Thursday, March 6, 2008

Post-Civil War Cambodian Morals and the Story of One Such Cambodia Family

Over time I have met so many Cambodian people both inside and outside Cambodia. In the last almost 20 years I have not only found friends there, in fact my best friend too, but also at one point a beautiful, good wife. I have also done business there extensively. Naturally, you meet not only nice and friendly people, but also the sometimes outright nasty kind that wants to relieve you of all the money you supposedly have. But for the most part I found Cambodian people hospitable, friendly, occasionally a little inscrutable, but on the whole they will help you wherever they can.

But one thing that has struck me as very odd is the family life many of them lead, given the understanding that family values are sacrosanct in Asian societies. I am talking about middle-aged and older people, say from 40 to 70 years of age. I am not quite sure which way the young generation of up to 30 is going in that respect. According to tradition Khmer supposedly hold the institution of marriage very dear. The wife is not only in charge of the children and hearth but also of the finances. The traditional lifestyle seems to have changed, though. Some of the more modern appearances have been described in an essay written by Keo Mony of the Harbor View University in Washington State. (

Many men I have met kept mistresses on the side, had extramarital affairs, even had children with their lovers. They were sort of living in a polygamous state. Mind you, this was not only limited to more affluent men, or older men who sought the companionship of a younger woman, but it was pretty common across the board. Men who couldn’t afford a mistress or steady girl friend seem to frequent prostitutes. Prostitution is legal and because of poverty rampant. All those prostitutes could not make a living from tourists alone. After all, not every tourist comes to Cambodia for cheap sex.

But this way of living seems to be a time-honored tradition going back at least to the time of independence of the country. Certainly, it was common during Sihanouk’s time, as many older men told me.

The current government, ostensibly at the urging of the prime minister’s wife, went even so far as to outlaw philandering and ban certain songs alluding to adultery. They have embarked on a clean morals campaign. As this is Cambodia, there is an ironic twist to this whole story, as the prime minister is known to have had a mistress of his own, to whom he wrote love poems and seemed to have fallen for completely. That poor girl, who was a quite famous actress and singer in Cambodia, however, met with an untimely death when unknown assailants who haven’t been found to this day gunned her down. Needless to say that rumors started flying implicating people in high places, and many Cambodians weren’t surprised that this case turned cold after a while.

In about 10 middle to upper-middle class families in Cambodia I know personally there is not one husband who hasn’t gone through at least two or three wives, all of them with 2 or more children. Sometimes, they don’t even bother to support their own children but leave the wives to fend for themselves after they have gone on to the next, mostly younger new wife.

This seems to have carried over to overseas Khmer as well, at least to the ones that fled Cambodia in or around 1980, which would make them around 65 to 70 now.

I know one such family in the U. S. The husband was politically active in the anti-Communist anti-Vietnam coalition after Vietnam invaded Cambodia; another ironic twist here, since that coalition included the Khmer Rouge as well. He feared incarceration and fled with his wife and 3 sons to Thailand where he ended up spending 4 years in a refugee camp. He was then allowed to live in the U. S. under the UNHCR relocation program.

When they arrived in the U. S. he told his sons, the oldest of whom was just 15 then, ‘Now I have given you freedom, the rest you must do yourselves.’

As it happens he also had a second wife with whom he had already had 2 children in Cambodia at the time of his flight. He managed to get them out shortly after the 1993 election and proceeded to have two more daughters with her.

Once this part of his family was in the U. S. he left his first wife to go and live with the second. It appears they were all common law marriages without any official documentation, so no messy divorces were gone through. The wives being rather na├»ve wouldn’t have known how to go about it anyway. Both wives cannot speak English even after 25 years of living there.

But even though he went to live with his second wife he still sired another son with his first wife in the U. S. Sometimes, one cannot but wonder what these people are thinking.

Then in 1996 he went back to Cambodia for a visit and apparently met a nice young attractive woman, whom he promptly impregnated and altogether had 2 children over the next 3 years. He never returned to the U. S.

Normally, there wouldn’t have been any love lost between the two wives in the U. S. but they sort of built a bond springing from their common plight and became friends, helping each other out as best as they could.

Eventually, the husband, a heavy smoker, died in his native country, leaving behind 10 children, most of whom he had not supported for most of their lives. The first wife to this day maintains that the third wife in Cambodia poisoned him, which is generally not unheard of throughout the world in such relationships. But here this can only be called bad-mouthing a hated rival.

It turns out, though, that at least 7 of his children managed to build good lives for themselves, finding employment in various positions from warehouse manager for a huge multi-national to postal clerk with the U. S. postal service – normal middle class positions. All of them own their own houses. Since he died more or less penniless his children in Cambodia live more or less in poverty. One son in U. S. apparently got in with the wrong crowd and got involved in drugs. After several minor incidents and arrests he finally got caught one time too many and the severity of the three-strike laws in the U. S. sent him to prison for 9 years, which he is serving right now. As in many of those sad cases this young man is leaving 4 little children of his own without a father, not that he would have been an ideal role model. When he gets out he will be 34, if he serves the full time.

All the sons in the U. S. are still with their wives. Is this because of the strict divorce laws in the U. S. protecting women and children, or is it because of their own free will? One of them once said only half-jokingly, ‘Sometimes I would sure like to try out something new, but my wife won’t let me.’

Well, from all appearances, back in Cambodia men don’t seem to have any compunction about trying out something new. But then, they don’t have to fear court orders of alimony, child support, visitation rights, etc. As a matter of routine, wives hardly every get any alimony and no child support. They are lucky if the property is divided equitably.

It seems like women’s rights have a long way to go in Cambodia, and Cambodian men seem to need a drastic change in their attitude towards women. But who are Westerners to judge?

Note: This is a description of personal impressions and does not imply, intend to convey, or judge attitudes, otherwise regarded as immoral or lax, or define them as a trait in Khmer people.

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