Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.John Milton, Paradise Lost
Cambodia’s past is tragic, and the country has struggled to get its mojo back since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, especially in the labour sector. A stroll or two around the capital city of Phnom Penh would make you wonder why most workers are millennials who look like they are either in university or freshly out of it. So where have all the middle-aged folks gone?
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) claimed the lives of almost 2 million people in Cambodia during their brutal regime which lasted from 1975-1979. The Marxist leader’s attempt to take Cambodia back to the middle ages to restore the country’s 'forgotten glory' resulted in one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.
And then you turn to look at the demographics, and find a chilling truth. Demographics (according to Census data) show a sharp dip in fertility rates and a rise in child mortality rates between 1970 and 1975. During the Khmer Rouge regime, families delayed having children, and most of the children born during that period were killed, leaving a huge age and skill gap in the labour force – those who would’ve been aged 35-55 in 2019 and constitute a primary chunk of Cambodia’s workforce were most affected.
The Khmer Rouge wiped out most of Cambodia’s generation-X workforce.
Here is a glimpse of the last of Phnom Penh’s generation-X workforce documented in October 2019:
The last of them are still found going about their normal lives. In Phnom Penh, they are usually found concentrated in the Russian market and Central Market (Phsar Thmei), mostly running shop.
Pol Pot’s ideology was to kill whole families, especially intellectuals, and even the children so that no one could come seeking vengeance.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, while several thousands were executed by the administration, many others died due to starvation, disease and overwork.
But the Khmer Rouge wasn’t the only crippling factor for Cambodia’s workforce. According to studies, most Cambodians earn less than $1 a day. This, coupled with violent protests over the years demanding higher wages, has provoked many workers to cross the border to Thailand in search of better job opportunities.
Central Market (Phsar Thmei)
While Cambodia tries to get back on track despite the numerous setbacks and make its way up the economic ladder, these photos tell the tale of a journey shadowed by loneliness and suffering.