In recent months, Cleveland and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, have entered into a Sister City agreement. While sister cities often match similarly sized municipalities, the arrangement between Cleveland (population about 41,500) and the Cambodian capital (population 2.2 million), clearly marks the Tennessee town as definitely the “little sister.”
Sister City partnerships join the people of two cities in informal cultural, educational, business and community exchanges with the goals of promoting peace through mutual respect, creating an atmosphere in which economic ties may be established and experiencing interchanges that enrich the lives of those participating.
The partnership with Phnom Penh has grown out of the activities of People for Care and Learning, a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization that works in Cambodia.
In the past few years, more than 100 Cleveland area residents have made the 9,100-mile trip to Southeast Asia.
The “Pearl of Asia”
Located at the confluence of the four rivers that water Cambodia, Phnom Penh has increased from a population of 385,000 some 25 years ago to its present 2.2 million residents, by far the largest city among the national population of 15 million. As the seat of Cambodia’s government, it houses the major national administrative offices, and also serves as the principal economic and educational center. Double-digit economic growth has spurred a recent building boom. Khmer, the national language, is spoken in the city, and English and French are widely used. France ruled Cambodia from 1863 until 1953 as part of French Indo-China.
The garment industry is the largest economic force in the country today, followed by tourism and real estate. Unemployment, however, remains a major challenge.
A $2.6 billion new urban development called Camko City across the Mekong River will alter the city’s landscape. High-rise buildings are being constructed at the entrance of the city, along with modern shopping centers and cinemas. New roads, canals and a railway system will be used to connect Camko City with the downtown area.
A beautiful city of wide boulevards, monuments and parks, once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” Phnom Penh — like most major cities — also has areas of great poverty. As measured by the United Nations, Cambodia is among the 36 countries with the highest burden of child nutrition needs and one of the 33 "alarming" countries for levels of hunger and under-nutrition. Fully one-third of the country lives below the nation’s poverty line, which is only 61 cents per day.
People for Care and Learning (PCL) has worked in Cambodia for about a dozen years. The group served in a shantytown area of the capital in 1996 when the residents were evacuated from land on which they had squatted and moved to a rural area nearby without adequate housing, electric, water and sewer services, or job opportunities. The people were relocated to an open, swampy field, flooded several months of the year. The new settlement became another slum as people made do with whatever material they found — cardboard, tarps, old signs, discarded plywood — to build homes.
PCL has worked for the development of the area, and last year launched a visionary project to build the infrastructure, houses and supporting buildings for the whole town, Andong 3, home to about 8,000 people.
A Contradictory Past
What shapes the profile of a nation’s people? In the case of Cambodia, the formative influences have been varied and contradictory. Two powerful and clashing images come to the minds of those who know the history of the Southeast Asian country.
From the 900s through the 1200s, the country was the seat of the far-reaching Khmer Empire that controlled Cambodia and most of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, headquartered in its capital, Angkor. Satellite imagery that detects the extent of the great medieval city, and archaeological studies during the past century, indicate that at the height of its power it was the largest pre-industrial urban center on earth. When London was a muddy town of less than 50,000, Angkor boasted more than a million inhabitants.
During this period, a highly developed and extensive flood-control and irrigation system was developed throughout Cambodia and massive building programs were completed. The waterways remain a marvel to those who study them today. Impressive palaces and temples captured the admiration of visitors from all over the Eastern world. The great temple of Angkor Wat, built over a period of many years, was the centerpiece of the realm.
With the demise of the empire due to warfare and internal strife, Cambodia eventually diminished into a network of small kingdoms ruled by rival kings, and was in due course conquered by Vietnam. Later, in 1863, France invaded and controlled the country until 1953.
Tourists still visit the ruins of Angkor in droves. More than 2 million visited in 2012. Dozens of temples and palace sites surround the huge, mile-square central temple whose five spires are pictured on the national flag. The largest building on earth dedicated for religious purposes, it has been identified as a World Heritage Site and is commonly referred to as one of the Seven Wonders of the Religious World.
The Cambodian people know their imperial past, and when they reflect on it, it fills them with pride.
The Dark Side
There is a darker side to Cambodia’s history.
In the 1975-79 period, an ultra-radical Communist group called the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government — by that time, ruled by a king and an elected parliament who had replaced the French rule. In an ill-advised and horrific attempt to transform the country into a pure communal agrarian system, they decided the quickest way to bring about abrupt and effective change was to kill their fellow Cambodians who did not agree with their methods.
All political and civil rights were abolished by the Khmer Rouge. Children were taken from their parents and placed in separate forced labor camps. Factories, schools and universities were shut down, as were hospitals. Professional people in any field — lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and even the army — were murdered, together with their extended families. Music and radios were banned. It was possible for people to be shot simply for knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses, laughing or crying. Religion was banned, leading Buddhist monks were killed and numerous temples destroyed.
Some 2.2 million people are believed to have died, about a fourth of the country’s citizens. One Khmer Rouge slogan declared, “To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” The evil of the three years, eight months and 20 days of Khmer Rouge terror was chronicled in the 1984 film, “The Killing Fields.”
An unlikely group became the saviors of Cambodia: their neighbors, the Vietnamese. Lately free of their war with the United States and disturbed by cross-border skirmishes in which their citizens were being killed by the Khmer Rouge, the well-armed and combat-savvy Vietnamese took only a few months to take control of the war-torn nation in 1979.
Several years of instability followed as successive attempts were made and finally achieved to regain an independent Cambodia. Various factions and parties played a part in the jockeying for power, until in 1993 a constitution was adopted and a stable government was again in place. The nation is now ruled by an elected parliament, along with a royal family that is revered by the people but serves without political power.
The Cambodia of 2013 is an amalgam of people who remember with justifiable pride the exceptional accomplishments of the noble history of a far-flung and powerful empire and, at the same time, recall with understandable shame the reprehensible record of their fellow citizens who briefly adopted a radical Communism that cast a lengthy shadow over the end of the 20th century.
Cambodia’s people dream of a renewed nation, prosperous and forward looking, which is more likely a possibility with the help of people from far away, like People for Care and Learning and their Cleveland friends, who care for their well-being and come alongside to help.
(Next: A look at the recent visit to Cambodia made by a 22-member delegation from Cleveland to complete the signing of paperwork and to exchange shared visions of further developing, and strengthening, the Sister City relationship between Cleveland and Phnom Penh.)