contaminated water is poured into the clay pot, clean water starts to drip through; with three fillings, the unit can produce 30 liters of clean drinking water every day. Filters usually last 2-3 years under normal circumstances. The benefits of the water filter unit are clear; Cambodians stay healthier and have fewer fatalities.


Food: The poor lack adequate food. The twin scourges of hunger and malnutrition are an ever present dilemma for a vast majority of Cambodians. Rice is their staple food, but they can only produce enough to feed their families for 8 out of 12 months. During the “hungry months” they must purchase rice at the local market at an exorbitant interest rate. Therefore, with the help of mission funds, the families construct a small storage facility for a rice bank, and funds are made available through gifts to buy the rice for the bank. This is called a “gift-loan” because it must be repaid at a reasonable rate of interest so others can be helped. The same gift-loan principle applies to other projects. Gift funds for agricultural projects provide food, as well as instruction, in the care of livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens. The offspring is then passed on to other needy villagers. Cows are particularly desirable because they provide transportation (like horses or oxen), food, and fertilizer. Gift loans for micro-farming such as vegetable gardening and mushroom growing provide food for families; any surplus can be sold to provide clothing and education for the children. Honey bees and Moringa tree seedlings are other possibilities for aid.

Crops cannot be grown during the dry season (half the year). Most households have low incomes because their livelihood depends almost exclusively on wet season rice production. Gift loans are needed to fund cooperative irrigation pumps and well projects so that families can produce enough to feed themselves and others. Where pumps and wells are in place, vegetable gardening or mushroom growing is possible.


Most parents of children now in school are illiterate. When the educated were executed, the country was left with no intellectual base from which to start rebuilding. Schools have reopened but children go to school half days if they have a uniform and bookbag/paper. If not, they are at risk for exploitation and sex trafficking. Instructional materials are scant; teachers are poorly trained and paid a subsistence wage. They do not assign homework unless parents pay a fee. Scholarships are needed for children in the city who live in slums and garbage dumps and orphanages, as well as for the poor in the rural areas. Other scholarships are needed so that youth can attend secondary schools where they can learn computer skills in addition to their other studies. Still other scholarships are needed to provide vocational training for older youth in such areas as sewing and weaving, engine repair, cosmetology, barbering, and food service; these scholarships help pay for housing and food as well as instruction. They are an important source of aid for young girls rescued from human trafficking, which is a tragedy of immense proportions in Cambodia. Batteries are another form of educational need, as they make possible the opportunity for both adults and children to read and study at night in rural areas. Electricity is unavailable and/or unreliable in the countryside.


Medical Care: The Khmer Rouge executed all doctors and nurses who were unable to escape. The country has never recovered from the loss, not only of medical personnel but also of professionals in other fields. Trained medical personnel are not available except in large urban areas and some district clinics with the latter extremely limited as to care. In larger urban areas there are drug stores but no pharmacists, only drug sellers. You can go into any drug store and buy almost any kind of drug, antibiotics included, without a prescription. There is a need for teams of volunteer nurses and doctors, training for village health aides, and for transportation for patients to a clinic or hospital. HIV/AIDS is widespread and obviously related to the criminal enterprises of prostitution and sex trafficking.