Cambodia, about the size of North Dakota, is populated primarily by the Khmer people. The center of the country is a huge basin, in the middle of which lies a large lake, Tonle Sap. In the rainy season, which begins in April, the lake spreads out and, aided by dikes and canals, provides water for rice fields. Houses are built on stilts and people often use boats for transportation. By December, when the rice is ready to harvest, the water has receded to leave a vast dry plain. Prior to the 1960's, 85 percent of Cambodia's people lived in small family groups spread out over this fertile land, making their living as farmers and fishermen.
A Peaceful Liberation
Unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia peacefully gained its independence from France in 1953. Cambodia's leader, Norodom Sihanouk, thought he could avoid involvement in the war in Vietnam by allowing the Communists to use the southwestern flank of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and establish bases in Cambodia. However, this decision eventually led to the United States' aerial bombing of Cambodia. At the same time a group of Cambodian Communists called the Khmer Rouge began an armed struggle to gain control of Cambodia.
The Reign of the Khmer Rouge
When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge took over the government of Cambodia. They wanted to make Cambodia an entirely agrarian country and drove everyone out of the cities. They killed most of the professional people, artists, and teachers, as well as anyone who opposed them. Many other Cambodians died of starvation, disease, and overwork. Thousands fled through the jungle to refugee camps in Thailand. Many had to stay in these refugee camps for years before they were able to find homes in other countries.
The first group of immigrants to come to Minnesota, around 1975, were primarily well-educated professionals who had been targeted for death by the Khmer Rouge. Most spoke English and were fairly well acquainted with western customs, having worked with Americans in Phnom Penh. Later came farmers or former soldiers of the Cambodian army. They had a more difficult adjustment to the urban areas to which they were relocated. The cultural associations they have formed have helped them adjust to a very different way of life, while encouraging the retention of their traditional values and cultural practices.
Photos of Angkor Complex and Tonle Sap Villagers courtesy of Brian Kuzel from his personal collection.