Cambodia: Learning English, Learning Democracy


Phnom Penh, Cambodia. -- Imagine a three-story yellow stucco schoolhouse with tiled floors and whirring ceiling fans pushing 90 degree heat out the open windows, beyond the balustrade to the paddy fields that subsume the outskirts of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.

This school is an historic place. It has outlasted several generations of violence. It may outlast several more. It was to this school that I was brought, from Baltimore, to train a cross-section of Cambodian society as interpreters for the first Cambodian elections in 38 years. My students were to make possible communication between Khmer-speaking voters and international election supervisors, who spoke English.

The program is only a small part of the electoral component, one of seven parts of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), a mission that employs approximately 15,900 military personnel, 3,600 civilian police monitors and 2,500 international civilian personnel. An additional 50,000 Cambodians were trained to run the polling stations in conjunction with 950 international supervisors who were flown in on the eve of last week's elections. The presently estimated cost of this enormous two-year operation is $3.7 billion.

In order to qualify for the interpreter training program, open to Cambodian men and women of all ages, candidates had to pass a basic English test. They came from all walks of life. These students illuminate some of the people behind the costliest United Nations peacekeeping mission ever.

Only a handful of countries are poorer than Cambodia. In a recently published U.N. survey, Cambodia's human development index ranks 0.186 out of a possible 1.000. (The United States ranks 0.976. The two countries ranking closest to Cambodia were Somalia and Afghanistan.)

It was difficult to detect this poverty in the classroom at first. Students walked into class at 7 each morning, often wearing the latest trends in Thai fashion, always neat, carrying themselves in a slow stately gate with straight posture that is characteristic of Cambodians. It was when I asked the students to bring a new notebook so they could keep a journal, then saw a look of discomfort on some faces, that I realized that even the smallest added expense to their budget could pose a financial problem.

These select students were paid in U.S. currency to go to school for ten weeks. Upon successful completion of the program, they were paid an additional salary of $240 to $340 for two weeks of electoral work. To a full time U.N. employee, getting $150 a day for expenses in addition to base pay, the Cambodian salary may seem small. To a Cambodian whose average monthly salary is about $20 to $30, the amount was enough to lure nervous interpreters out of the safer confines of Phnom Penh to one of the 1,430 polling sites among Cambodia's 19 provinces.

The Cambodian interpreters were promised protection at the polling stations by U.N. military observers. They were not able to select which province they would be sent to, despite predicted reports that attacks could occur during the volatile election week. The Cambodians are no strangers to the assault of adversaries. As I learned from my students, they are also brave.

There is a long history of violence in Cambodia. Age-old fighting with the Siamese (Thai) empire and Vietnam has evolved into a modern day economic battle for Cambodia's precious forests and gems. Ninety years of French colonial rule and a brief occupation by the Japanese during World War II gave way to the first Cambodian elections in May 1955, won by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. A short period of relative calm was upset by the Vietnam war spilling across its borders and covert U.S. bombing on its frontiers.

An abuse of power, corruption, political killings and torture were evident in the era of American-backed General Lon Nol, yet a new pinnacle of bloodshed was to follow.

When the Maoist rebel guerrilla soldiers fighting the Lon Nol government came into the capital from the jungle, many Cambodians thought they were being liberated. These guerrilla soldiers, the Khmer Rouge, soon claimed the lives of 1 to 2 million Cambodian civilians in three years (1975-1978) via methods of cruelty on par with the Nazis in global crimes against humanity. There has been no trial yet for the Khmer Rouge.

The yellow schoolhouse is located on a small dirt road, jutting off a boulevard that heads out of the city. One of my female Cambodian students, now in her forties, walked down that same boulevard in 1975, as a child, when the Khmer Rouge evacuated all Phnom Penh residents at gunpoint. She recalled waving goodbye to her school and hoping she would soon be able to return to its classrooms. Three years of forced manual labor in the countryside ensued. Eighteen years later, she is back at this school as a part of the 1993 UNTAC Interpreter's training program.

The students' voices best explain the Khmer Rouge years. In an open essay assignment, a student in my class writes:

"April 1975 Cambodia was liberated, everyone thought they would get peace; But all was changed and all life lived in a prison that had no walls. The city became empty, life looked like a beast and worked so hard; Everyone dared not escape, because of terrible punishments. We lived in small huts and had no food and medicine; tears flow everyday. People were forced to work in the fields by 'Angka,' [high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials] and everything was seperated. Body looked like ghosts, but all tried their best to live."

The Cambodian people were liberated from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese army in 1978. Eleven years of Vietnamese occupation followed. Two years later, the United Nations sent in its first peacekeeping mission.

The separation of families initiated by the Khmer Rouge, aggravated by years of poverty, has caused Cambodians to cling fiercely to what little is theirs. Initially, this posed a unique challenge in the classroom: to get students to work in pairs or groups, to share photocopies, to exchange ideas and information. It was equally surprising to see the communicative changes in our classes at the end of three months, after being brought into contact with 35 teachers from locations across the globe, from Senegal to Switzerland.

The students bear witness to the past twenty years of upheaval in Cambodia. Classes were composed of those who had as many as four to six members of their family killed. Some are orphans. For the first time, curious students did not ask their foreign teacher, "Where do your parents live?" They asked, "Do you have parents?"

The interpreters were enrolled in the program to improve their English. The country has had little exposure to the language. Despite this, the schoolroom was a linguistic melting pot. Though their parents might speak French, many of the younger generation spoke Vietnamese. Several were adept in Thai, having spent 12 to 14 years on the Thai border in repatriation camps. Others were fluent in Polish, Czech and Russian having studied in Cracow, Prague and Moscow during the rule of the Vietnamese Communists.

Their backgrounds are as diverse as their political views. My classes did not know which of the 20 political parties -- if any -- could help Cambodia.

Discussions in class often revolved around their concerns for the future. They were most worried by increasing inflation and by the paralyzing corruption in everyday life: bribes to get jobs, bribes to get children into schools, bribes to receive medical treatment.

In private, some admitted they would sooner support the Khmer Rouge, which they felt had changed over the years, if it meant a change from the Vietnamese-installed government and the staggering corruption.

Others saw opportunity in immorality. One day a group of students turned up at class late. They apologized politely and explained they did not want to pass up the good money available for attending the government's election rallies.

Expression of political opinion in class was common. Revealing who one might vote for was not. On payday at the school, U.N. officers had a difficult time identifying students, since most had different names on their national identification cards and their U.N.-issued voter cards. They had assumed false names because they feared retribution.

The elections proceeded in a surprisingly orderly fashion. The prefabricated polling stations have been packed up. The results are being tabulated. With a sense of relief, my interpreters have returned to Phnom Penh from the provinces.

The desire in this troubled country for peace is great. The outcome of the elections could bring a tenuous stability or an outbreak of civil war. But the precedent of these elections will remain important. One older gentleman on the final day of class remarked, "For the first time, we Cambodian people can help make our future. We don't want the old ways anymore."

Susan Janoski is a free-lance writer who has been living in Southeast Asia.

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