Cambodia Rising

Helping Hands Reach Across Borders

2018 / December

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Scott Williams

Norodom Sihanouk, the father of Cambodian independ­ence, famously stated: “Time will in­evit­ably uncover dishonesty and lies; history has no place for them.”

But the chaos of the 1960s, and the tyrannical rule and massacres of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, halted Cambodia’s political and economic development. The country’s civil war would postpone the swing of the economic pendulum for 30 years, until the liberalization and reforms of the 1990s allowed a scarred Cambodian people to march forward once again.


Blooming white frangipani trees line both sides of Russian Federation Boulevard, a major Phnom Penh thoroughfare jammed with automobiles, tuk-tuks, and rickshaws at all hours of the day and night. Behind the frangipani stand rows of office buildings housing international ventures, the lovely and elegant Council of Ministers building, and retail outlets ranging from a Harley-­Davidson dealership to a Combi stroller shop. This is Cambodia’s bustling, prosperous capital.

Once its most fashionable homes, the white buildings in Phnom Penh’s downtown were ravaged by the country’s civil war. Dilapidated and abandoned, they stand in stark contrast to the new communities that have risen up around them. The area is a microcosm of modern Phnom Penh, where prosperity and poverty, progress and hesita­tion, exist side by side.

A tumultuous rebirth

According to the World Bank, as of 2017 Cambodia ranked 109th in the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), and had advanced from “low income” status to “low & middle income” status. However, its per-capita GDP still ranked 143rd in the world, and last in Southeast Asia.

The Khmer Rouge’s 1975‡1979 reign was a national catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions. Pol Pot, the regime’s despotic leader, became fixated on economic self-sufficiency and forcibly re­located Phnom Penh’s citizens to the countryside to work on collective farms, effectively bringing all schooling to a halt. According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, during its four years of rule the regime killed roughly one-quarter of the population, which stood at 7.5‡8.0 million when it took power in 1975.

The country then suffered more than a decade of civil war after the Khmer Rouge were deposed. It wasn’t until the UN-brokered ceasefire agreement of 1991 that peace finally brought a new dawn.

The end of this catastrophe marked the start of Cambodia’s development. When the civil war ended, the European Union, Canada and other nations awarded the country preferential tariff rates to help it attract foreign investment and rebuild.

Since taking office in 1985, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been promoting economic liberalization, construction, and manufacturing industries such as garment-making. He has also pushed the development of tourism. These efforts enabled Cambodia’s economy to grow at the blistering pace of 7.7% per annum from 1995 to 2017, making it the world’s sixth-fastest-growing economy over that period. Interestingly, the country’s first “Manhattan Special Economic Zone” was established by Taiwan’s Med­tecs Inter­national Corporation with the support of the Cambodian government.

Planning a way forward

David ­Kuang-­chung ­Liang, who oversaw Cambodian affairs during his tenure as director-general of the Tai­pei Economic and Cultural Office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, says, “Thinking determines direction; deployment determines results.” He explains that Taiwanese businesses in Cambodia have long observed a strict separation between economics and politics, and focused all of their efforts on their businesses. With American businesses moving their orders from mainland China to Japan and Southeast Asia in response to the recent US‡China trade war, Taiwanese businesses in Vietnam and Cambodia have benefited.

Taiwanese firms were trailblazers in the country in the 1990s, and in 1996 they established the Taiwan Com­mercial Association in Cambodia (TCAC), which now has more than 400 members. According to Taiwan’s Bureau of Foreign Trade, trade between Taiwan and Cambodia was worth US$700 million in 2017.

Wang Mei Hui took over the presidency of TCAC in June 2018, and has spent much of the early part of her tenure visiting members of the group. She has visited nearly 40 of them so far to show her interest in their situ­ation, hear their concerns, provide them with relevant business information, and foster cooperation among them.

