Cambodia’s Canals

A story this morning about the restoration of Cambodia’s irrigation canals by Thomas Fuller in the New York Times brought back memories of my first experience in Cambodia. It was around canal reconstruction following the genocidal regime of Pol Pot known as the Khmer Rouge.

The canals were destroyed by the secret carpet bombing carried out under the Nixon Administration. When Pol Pot fell to the Vietnamese in 1978, the world learned how extensive was the destruction resulting from the combination of U.S. bombing and Khmer Rouge genocide. The country was reduced to near stone age conditions according to some who first entered after the Vietnamese occupation.

The whole of its modern infrastructure had been dismantled. Electrical grid, paved roadways, gasoline powered vehicles (including deisel-powered water irrigation pumps), the school system, modern businesses. The cities were emptied and residents forced to join rural communes where they were forced to engage in agriculture, whether they knew what they were doing or not.

The goal was to re-create an idealized communitarian agricultural-based society free of the exploitation and sins of industrialized societies. Nearly one-quarter of the people were systematically killed. It was this era that gave us the chilling descriptive phrase “killing field” to describe those places where people suspected of being counter-revolutionary were killed and buried in mass graves.

Anyone could be so indicted for the flimsiest of reasons–being educated, wearing glasses, having been accused of someone (including their own children) of making a statement against the revolution. It was one of the horrific nightmares of modern Asia.

After the regime fell, Church World Service, under the leadership of Dr. Paul McCleary, sought to send veterinarians and hydrologists to Cambodia to help vaccinate the national herd and begin canal reconstruction. The needs were obviously enormous and food production was foremost. Healthy draft animals were essential to assist in cultivating the fields and the irrigation canals had to be repaired to deliver water to rice paddies. It was urgent to rebuild infrastructure to re-establish reliable food production.

But this was not so easily done as might appear. First, it was still controversial, even if the world was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Cambodian people. The U.S. had not resolved its own conflicted feelings about the results of the war in Vietnam and was unable even to consider that the effort there had led to a communist takeover of the the South.  To provide aid to this region was highly inflammatory, and among some it was considered traitorous.

During the war, Cambodia was viewed by the Nixon Administration as a staging area and safe harbor for Viet Cong troops coming into South Vietnam from the North and thus, it was targetted with mercilous bombing by U.S. warplanes, bombing that was kept secret from the U.S. public for several months.

After the war, the U.S. continued a trade embargo against Vietnam prohibiting the transfer of equipment or commercial services directly from the U.S. In this atmosphere many in the U.S. felt any attempt by the church to engage either Vietnam or Cambodia was, to put it mildly, inappropriate. Dr. McCleary, however, was committed to reconciliation between the peoples in the region and in the U.S., and many, including the U.S. government, were open to humanitarian efforts, if not normal relations.

As I recall, the negotiations to get personnel in place were complex and circuitous. First, everything was done legally. The U.S. government provided the necessary licenses. The Vietnamese, who occupied Cambodia and, therefore, were in control of the government also agreed. But each imposed specific conditions, so you can begin to anticipate what a complex knot of relationships would be required to pull this off.

The Polish Christian Council, an ecumenical organization, and the Cuban Christian Council, another ecumenical group, would provide the personnel. Equipment, medicines and seeds would come from Europe and, under certain restrictions, the U.S.

I recall the first of many conversations that led to the agreement. We sat around a table with ambassadors from Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba and Poland in addition to several NGO executives, and probably UN staff, I can’t recall. The questions and explanations circled around the table. English to French to Polish to Spanish and sometimes to Vietnamese. It was laborious and time-consuming. But it was fruitful and months later I was sent to Cambodia to document the work in film.

And the work was well underway. National vaccination programs had made significant headway in protecting the herds and an added benefit was that the cold chain necessary for animal vaccinations was equally suitable for human medicines.

The topologists had trained several survey teams who were conducting a national survey of the topology to provide hydrological information to the engineers. And many canals were already well along in the reconstruction process.

It was a remarkable story in light of historical circumstances and the limits the people faced. There was still no reliable electrical service and the entire grid had to be re-created because the Khmer Rouge had removed the copper wiring.

Stability was uneven, despite the Vietnamese presence. Gunmen attempted to storm our hotel late one night and at least one was killed and as daylight dawned his body lay on the median strip on the street.

While we traveled the country, with Vietnamese and Cambodian escorts, we were to start two hours after sunrise and to be in a hotel two hours before sunset.

Standing in a field overlooking a mass grave I was eaten up with mosquito bites. Despite protective clothing and repellent, they got through. And it was here I first contracted malaria. A few hours later, feverish and mostly out of my head, my colleagues got me to a physician who dosed me with sulfa drugs and got the malaria under control. And we completed our filming.

As I read the story in the Times it reminded me how easy it is to destroy and how difficult it is to build a nation. After winning independence from 100 years of colonial rule by the French, Cambodia endured four years of carpet bombing by the U.S. and eventual annexation into the U.S. war with Vietnam. A decade of national strife led to civil war won by the Khmer Rouge. They ruled for three years before Vietnam invaded and took control. Vietnam remained for ten years. (See a helpful timeline here.)

The children playing in the irrigation canals probably have little if any awareness of what it has taken to give them a swimming hole.

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