The Cambodian People's Party dominates the landscape and the political system. Julianna Wright photos.
Julianna Wright is a junior at Noble and Greenough School.
This spring, along with other students from Noble and Greenough School, I embarked on a cycling trip through Vietnam and Cambodia. Once we mounted our bikes, and went deep into the Cambodian countryside, I realized the only way to understand a life so distinct from my own is to experience it.
Riding through the streets of Cambodia, I was often startled by the menacing, faceless scarecrows that guard many properties not from birds, but from spirits. Although it has been 30 years, the country is still haunted by the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Signs for different political parties pepper the roads, chief among them the two main parties: the Cambodian People’s Party and the Sam Rainsy Party. Cambodia is a democracy, but the unchecked power of the Cambodian People’s Party approaches authoritarianism.
The government uses the Khmer Rouge genocide as a tool, justifying their inefficiencies by comparing the little progress to the atrocities of the past. They argue that electing any other party is akin to choosing another Pol Pot, the tyrant who oversaw the genocide.
Signs supporting the People's Party are forcibly planted on villagers' property. Still, the Sam Rainsy Party enjoys wide public support, despite its dearth of seats in parliament.
We met with Mu Sochua, one of the leaders of the Sam Rainsy Party, who was recently featured among Newsweek’s 100 most influential women in the world for her Cambodian women’s rights campaign.
The prime minister of Cambodia was sued for defamation by Sochua after he called her a prostitute in a speech. She lost, but has not backed down.
She told us that we should not let fear stop us from sharing and defending our beliefs because to do otherwise amounted to disowning our beliefs entirely. The movement, she said, is so much more than one person, but one person can do so much for the movement.
The overwhelming poverty we encountered was shocking. The poor are everywhere, their hands always outstretched. When we stopped at a bay of the Mekong River, a worn and wrinkled woman cradling a grimy infant approached to ask for money.
Although our group leaders had warned us against giving money to beggars, I felt compelled to give her something, but I only had the clothes on my back and the camera in my palm.
I told her, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything.” But still she pressed me, shaking her hands and patting my shoulder. At first I thought she didn’t understand, but no amount of hand gestures would sway her.
Finally, I realized what she saw. I had everything: a camera, clean clothes, and a house. And all she had was the child in her arms.
During a visit to a Buddhist monastery, a teenager ran across the compound for a chance to talk with the visiting Americans. He kept repeating, “I want to come to America.” He was eager to practice and improve his English with the help of native speakers because he couldn’t afford to learn English in a school.
For him, the American dream still lives. America is a country of possibility and freedom, of actualized democracy and equality.
Sometimes, when I lose faith in our America—of the divided Democrats and Republicans, the corrupt CEOs, and housing crises—I think of the Cambodians’ vision of America and their faith in it.
It gives me hope that we can be that America.
Morgan Yucel, a senior at Noble and Greenough, contributed to this piece.
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