Upon gaining full independence in 1953 from France, the Kingdom of Cambodia was caught in the common struggle between communist and pro-democracy parties that plagued the world during the Cold War. By 1975, the communist party captured Phnom Penh and violently began to create their vision of an agricultural utopia. The communist party, also known as Khmer Rouge and led by Pol Pot, forced thousands of people from their homes and to work in labor camps. Additionally, in an effort to censor any and all opposition, individuals with religious, government, or intellectual backgrounds were murdered. It is estimated that 1.7 million people died from torture, execution, overwork and starvation during this time, tainting the sites where these mass-murders took place as “killing fields.”
In 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and held power for over a decade. While the Khmer Rouge went into hiding in the countryside, there were still incidents of violence that led to a bloody civil war. It was not until 1989 that Vietnamese troops left the country and the UN brokered the largest peace agreement mission of its time in 1991. All of these conflicts, in addition to U.S. air and artillery strikes during the Vietnam War, resulted in severe landmine and UXO contamination across the country.
Cambodia is greatly influenced by its history from both foreign and in-state actors. The Cambodian legal system is a blend of French-influenced codes reflecting its time as a French, Indochina colony. The system of government is a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy where the King is merely a symbolic figurehead and only has a ceremonial role. Khmer is the official language in Cambodia, but French and English are widely spoken in many cities.
As a result of the decades of communist rule, 70% of the workforce is employed in subsistence farming. Between 2004 and 2007, Cambodia achieved an impressive 10% growth rate. However, the growth occured mostly in the big cities, exposing the country’s growing income disparity problem. UNDP figures state that one third of the population lives on less than $1 a day and the poorest 10% account for less than three percent of total income. Foreign aid to Cambodia accounts for at least 30% of its spending.
Millions of unexploded munitions litter the countryside, where the prevalence of government corruption and lack of infrastructure interfere with the future development in Cambodia. According to an estimate by the UN, between four and six million landmines were laid in the region. However, since records were never kept, no one knows how many were actually laid. MAG's work is important in aiding Cambodia in its ongoing mission to provide a safe and stable environment for communities still suffering from the aftermath of the Cold War.