I loved being back in Cambodia a couple of weeks ago. I had lived in the country from 1991 to 1993 when I was working as a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Cambodia is an incredible place with spectacular people. The country’s shift from then to now is remarkable in so many ways.
Twenty years ago I felt as if the country was experiencing a form of national post traumatic stress disorder. The genocide colored so many aspects of people’s lives and their interactions with each other. Now, the culture seems to be becoming commercialized. Perhaps this is what happens in desperately poor countries that suddenly have access to wealth. I’m not sure.
To give but one example I was with a group of people in a boat on the Tonle Sap going to visit a floating village. Four small wooden motor boats approached us. Each of them had a small child wrapped in a massive python. Apparently someone had figured out that foreign tourists would pay to take photos of this and the word had spread.
On the one hand, no one can or should wish poverty on anyone else. On the other, something feels very wrong about this type of over-commercialization. Is it possible for societies to allow their poorest members to earn enough money to support themselves, and at the same time maintain standards that protect children and other vulnerable groups from exploitation?
Jamie Metzl is Executive Vice President of the Asia Society and author of The Depths of the Sea.