The Cambodian elections are nine months away. People are on edge. This country knows the power of elections. According to Michael Sullivan in his book, Cambodia Votes,
“Cambodian elections [are] tainted by violence, intimidation, repression, exclusion, discrimination and fraud…”
The country calls itself a representative democracy. Whether or not it is, one can draw his or her own conclusion. Hun Sen, has been Prime Minister for 32 years. As an election year looms, the former Khmer Rouge soldier is not about to give up power.
According to Joel Brinkley, in his book Cambodia’s Curse, Hun Sen is “undeniably smart…ruthless…[and] cunning.” His friends call him “clever, wily, and smart. His enemies, a far larger group, call him cunning, ruthless, and diabolical.” Brinkley says he is also “troubled” and “suffers panic attacks” a symptom of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Hun Sen is “constantly in fear of losing control.”
Brinkley shares one disturbing example of Hun Sen’s quest to retain power. It happened less than twenty-years ago. While never proved to be a direct order by Hun Sen, an opponent, Thong Sophal, was found dead in one of the provinces. “A month before the vote, his head and face were smashed beyond recognition; his eyes were gouged out, his ears cut away, his fingers chopped off. His legs, from his upper thigh to his feet, were stripped of all flesh and muscle so that only skeletal limbs remained. The local police called his death a suicide.” This is politics in Cambodia.
All of the elections held from 1993 to 2013, have contained extreme violence and death. Already, intimidation can be seen on the streets in anticipation of next year’s election. Yesterday and today we passed the Prime Minister’s bodyguard standing in a formidable line along the street, holding AK-47’s. They are on display to quell any protests from the opposition party whose leader was recently arrested. Remembering I am not in the United States, and not knowing if there is freedom to do so, I snapped a few discreet photos.
Setting aside their crimes for a moment, and considering only the human aspect of the story, this is the place and setting in which our country has banished over 600 young Khmer/Americans. The number is growing. Rumor has it, one-hundred more have been detained and are in queue for deportation.
All of the deportees came to the United States as refugees in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. They were children, some babies. Never once did they step foot into this country. They arrive in Cambodia lost, with no money, unable to speak the Khmer language fluently, let alone read or write the difficult words. Because of their tattoos and larger skeletal frames (due to their American diet) the deportees are looked upon as freaks and stooges by the locals.
The reasons are described in another post, but nearly all the deportees’ parents suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). According to Brinkley, these refugee parents, living largely in Massachusetts and California are deeply troubled and dysfunctional. He goes on to cite numerous studies showing they can’t hold jobs. In Massachusetts, 90 percent of the PTSD patients were unemployed. The disorder is passed down to their children.
These are the men we are helping in Cambodia. They, like their parents, are troubled and dysfunctional. Many cannot hold jobs. Some have committed suicide and several have attempted or threatened to do so. Just this week, two deportees signaled they might be gone in the morning. In the two short weeks I have been here my staff has received numerous texts from men crying out for help:
“If I’m gone tomorrow then you knoe (sic).”
“A lot of brothers don’t know my struggle”
“I keep so much inside it kills me bro slowly.”
“Over the past 6 years I’m dead…”
“I’m going through financial problems with my wife and now she wants a devorce (sic). What should I do?”
“I’m stressed out and just wanna kill myself. My family in the states dont (sic) help.. no body bro to turn to.”
These men are troubled unlike any combined group in the United States. It is non-stop work while I am here and it will continue when I am gone. Our Hope Now staff is doing everything they can to pull up dejected souls from the pit.
The country is a hard place to live. Nothing works properly. Everything is difficult. Employees in stores, restaurants, and hotels have zero customer service training. No one understands the concept of doing a good job and getting rewarded for it. That’s because there are no rewards here. No one of lower status moves up. It is a country of rich and poor and never the two shall meet. Everyone is resigned to mediocrity. There are no heroes. There is no drive to do better or to strive for greatness. If a food order comes out wrong, it is never the server’s fault. The customer is always to blame and is always wrong.
