Modernisation invades Cambodia but not without social costs

Dhaka,  Sat,  27 May 2017
Published : 19 May 2017, 21:08:25
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Modernisation invades Cambodia but not without social costs

Abdul Bayes
Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country, borders with Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The country has 440 kilometres of coastal belt facing the Gulf of Siam. With a total area of 181,035 square kilometres, Cambodia is little larger than Bangladesh, about one-third the size of Thailand, or 293 times bigger than Singapore. With a total population of 11.4 million, of which about 52 per cent are women, population density is 83 persons per sq.km as against roughly 1,000 in Bangladesh. The majority of the population live in rural areas and on agricultural production based on traditional practices. Only 16 per cent of the total population reside in urban areas or towns.

The country has an estimated annual population growth rate of 2.4 per cent. The population is likely to double in less than 30 years. The proportion of children aged below 18 accounts for about 52 per cent of the population, whereas the economically productive age group (18-60) form only 43 per cent. The age distribution shows that 54.3 per cent of the population are less than 20 years old. Cambodia is a nation with a rich cultural history though its current population has been hugely affected by recent wars, famine and the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot. An estimated 2.0 million people (approximately a quarter of the population) were killed. And specific targeting of doctors, lawyers and teachers as well as foreign immigrants and a return to 11th Century agricultural models destroyed the Cambodian economy. Further political instability and civil war in the 1980s stalled recovery from genocide until stability was restored in the form of a multi-party democracy underneath a constitutional monarchy in the early 1990s.

Siem Reap, where we gathered in a workshop on microfinance, organised by the Asia Pacific Rural and Agricultural Credit Association (APRACA), is one of the 24 provinces of Cambodia. It has an area of 10,299 sq.km and a population density of only 97. Like other parts of Cambodia, women constitute 51 per cent of the population. Siem Reap is a town of tourists and the area has been receiving tourists for 100 years. Nestled between rice paddies and stretched along the Siem Reap River, the provincial city of Siem Reap City serves as the gateway to the millennium-old ruins of Angkor. As I was told, the city welcomes 1.0 million tourists per year. In fact, tourism accounts for 16 per cent of Cambodian GDP, second largest after readymade garments (RMG).

After each brainstorming session, we were taken to events related to Cambodian culture and heritage. On the first day of the workshop, a welcome dinner was arranged around the swimming pool of the Khmera Angkor Hotel -- the venue of the workshop and where we stayed -- with food, drinks and dance. Beer is much appreciated by the Cambodians. Angkor Beer and Tiger Beer are brewed locally and sold everywhere. The slogan of the commercials for Angkor Beer with the silhouetted logo of the old temple is displayed with pride that should appeal to the nationalistic feelings of the Khmer.

Cambodian food is very delicious. Casting eyes on fish amok, Lap Khmer beef salad, Khmer red curry etc. makes one's mouth water. Usually the dinner on the table runs with dances on the stage. It is the tradition since earliest days of tourism in the 19th Century to treat visitors in Siem Reap with an Apsara dance performance which is a taste of classical Khmer culture. Traditional Khmer dance is also known as 'dance -- drama' that carries a message or story. There are also Lakhon Khole (all-male masked dance drama) and folk dance.

After enjoying the dinner and the dance, we used to rush to the night market a few minutes' drive away by Tuk Tuk, a rickshaw with the front end of a motor cycle. Hundreds of shops are observed dealing in Cambodian products where especially crafts catch the attention of tourists coming from Asia, America and Europe.  Angkor Night Market, established in 2007, was the first night market to open in Cambodia. Over the years, shops from souvenirs / boutique, body and feet massage, food court, cocktail bars with entertainment showed up. Interestingly, sales in these shops are done by the females -- young girls -- and the boys or males are found in gossips nearby. Since the economy of Siem Reap is partly dollarised, the exchange is done through dollar. Haggling is in its highest height with a $30 offer settling at $5.

There is a saying that if you ever go to the night market, you should always start the bargaining with half of the offered price. What is noticeable, however, is that the law and order condition is so well that a tourist could shop or be in the pub till midnight and return safe and sound. Unlike many tourist cities, the crime rate is very low even at midnight.

Marlowe Aquino and his team in APRACA then took us to watch the famous Angor Wat. The primary attraction of visitors to Seam Reap is Angokor Wat and the Angkor Temple region. The Angkor Temple complex has been designated as a UN heritage site and consists of hundreds of structures from the 9th to the 14th century to tell the story of the rise and the fall of Khmer empire. This vast collection of historical structure decorated with intricately-carved priceless Khmer artworks narrates the history of an empire that ruled much of Southeast Asia for five centuries. As we were roaming inside and outside the largest temple in the world, school-going kids were pushing us to buy products from them. The scene resembles that of Dhaka where kids are found to carry goods, not books. The growth of the sex industry with children in sex trade appeared as another disconcerting side of development. Modernisation, as elsewhere, seems to have invaded Siem Reap -- in fact the whole of Cambodia -- with huge social costs that should not go unaccounted for.

The writer is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.  abdulbayes@brac.net/abdulbayes@yahoo.com
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