On the one hand, Cambodians are very traditional and at least on the surface very religious. Marriages are commonly still arranged between the respective parents. At minimum parents reserve the right to veto a marriage with what they consider an unsuitable partner. Tradition among Khmer people calls for the husband to move in with the wife’s parents; with Khmer of Chinese extraction the wife moves in with the husband’s parents. It is, therefore, not surprising so see all those huge villas (of the rich) than can house several families. Even in the countryside, grandparents generally live with their children and married grandchildren.
On the other hand, we know that it is quite customary for rich men to keep a (younger) girl friend on the side. What amazes me, though, is the high incidence with which especially poor people also disregard those traditional values. Generally, it is especially poor people who maintain their beliefs in order to ease the burden of poverty spiritually. Only that way can they keep up a mental balance when observing the differences between their own lives and the lives of more fortunate contemporaries.
I have come to know many examples of poor people that demonstrate an unconscionable and depressing disregard for not only the values of traditional Khmer life but in particular show a despicable disrespect for the lives of wives and children.
A couple of examples: A man married four women and produced twelve children with them. He left or divorced all of them without paying one riel for alimony or child support. After the fourth wive he took up with yet another girl friend who eventually left him when she learned there was nothing to be gained by staying with him. He is a high-ranking officer but belongs to the category whose ‘wives weren’t very good at business’. In other words, he wasn’t able to use his position to generate some degree of wealth. He is now sick and poor. Thanks to his high rank the army takes care of him.
Then there is the case of a policman in his early thirties. He got married and had two children. His wife had become pregnant with their third child. During that pregnancy he met another girl and started having an affair with her. People in Cambodia are still pretty ignorant about birth control so it doesn’t surprise that he got his girlfriend pregnant. This made him leave his family from one day to the next. The wife did not have a job, the children needed to go to school. She couldn’t support herself or pay the daily fees for school. She became dependent on her parents. After the girlfriend had had her baby the husband all of a sudden turned back up at home, promptly impregnating his wife again, only to leave again after a short while. Her husband obviously thought 3 children, one baby, and one on the way was too much for him. In the end, however, he did return to his family but carried on in the usual Cambodian fashion. Husbands simply don’t tell their wives where they are going when they go out at night. He is said to spend a few evenings, sometimes nights at his girlfriend’s house.
In another case, a former soldier, penniless as they usually are, left his wife and four children to live with another, younger woman to produce another four children with her. Needless to say, he didn’t pay child support, let alone alimony to the first wife and her children. The good thing is they are all adults now and can take of themselves. The current wife is on the verge of leaving him for greener pastures, or so she thinks, although no other man is in play here.
Cambodian husbands are notoriously feckle, and although polygamy is outlawed and there is even a law against adultery on the books, it is still a wide-spread practice that Cambodian men keep mistresses on the side. This is not restricted to just the wealthier class; it pervades all levels of society.
The legal system does not help either. Although people can divorce easily, courts usually do not decide on alimony or child support. They restrict their decisions to the distribution of property. Usually, they split any property the couple might have down the middle, sometimes making some allowance for the children in that the wife gets a slightly higher share. Of course, that doesn’t help her in supporting her children. Children are still considered a family’s wealth and the providers for their parents in old age. Consequently, being divorced or just plain deserted, the women have to struggle to bring up their usually multiple children.
A note on divorce decrees: it usually contains an order that the wife cannot remarry or even have relations with a man for 9 months to ensure that she cannot claim a child born in the interim is the former husband’s.
Women are usually a strong partner in a typical Khmer marriage. They usually manage the office in a small family business. They manage the household and the finances, and most property is held in both names. Therefore, it is all the more surprising that they nevertheless end up holding the short end of the stick when the marriage fails or that they have no legal recourse for reining in their wayward husbands, prominent examples to the contrary notwithstanding.
Although Cambodia’s motto is “Nation, Religion, King” and the constitution makes Buddhism the state religion, that doesn’t hinder people from violating the tenets of their religion. Generally, Khmer people are very religious and observe all Buddhist holidays with great enthusiasm. Each home is adorned with a place of worship, but those seem be there more for the wives than the husbands.
Like any religion, Buddhism has several basic tenets or core beliefs. As we see they are broken on a regular basis by common people, that is, people who are not monks or nuns. And even monks are not immune to outside distractions. Those core tenets call for good conduct, virtue, and morality, meditation and mental development, wisdom and enlightenment; as well as the four noble truths, and the five precepts. To go into these would exceed this post.
While there is a big difference between the teachings and the application of those tenets, and many of those differences are manifest in civil laws, the general Western perception of Buddhists is their greater fervor in living their religion. Morality and virtue occupy a prominent position in Buddhism.
However, looking at everyday life now in Cambodia, one cannot but wonder why Khmer society has in reality distanced itself so much from those core beliefs. By nature, we humans are weak and succumb to all kinds of seductions too easily. Cambodia, though not alone with its recent abysmal history (Uganda, Ruanda, Bosnia come to mind) may possibly claim special circumstances for its recent societal evolution. After all, the relatively peaceful development after indedepence in 1953 was disrupted by the unwise policies of the 1960ies of then King Sihanouk, the coup d’etat by the inept Lon Nol, and the ensuing holocaust-like regime of Pol Pot. The Cambodian people went through a mind-shattering experience.
Although people tend to turn to religion in hard times, and most likely this also happened in Cambodia, the following years after Pol Pot saw the rule by atheistic Communists who did not place great, if any at all, emphasis on traditional Buddhist beliefs or values. I was not here – no Westerner was allowed into the country during that period – but judging from reports from the former Soviet bloc, Cambodia probably was no exception in that respect. The period from 1975 to 1993 must have shaped the national character, which may now at least seminally still be felt. Additionally, new-found freedom and better material circumstances may contribute to this ‘live and let live’, or ‘enjoy today as if were your last’ sentiment in Cambodia men.