Change : Sustainable Change in Cambodia

Trapeang Prasat Grass roof SchoolEarly in March 2000, Ingrid, Victoria (then 10 years old) and I journeyed with Save the Children to Anlong Veng and Trapeang Prasat, which until 1998 were both Khmer Rouge controlled districts.

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge who oversaw the Cambodian genocide in 1975-1979 had maintained control of part of Cambodia until 1998, when he died. Whilst the United Nations had organized elections in 1992-1993 (via UNTAC), the country remained divided. it was only therefore in 1999 that national reconciliation started to happen. For some background on what happened in Cambodia in the Khmer Rouge era, click here. 

The picture shows a school built by parents and the kids themselves, which had mixed grades and informally trained teachers.

As we entered Trapeang, we were welcomed at the District Office, where we stayed overnight - a new building with little furniture, open to the environment (and the bugs!). The District Governor (Cheat Chum) greeted us. He was the previous Khmer Rouge commander.  Save the Children had helped by building a school in the centre of the community, which was one of several in which our family got involved subsequently.

Walking around the village, we learnt that Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families had largely been “nomadic” for security reasons. So the possibility of setting up a real home and small farm was a true joy.  We talked with many of the locals, and couldn’t help noticing that the children, whilst well nourished, had a variety of ailments.  The small (and recently built) clinic tried to help, but most illnesses were out of reach for local treatment.


For the full story of our 2000 trip, the first we made to the Reconciliation areas, see this link.

Education was sporadic. In 1999, primary school enrolment was 38%, and only 51% in 2000. During Khmer Rouge times, teachers had no training, and the kids (we learnt) were taught skills such as planting land mines. The picture above shows a typical "kids and parents" built school.

Keo Sarath (of Save the Children) stressed that the development job had to respect this learning, and add new skills, rather than say what the children knew was wrong. It was an important lesson in how to make change sustainable. And whilst new school buildings were needed, a training and development infrastructure was essential, for the children, the teachers, the parents and the Communities.

As an aside, none of the regular soldiers claimed to know the name Pol Pot. Cheat Chum said he had never met Ta Mok, although he did see him drive past a couple of times. Instructions came via a system of radios.

Ta Mok likely directed many of the massive purges that characterised the rule of the Khmer Rouge, earning him the nickname Butcher. He remained a powerful figure from their defeat by Vietnam in 1979 through to the eventual assimilation of the “Reconciliation Areas” in 1998/1999. Whilst he was eventually arrested, Ta Mok died in prison in 2006 before being brought to justice.

Dinner was in Trapeang’s only restaurant – a venture just then opened by a businessman from Siem Reap. Cambodian soups are wonderful, and we knew full well that the hospitality was special, and expensive to the District. As we got to talk to Cheat Chum, and to some extent get to know him, it seemed clear that his heart was into providing for his people.  At one time he commanded about 1,000 soldiers, yet today he was riding around on a moped, and is obviously well regarded by the population. Victoria made the best observation – at breakfast the second day he was told by a young waitress in no uncertain terms to wait for the guests before he could have his morning rice …. not something you’d expect if fear was in the air.

Trapeang Prasat New School

In June 2001 we returned to Trapeang Prasat to meet Cheat Chum, who was waiting for us at one of the construction sites, to be sure we could navigate the road works. This time, though, an army escort was not needed! As we then drove into Trapeang, we were struck by the changes. The health clinic was now in full swing, and student grade 1 & 2 attendance in the central area was estimated (by Save the Children) at around 65%, up from 51% the previous year.

The picture here shows the 5 room concrete school and other facilities which replaced the grass-roofed hut above. Details of this trip are here.

We also visited O Some, a minority village that had only the most basic of school facilities and relatively poor attendance due to the geographic spread of the families. Some children would have needed to walk 10 kms to school and back each day – and at a certain age were the required to drop out of school and work on the family farms.

In discussion with Sarath we agreed that satellite mini-schools were one answer – to take the schools to the children rather than focus all on one big facility. That paid real dividends over the years.

In 2002, we again visited, this time with Im Sethy, the Cambodian Minister of Education. We discovered that the Trapeang Prasat Commune had achieved a terrific 85% primary school attendance, getting close to national targets. And O Some’s  “mini school” system was working well with similar attendance.

At the end of 2002 a full report was prepared on the results of the program to date, which led to very significant funding from the Japanese Social Development fund (JSDF) to extend the program across two full Provinces of Cambodia. It is important to note that the project was not just school building - but teacher training, libraries and life-skills activities were organized in an integrated fashion. The 2002 report is here.

Cheat Chum So, bringing this all up to date, to our latest visit in April, 2011. School enrolment in these areas is now in the high 90’s with very little drop out. We arrived (unannounced this time) in Trapeang Prasat, to discover that a big party was being thrown for Khmer New Year. Cheat Chum heard we were in town, and we got invited to the event.

It was very touching, as speeches got made and drinks were shared. Cheat Chum is now the Provincial Governor, and is proud of the now thriving High School and the properly trained teachers.

The point of this little story? This is certainly not any kind of “apologist note” on the Khmer Rouge – one of the most awful regimes in history. And we certainly do not underestimate the troubles and corruption in Cambodia today at all levels of society. Nor do we think it is easy for NGO’s.

But for 11 years now we have been lucky to observe several Cambodian communities, including O Some and Trapeang Prasat, growing and becoming increasingly self-sustaining.

We now know many of the people, who open up about their challenges and who are proud of their success.

And, whilst we cannot begin to understand everything going on there, we can see that leadership is involved at many levels to make the education efforts sustainable.

  • Leadership from people like Sarath, of Save the Children, who has worked so hard to make change happen for so many years. Importantly Save’s focus has always been on community-driven change. Building schools is not enough. The teacher training programs, libraries and community assistance has been fundamental.
  • Leadership from all members of the community – officials, parents and grandparents - who recognise their own lack of education during the Khmer Rouge years, and truly want better lives for their children. They all see education as the key.
  • Leadership from the teachers, who have gone beyond self-training to being properly taught at Siem Reap’s Save-sponsored Teacher Training College. And Degree level teachers have also started to appear.
  • Leadership from the Provincial Education Office (PEO), especially from Ung Sereidy, who started as the local Primary School head and now is responsible for all education in the Province. This is a hugely influential role. Throughout, there has been a real partnership between the PEO, Save the Children and the Communities, which has been essential to success.
  • And leadership from Cheat Chum, who despite the history and difficulties, is helping the Trapeang Prasat community in so many ways and is clearly respected.

There is still so much to do.

Whilst challenging and sometimes frustrating, sustainable change is always possible with the right mind-set and the right partnerships.

copyright Mick & Ingrid Yates, 2011

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