With few exceptions, the church in Cambodia is weak and pathetic. In one church I visited, in a small village, the pastor was the town drunk. It isn’t a secret. As he shook my hand the alcohol fumes wafted from his breath and pores. And like a happy drunk, he did not want to let go of my hand. No one has the courage to confront him. He isn’t preaching anymore, but he is allowed to sing in the small choir. The people throughout the country have a saying, Aut et tey, meaning, it’s all okay. We might say “It’s all good.” But it’s not okay or good. Passive indifference has infiltrated the church.
Good Bible teaching churches are difficult to find. The deportees cannot understand the services spoken in the Khmer language. Religious jargon is used in church. If sermons are translated into English, the translation is poor, words are mispronounced, often do not make sense, and the message is devoid of the Holy Spirit. In English-speaking churches, where expats attend, deportees seem out-of-place and do not fit in. Many of the large churches are not grounded solidly in the Word of God and preach a feel good message which leaves one empty.
People are not meeting Jesus. Several times in our travels we shared the good news from the Gospel of John. Time and time again the response was, “I have never heard of Jesus” or, “No one has told me this.” The locals are open to the gospel, but no one is telling them.
Christian missions groups hand out a lot of goodies to the poor. It is like there is competition to see who can be the most beneficent, but the gospel is not being proclaimed. The receiving Cambodians look at the gifts as something given by another Patron. This patronage mentality begins at the very top, in government. Joel Brinkley writes, “The national tradition of dependency [has] continued for centuries.” It isn’t entitlement, per se. No one believes they are entitled. No one demands anything. It is purely passive dependency.
This is Cambodia. This is where Hope Now has two outposts. One in the captial city, Phnom Penh and the other in the smaller rural city of Battambang. We are praying about expanding further to the resort town of Siem Reap where the great temples of Angkor Wat are located. Many deportees live in that tourist city. Our goal is to provide a caring relationships and find jobs; to lift deportees from despair to a life of hope. The road is long.
Will you keep supporting and praying for the Hope Now Cambodia ministry? A donate button is at the top of this page, or you can click here. There is a Cambodia box to designate for this work. It doesn’t take a lot of money, but it takes money. There is no government support, no welfare, no food stamps. It is every man for himself.
Today we bought a $24 phone for a young man. Without a phone it is impossible to stay in touch with our staff or get a job. We helped a young man get stitches in his hand from a knife fight with this wife. We bought food for two young men who had nothing to eat. We have handed out Bibles we purchased so the men can read the Word of God. Staff need gasoline to drive their motos from one crisis to another. One guy owed a shopkeeper money for five eggs he borrowed because he was hungry; we paid for the eggs and bought him noodles and rice to last a week. Another couldn’t pay a Tuk-tuk driver and a fight ensued; we paid the fare. A young man was in a moto accident and got his front teeth knocked out; we helped him with dental bills. A baby is sick, a family member dies, a motorcycle breaks down, food runs out, power goes out, mold and mildew emanate from walls and need cleaning, on and on and on it goes…
We do not know what the elections of 2018 will hold. Maybe no change in government is best. The leaders care little for the people, nothing trickles down. Those in power are only out for themselves. Yet, there is freedom here. There is freedom to bring Bibles into the country, freedom to have a Bible study, to form a church, freedom to tell someone the good news. It could all change with a power shift.
Although the Cambodian Constitution is pluralistic, there are many Buddhists in the bicameral Parliament (Made up of the Senate and National Assembly). Perhaps there are many who would like their Constitution to change? Whatever the outcome, for now, our staff will continue to do their work by the grace of God.
In two days I will head for home. I love this work and I am drawn to keep working here, but I miss my wife and my family. Lord willing I will return next year to continue lifting up the staff and giving them the encouragement and support they need.