The Taiwan Hakka Association Cambodia actively promotes Hakka culture in Cambodia, and has been a long-term donor of desks, chairs, and stationery to ­Hakka villages in Veun Sai District, Ra­ta­nak Kiri Province. “There’s a Chinese school in Veun Sai, and the Hakka students there all have Taiwan’s flag emblazoned on their book bags,” says Peng ­Chung Nien, explaining that Cambodia’s ­Hakka share the same loyalty and attach­ment to their hometowns as Hak­kas elsewhere.

Humanitarian aid

Nations from around the world have not only provided financial aid to help Cambodia recover from the war, but also sent material aid and the help of NGOs. Taiwan has been a part of this effort, with social welfare organizations such as the Formosa Budding Hope Associ­ation (FBHA), the Field Relief Agency of Taiwan, the Cambodia‡Taiwan Education and Employment Program, and the Empowering Lives through Innovative Volunteerism group having worked there for years delivering humanitarian aid in a variety of forms. Many travelers who have visited the country have also helped by choosing to participate in volunteer work.

On one day of our stay, we drive to Kanh­chriech District, Prey Veng Province, more than three hours from Phnom Penh, to see the volunteer medical and dental services that FBHA is providing at an elementary school there.

Dr. Hsu Yu-pi, the dentist who founded FBHA, began participating in volunteer clinics in Cambodia in 2006. To date, FBHA has organized 24 such clinics.

The lines for dental care are particularly long because tooth extractions usually cost around US$30 in Cambodia. The high cost relative to income leaves the country’s poor to endure the pain of a bad tooth, or to treat it using a tradi­tional method. But the latter still requires “patients” to live with a mouthful of bad teeth and endure the kind of pain that makes it hard to eat. The clinic is the villagers’ only realistic opportunity to have their dental problems properly treated. As one person puts it, “If I don’t have it pulled now, I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait.”

Over the course of three days, each of the dentists pulls as many teeth as they would in a month in Taiwan. They use two tables and chairs pushed together as examin­ing stations. A volunteer holds each child still while the dentist removes the bad tooth, moving quickly so the child won’t have time to register the pain until after the tooth is out. Dr. Lu Guan­ting, an oral surgeon with the ­Da­tong Dental Clinic who specializes in removing wisdom teeth, is among those helping at the clinic. He says he has pulled more than 200 teeth over his three days there. “One patient had a horizontally impacted tooth,” says Lu. “Without an X-ray machine or precision instruments, I had to remove it using a traditional method: first breaking the tooth, then extracting the pieces. I got a real sense of achievement from completing the procedure.”

Zhang Li­zhe, a high-school sophomore and volunteer who has been helping as a dental assistant, says that the experience has shown him that Cambodian children are very brave, have an exceptional tolerance for pain, and don’t cry when given injections. He says their bravery brought him nearly to tears. When a dentist finishes pulling a tooth, the children put their hands together and bow before leaving. ­Zhang goes on to say that they act nothing like his 12-year-old brother, who goes to the dentist in Taiwan accompanied by four adults, and still cries and resists getting into the examination chair. ­Zhang adds that the sight of so many Cambodian children with no shoes inspired him to tell his mother that he didn’t need brand-name shoes for himself anymore—any pair would do.

In some respects, the real beneficiaries of the volunteer clinic are the medical staff and volunteers.

Many doctors say that their time at the clinic is almost like a stress-free vacation. Cambodia lacks sufficient medical resources and personnel to meet its needs. As such, the volunteer doctors feel trusted, appreciated and needed by their patients. Though they are only able to spend limited time at the clinic and provide only limited treatments, the experience reminds them of why they went into medicine in the first place. It reinvigorates them, and they are able to take this newfound energy with them when they return to their work in Taiwan.

From their early complaints about tepid water to wash with and uncomfortable beds to sleep in, to experi­encing the energy that comes of doing good deeds, the volunteers have seen changes in themselves and have come to appreciate the advantages they enjoy in Taiwan. When you can find meaning or redemption in hardship, a little bit of trepidation is fine, because the experience itself may well be transformative.

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