If yesterday I was in awe of the sights of Cambodia, today, I am in awe of its people. The people we have met here have been gracious, smiling, friendly, and so deservedly proud of their heritage. But the recent history of this country is devastating – they are just emerging from over 25 years of civil strife. As a result, the country is much poorer than many of its neighbors. From what we were told, the per capita income in Cambodia is just $900 per year, as compared to $7,000 per year in neighboring Thailand. Some people are so poor that they cannot afford bicycles to transport their children to schools, which are few and far between here. Yet, I cannot help but admire the people of Cambodia, and that admiration for this country and the people who live here today turned in to a full blown love affair when our driver Mr. Ratha (we arranged for him to take us around the park again today – a decision we were so glad we made) told us his life story today at lunch (for the record, I am a firm believer that good actions will ultimately be repaid in kind, and I think that having the opportunity to hear Mr. Ratha’s story was more than worth the money we paid to buy him lunch today). This story was so amazing that I have to share it with you all, with the caveat since this is reconstructed from our conversation at lunch, I'm not sure about the order of everything although I am sure that all of the things I mention here did in fact happen to him.
Ratha and the boys
Ratha was born southwest of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1973, making him just two years younger than me. He was one of eight children, but three of his brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot came to power. Ratha says he doesn’t remember much of the Pol Pot years (which is a good thing), but obviously those events and the general history of Cambodia greatly influenced his life. He does remember much fighting going on in and around his village while growing up. He told us it was not uncommon for them to have to hide during the night under their home, and there were many times when they had to evacuate the village for a week, two weeks, a month, even two months. Ratha noted it was very difficult for children to receive an education in those times, so he did not start primary school until he was 13 years old.
His father became worried about Ratha (for obvious reasons); apparently, it was not uncommon for teenage boys to rebel against their fathers, who were often conscripted into the government forces, by joining the Khmer Rouge, leading to fathers fighting against their sons. As a result, Ratha’s father arranged to have him enrolled as a novice monk. He spent eight years studying in the monastery, becoming the only one of his siblings to complete high school. Despite the fact that he was in a monastery, he still was not clear of the danger of conscription, as government forces often conscripted novice monks, knowing they had probably come to the monastery to escape this fate. Ratha says he was spared because his father knew someone.
After Ratha decided to leave the monastery (somewhere in the 1990s), he became a political activist, pushing for democracy for Cambodia (and believe me – this wasn’t a scam as he told us this before we told him we were political science professors. What are the odds that two political science professors would randomly draw a former political activist as a tuk-tuk driver? Sometimes the universe works in mysterious ways). He was politically active for close to a decade, to great danger to himself. At one point, he was missing, in government custody, for a week. His family held a funeral for him, knowing that few people escaped from the clutches of government custody. Somehow, he was freed – whether he escaped or the government released him is not clear. He found sanctuary in a Catholic Church, where he stayed for two months, despite the fact that he was a wanted man, with his picture in newspapers and TV. The church arranged for him to go to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he stayed for a month in 1997. Feeling homesick, he decided not to stay, even though he would have been granted asylum, so he returned to Cambodia on his own. He was also an activist, again pushing democracy, in the early 2000s, but as before, many of his fellow activists disappeared or were killed. Seeing little progress from all of his efforts and realizing the great danger to himself, he decided to abandon his activism.
To me, it is very saddening to see someone who was so politically engaged give up, but that it not to say I don’t understand his decision. The writing was on the wall so to speak; if he wanted any hope of a life (not just a good life, but a LIFE), it was a decision he had to make. Furthermore, how long can one go on at great danger with no sign of progress? Even now, Ratha says despite the fact that the country is at peace, he believes that progress towards true democracy has, in fact, been negative.
Now, Ratha has a wife and two sons, ages 6 and 3. He told us it was a deliberate decision to stop at two; his sister, who never completed high school, has six kids, and none of his nieces and nephews have completed high school either. He and his wife, who is a kindergarten teacher despite having only completed junior high herself (such is the shortage of teachers here that they’ll take almost anyone, regardless of their level of education – apparently the pay is so dismal that no one wants the job and those that have taken the job have to resort to corruption to make ends meet, extra money for subjects such as chemistry or physics) want more for their children – definitely high school and maybe even university, if they can afford it. Ratha has also taught himself several languages. Despite conversing with us in fluent English, he is actually a German tour guide. He speaks French and Sanskrit as well, having served as a teacher of the latter language for a period. He is taking some sort of classes (one of which is a political science class, which he noted is very difficult to teach here); we’re not entirely clear whether he is seeking a college degree or not.
Clearly, Ratha is an intelligent and motivated man. Some, in reading his story, might take away the lesson that smarts and hard work will get you ahead. But what it made me think of is the profound privilege I was born into. How lucky I am to have been born in the United States, into an upper middle class family with all of the benefits that entails. Today, listening to Ratha’s story brought tears to my eyes and at the same time a desire to do something more. At the end of the day (probably our last in a tuk tuk), we gave Ratha a 100% tip and our contact information. Small gestures, to be sure, but I also left with the feeling that I am not done with Cambodia nor is it done with me.