IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |South East Asia

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The Land of the Sugar Palm Tree

The creation of an independent Social Science Institute in Cambodia, a country which has never experienced a social science academic tradition, and where social structures are based upon political alliances or patronage, didn't happen overnight. However, after three years a flourishing agency does exist. The development of the organization mirrors the development of the country. The aim of this short paper is to describe these developments and to introduce both Cambodia and the research institute to the European reader.

By John Vijghen


'Until you run out of sugar palm trees you are in our land'. It is said with a smile and a warning: 'do not touch our land'. Kampuchea (pronounced kampucha) or the Kingdom of Cambodia is inhabited by smiling people who at various times in their history have turned ruthlessly against invaders and their fellow countrymen. It is known throughout the world for the genocide by Pol Pot who caused the death of a quarter of the population. It is also the country which was brought into the realm of democratic nations by a tremendous effort of the world community: one of the successes of the United Nations. Some called it an experiment in democracy, until the second prime minister took power by force and ousted his rival first prime minister last July. In this country another experiment is still taking place. The creation of an independent Social Science Institute in a country which never had a social science academic tradition, and in which social structures are based upon political alliances or patronage, did not come about without problems, but, three years later a flourishing agency seems to have found its feet.

While the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia prepared the nation for general elections and thousands of foreign electoral officers introduced the concept of democracy to a once fatalistic population, the idea was born of introducing the idea of studying the country's own society. The general elections were a success, the majority of the population voted for a democratic alternative. Immediately after the elections the losers, the former communist party, refused to relinquish power and manipulated the world powers into accepting a 'government of national reconciliation' which kept the former power structure largely intact. Lack of insight into the social system and a limited understanding of the social processes have contributed to this abandonment of a tough stance by the world community. At the time there were no Cambodian researchers to provide such insight and understanding. Some foreign scholars warned about the outcome, but they were not heeded. The study of the Cambodian society had yet to begin.
One year after the general elections, a research group was founded with the aim of studying the society and the processes of development in terms of poverty alleviation and participation in decision making at all levels. Although the assistance of foreign scholars would be needed to introduce proper social research methodologies, the aim was to develop such skills and capacities among nationals. The research group was set up as a Non-Governmental Organization, not associated to any government agency or the national university, the latter being inescapably under the patronage of political figures. The name chosen for the organization 'Cambodian Researchers for Development' symbolizes both the advancement of national capacity and the development of society. A national folk theme animal, the rabbit, as the seeker of truth, was selected for the agency's vignette. Effective from January 1995 the Social Research Institute CRD (acronym for Cambodian Researchers for Development) with the co-operation of the international development community, was formed. The first major studies focused on children and about women, two marginalized groups in Cambodian society.
Cambodia's major social problem is the distribution of resources and the limited freedom to participate in social and political decision making. Owing to the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, more and more children are denied sufficient food and an adequate education. Women constitute more than half of the population, but are not represented in the public realm which is the domain of men. Women guard the household budget, but a significant proportion of men use violence demanding money for gambling, drinking, and visiting prostitutes, causing their women not only physical suffering but also leaving them with the burden of feeding the children. Women may also suffer most from the traumatic events during the terror regime of Pol Pot or the continued guerrilla fighting in remote parts of the country. They lost loved ones and had to feed and protect their children during those terrible times.
CRD has initiated and executed such studies into these problems, some are now running, some are on hold pending further funding. A major problem is that during thirty years virtually no field studies about the Cambodian society and population could be conducted. Cambodia is still a white spot on the social science map. Researchers from CRD aim to fill these white spots to increase knowledge and understanding.
On 5 July 1997 fighting broke out between rival forces of both major political parties. The Pritikar (the Event), as Cambodians call the 'coup which was not a coup d'état' was a turning point on the way to democracy. Tension had been at virtual breaking point between both sides for years and there were few who believed in a peaceful solution. The former communist party took back what it lost during the general elections with unexpected rigour and violence. Democracy received a blow but there are many rays of hope for democracy. For more than two years researchers from CRD have been studying local participation in the affairs of rural communities. Evidence is starting to emerge that the concept of democracy as a basic principle has taken root. The results are still weak and further research is needed, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Cambodian researchers are helping their countrymen to find the way out of the darkness.
Who are these men and women who started from nothing and created an Institute which has completed over twenty studies on topics ranging from Water Use Practices to Village Decision Making, Village Development Committees and Political Rhetoric; and who continued to conduct field work on democracy issues while fighting was still going on? Their names are not important, their nationality is. With the exception of the Dutch founder who at present acts as advisor and is phasing himself out, all are Cambodians who have remained with their countrymen in times of conflict and hunger. This group of researchers, academics and non-formally educated field researchers alike, are the backbone for the kingdom's emerging young research core who wish to study their own society in order to improve its development. They are still vulnerable and need advice and support from more senior (European?) scholars and institutions.
John Vijghen can be reached at Cambodian Researchers for Development, P.O. Box 426, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, e-mail: CRD@forum.org.kh.


Cambodian Researchers For Development
The 'Cambodian Researchers for Development' was established April 1994 by a Dutch anthropologist and two Cambodian colleagues. It became a Non-Governmental Organization in January 1995. Its mandate is to increase local capacity for social research through social studies and training. Since its inception over fifty studies, workgroup sessions and training courses have been completed, resulting in over twenty study reports and several academic papers. Working relationships exist with sections of universities in Uppsala, Gothenburg, Chiang Mai, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Phnom Penh. Currently, one major academic research programme entitled 'Local Participation in Development and Democracy', is sponsored by Sweden. A major training programme is the School for Social Research, sponsored by the Netherlands. Since October 1997, this agency has been under local management with a professional staff of around ten. Income is generated through contract-research, training courses and consultancies. Except for project funding no core funding was ever received and the agency is proud to be independent.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |South East Asia