Cambodia has undergone rapid development in the past two decades but inequality and poverty continue to plague the country. It has embraced free elections, allowed free trade, and opened its borders to tourists and investors but many of its people are unable to benefit from these reforms.
The photo book ‘Transitioning Cambodia’ narrates the modern history of a “country that’s still torn between the burden of its horrific past and the promises the future holds.” It is a collaboration between photographer Nicolas Axelrod and journalist Denise Hruby who witnessed the varying impacts of Cambodia’s rise as a developing nation on ordinary people in various communities across the country.
Below is our e-mail interview with Nicolas and Denise:
Global Voices: What were your objectives in undertaking this project?
Denise Hruby: The objective was to document Cambodia at a time of rapid transition that is fundamentally — and irreversibly — changing its landscapes, politics, and the overall make-up of society. There's no doubt that Cambodia needs to develop on all those levels, but the way some of these changes are happening have left wide gaps between the poor and the rich. Often, development here means that the poor are getting poorer, while the rich continue to increase their wealth.
Nicolas Axelrod: There are few places in the world that have changed as rapidly and dramatically as Cambodia in such a short period of time. Not only physically, looking at infrastructure, but also psychologically, there has been a change in people’s way of thinking be it in regards to politics or family values. For example: the book starts at a time where politics were not openly discussed, this has now changed. These two chapters looking at family and politics describe this change, by giving the reader a look into where the country was, and where it might be going. The other chapters – Land and wealth deal with how the development happened, and the impact it had on both the poor and the rich.
GV: What has been the feedback in Cambodia about this project?
DH: So far there has been a very positive feedback from the Cambodians and others who have talked to us about the book.
The launch was packed with foreigners and Cambodians, and in the media, too, it's gotten great reviews. Most people tell us that they are happy that there's a book that looks at Cambodia as it is — not just the beautiful temples of Angkor or nostalgic photos of children riding an oxcart. Decision-makers have called it a must read for those following Asian affairs.
GV: What is your perspective on Cambodia's development prospects? What should be given priority?
DH: One of the biggest issues in Cambodia is this deeply entrenched system of corruption and nepotism that runs the whole country. Changing this and making the country a fairer place for everyone will take decades, simply because everyone plays along – from the lowest level village chief to top government officials. There's still a huge lack of understanding of corruption, what it is and how harmful it is to society and the economy on a larger scale. Bribes are described as “tea money” and hardly anyone sees anything wrong with that.
The second priority I believe is better education. The government has already allocated more funds to the education ministry, and the new minister is pushing through with major reforms. But here, too, corruption is a major issue. School teachers get paid so little they demand a daily fee from students to attend class, and the poor often don't have the means to pay.
But that's also where I see Cambodia's biggest hope for the future: About half of the population is under the age of 25. It's the youngest population in the region. Investing in their education will be key.