My name is Ron Leonhardt, and I am a History PhD student currently in Cambodia on the Estelle Sigur Language Grant studying Khmer. This is my first blog post, so I thought I would start by providing some information on the contemporary issues that contribute to Cambodia’s status as one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. I will also relate these issues to my research and how these issues impact language programs in Cambodia.
This is now my third summer in Cambodia, and I spend most of my time in the capital, Phnom Penh. My first summer in Cambodia happened to coincide with Cambodia’s elections for seats in the National Assembly and for the next Prime Minister of Cambodia. Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister, has been in power for over twenty-five years. The director of my language program at that time had a physical handicap that prevented her from walking. Since Cambodia does not have handicap-accessible buildings, she had not voted in the previous several elections. However, this election, she received a letter from the government “encouraging” her to vote. Her failure to vote could result in her losing her ability to operate a language school in Cambodia. On the day of elections, another student and myself had to carry her up to the third story of an elementary school where the polling booth was located so she could vote. Voter fraud was also rampant, and in some Cambodian provinces there were more votes than people. Unsurprisingly, Hun Sen was reelected as Prime Minister.
However, social media was used extensively during the 2013 elections—especially among younger generations expressing their support for the opposition candidate, Sam Rainsy. Coincidentally, since the last election, the Cambodian government has begun the process of enacting a series of laws that would severely restrict Cambodian civil society and those critical of the Government’s numerous abuses of power. Any “insult” on social media may soon result in judicial prosecution and any NGO working in Cambodia may soon be forced to approve their activities through the government. Sex-trafficking (especially among girls and boys under the age of fifteen), illegal logging, poor access to safe medical care, drug abuse and drug trafficking (especially heroin, MDMA, and methamphetamines) remain serious problems not often discussed in relation to the problems plaguing Cambodia. These problems have made treatable diseases more deadly and diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C have continued to spread.
My research focuses on the Cold War history of the Khmer Krom, an ethnic minority group living in both Cambodia and the lower portion of Vietnam. Often denied citizenship in both Vietnam and Cambodia, the Khmer Krom living around Phnom Penh often do not receive access to health care and are forced to live outside of Phnom Penh in an area that the government has, essentially, designated for “undesirables” to live. Government abuses against ethnic minorities in Cambodia has been a serious problem for years, which makes researching the history of the Khmer Krom and interviewing Khmer Krom a difficult task at times. Language schools in Cambodia are not allowed to teach or discuss vocabulary or lessons related to ethnic minorities, if the school did, they could lose their license and their school. I have included several articles that go into more detail regarding some of these issues:
Related to sex-trafficking in Cambodia:
Unsafe medical practices/HIV outbreaks:
New NGO Law:
Hun Sen owes money from betting on the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight (John Oliver Clip):
Freedom House Index (Cambodia is purple, meaning “not free”):
In my next blog posting, I will talk more about my language program and what else I’m doing to improve my language skills.
Ron Leonhardt, 2nd Year PhD Student in History
Sigur Center 2015 Khmer Language Fellow,
Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia