Firstly, survivors of the 1975-1978 genocide have seen their government turn against its own people in the past and have developed an intense distrust of those in power. When I asked about Cambodia’s upcoming July presidential elections, most of my subjects sighed and declared, “nothing will change. We will continue to suffer.” Furthermore, an appreciation of the importance of childhood education was simultaneously destroyed with the murder of Cambodia’s educated class. Threatened by their knowledge, Pol Pot’s regime crusaded against all intellectuals, professors, businesspeople, and college-educated citizens. With the demise of the most educated echelon in Cambodia came a societal disinterest in childhood education. Lastly, with a primarily agrarian economy based largely on rice production, most Cambodian children are forced to work in their families’ rice fields at a young age rather than attend daily school.
The striking shortcomings of Cambodia’s public education system are illuminated when comparing the small country to its Western neighbor, Thailand. Thailand maintains an adult literacy level of 94% while Cambodia falls short at only 77%. Furthermore, while Thai children benefit from accessible secondary and higher education institutions both in the city and in rural areas, only 2% of Cambodian villages have a secondary school accessible to their children. As one Thai teacher working in Cambodia explained, “In Thailand the children have dreams to go to university, and many of them do. In Cambodia, the children are not allowed to dream like this. This dream is unheard of.” At one point comparable in terms of social and economic development, the genocide has set Cambodia far behind Thailand and many of its other Asian neighbors.
With a lack of trust in government-sponsored schools and a collective encouragement to abandon dreams of college for a life in the rice fields, Cambodian children face insurmountable challenges. Unfortunately, this sad truth is the price they pay for their country’s tragic history. In such a picturesque country with such beautiful people, darkness still looms. Each day, new human remains continue to surface just as each day new children leave the classroom for a life of hard manual labor. The effects of Pol Pot’s regime are as present as ever.