When first arriving in a developing country, one can easily react with alarm and even outrage as the corruption, poverty, pollution, overdevelopment, and human rights abuses seem overwhelming. For example, on Tuesday, July 1, my first day back in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh Post reported on the government’s efforts to remove “undesirables”—the homeless, beggars, and even street vendors—from the city’s streets. This development is alarming, in the government’s characterization of a significant demographic as “undesirable” and in its lack of any plan to address the underlying roots of the problem. However, Phnom Penh’s approach is reminiscent of Denver Colorado’s controversial camping ban, which seemed to unfairly target the city’s most disadvantaged. Contextualizing Cambodia’s problems is essential, I believe, before casting any judgment.
This point has been on my mind over the past few days, for at first glance Phnom Penh seems to be a vastly different place than when I first arrived ten years ago. As I have been visiting friends and teachers, talking with researchers, and beginning my own research projects, a constant background has been Cambodia’s fast pace of development, which primarily benefits the political and social elite, leaving the vast majority of the populace—including those “undesirables”—behind.
But, that is far from the complete picture. Along with the skyscrapers, shopping malls, and increased traffic come things like parkways and night markets. Families, groups of friends, and couples leisurely stroll these public spaces. People exercise in the early mornings and late afternoons, and groups of dancers congregate in the parks for aerobic workouts. And, modernization does provide economic benefits. On my first trip to the countryside, I sat next to a woman who works at a KFC in one of the new shopping malls, and said that the job is the best she has ever had.
To me, central Phnom Penh retains its small-town feel despite the expansion and modernization. The riverside walkway and the temples shaded by verdant trees are as picturesque as ever, and the street vendors along the side streets help one feel at home.
I hope that the government changes its stance concerning any “undesirables,” and the city’s consumerism and overdevelopment do not align with my personal ideals. But, I also believe that it is not my place to judge these things. I have benefitted greatly from America’s modern and capitalistic society, and I cannot fault any Cambodian who wants to shop at a mall or live with air conditioning. It remains my biased hope, however, that the old traditions and a sense of the past are retained as Cambodia continues to develop.