jewelry rebuilds economy in cambodiaCambodian artisans are turning the same brass once used to murder into a symbol of peace and resilience, a stand against the violence that once overtook their country. Artisanry and design have deep roots in Cambodian history. However, the Khmer Rouge destroyed centuries of creative artifacts and left Cambodia’s economy in shambles. Cambodia is now littered with bombshell casings from the Khmer Rouge-led Cambodian genocide, the Vietnam War and a bombing ordered by former U.S. president Richard Nixon. But jewelers are reclaiming their nation through craft, turning these casings into beautiful pieces of jewelry as a stand against the violence that overtook their country. Their jewelry rebuilds the economy in Cambodia and reduces poverty along with it.

What Was the Cambodian Genocide?

April 17, 1975 marks the dark day that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge began destroying the Cambodian people. Pot’s goal was to rebuild Cambodia in the image of Mao’s communist model in China. However, this led to the murder of an estimated two to three million people in the historic Killing Fields. Between the murders and thousands of starvation deaths, 25% of the Cambodian population died in three years.

This loss devastated the country’s creativity culture, leaving a mere 10% of artists alive. The Khmer Rouge also banned all creative art forms that did not politically benefit them. In addition, the regime destroyed all of Cambodia’s cultural traditions. In order to rebuild the country, its people have looked to the arts.

Rajana Association of Cambodia: Jewelry Rebuilds the Economy in Cambodia

Local jewelers collect pieces of mines, bombs and bullets and upcycle them into beautifully cut brass rings, necklaces and bracelets. They also work with a Cambodian organization that trains people how to properly remove old landmines so that the jewelers can use the material. Rajana jewelers pride themselves on preserving Cambodian style and culture by staying away from Western designs. This not only demonstrates the artisans’ pride in their country’s culture but also their attempt to replenish the art destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

The Rajana Association of Cambodia began in 1995 as a project under a UK-based NGO, Cambodia Action, which employed young Cambodian refugees at a camp in Thailand. It became its own independent company in 2003 and has since grown into a prominent and successful organization in Cambodia and worldwide. As such, its jewelry rebuilds the economy in Cambodia while preserving its culture.

By successfully expanding their company, the leaders of Rajana have also transformed the lives of their jeweler partners. With an outlet to work from home, the artisans make a living wage while caring for their families. Rajana also established several shops across the country solely run by Cambodian staff in order to sell the products. This income has helped send children to school, provide food for their families and purchase transportation.

Artisans Help Economies Grow

Artisan work has played a crucial role in opening the economy in post-conflict Cambodia to the global market. This rise in jewelry work has not only helped revive Cambodian tradition but also promoted commerce, trade and employment. Cambodia’s GDP has grown to $27 billion in 2019 from $588 million just before in the genocide in 1974. Jewelry manufacturing has contributed $4.8 million to the country’s GDP and employed over 3,500 people, making it a leading factor in the economy’s sustainable development. What began as a way to revive cultural traditions after the genocide has proven to be a driving component in changing the course of Cambodia’s history: the country’s poverty rate has continued to fall as employment rates rise, and is now at about 13% as of 2014 compared to almost 50% in 2007. Thus, jewelry both rebuilds the economy in Cambodia and reduces the poverty its citizens face.

Beautiful Jewelry Reduces Poverty

Several fair trade shops sell Rajana products online, including Ten Thousand Villages and Oxfam. These shops pay their artisans fair prices for their products, thus helping them establish better lives for themselves and their families. It is incredibly important to support international artisans. This fair trade keeps not only their economies alive but also their culture and history. In all, this jewelry rebuilds the economy in Cambodia through cultural preservation, resilience and creativity.

– Stephanie Russo
Photo: Flickr

Reconciliation in Post-Khmer Rouge CambodiaIn August 2019, Nuon Chea, one of the leaders responsible for the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, passed away at the age of 93. His death resurfaced reports of the atrocities experienced in Cambodia between 1975-79, under the rule of the infamous dictator Pol Pot. Yet, Nuon Chea did not undergo prosecution for his crimes until 2018 – 40 years after he committed them.

Due to its scale and recency, one cannot write off the Khmer Rouge as an atrocity of the past. The pursuit of peace and justice for more than 2 million victims of the Khmer Rouge continues today. Friends of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Cambodia is a group that has continued to push for peace in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia despite the fact that the government, much of the population and the international community that wants to forget.

A Community Frozen in Time

In the Anlong Veng region of Cambodia, which housed regime leaders as late as 1998, many still venerate Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and other mass murderers as national heroes. The regime may have fallen 40 years ago, but families who enforced the regime’s brutality on their fellow Cambodians are still unaware of their wrongful actions. Some citizens simply have misinformation or claim to have supported the regime for the promise of security after decades of poverty. Other families followed strict orders on death threats and see themselves as victims despite committing genocide.

Understanding the perspective of those who support the regime is key to longterm peace. R2P member Pou Sovachana advocates for knowledge of the ex-cadre perspectives to yield reconciliation in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Friends of R2P’s Dr. Bradley Murg, a political scientist and senior research fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), emphasized in an interview with The Borgen Project the need to break Anlong Veng members out of their bubble. For decades, “governments have left them to their own devices, afraid to open that box” of reconciliation, Dr. Murg shared. Most were “isolated and genuinely believe that their side was right.” Scarred from the Khmer Rouge’s inadequate leadership and raised with educational “curriculum centered on hatred, anger and revenge,” ex-cadre members need therapy, not prison.

Helping Cambodia Embrace its History

Besides working with ex-members of the Khmer Rouge, Friends of Responsibility to Protect is working to promote justice among Cambodians. Unable to understand their past, many Cambodians live in denial of their history. The Khmer Rouge history museum in Cambodia’s capital city is visited almost exclusively by tourists and not by Cambodian nationals, Dr. Murg noted.

The genocide directly impacted the nation’s population over the age of 40, many of whom still struggle with untreated PTSD. Parents began to raise their children in the shadow of atrocity without an explanation. Ultimately, continued ignorance is detrimental to Cambodia. Both Dr. Murg and his colleague, Professor Sovachana Pou, who works at the CICP and is a Khmer Rouge survivor himself, agree that work is still necessary to help the Cambodian population heal from the past. This is why R2P promotes education and acknowledgment about the atrocities among the younger generation. Its work includes field trips with students to Anlong Veng and stories of ex-Khmer Rouge perpetrators in local newspapers in an effort to encourage mutual understanding.

Finishing Justice

People must recognize Friends of R2P’s work for reconciliation in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia in the context of delayed criminal justice. Dr. Murg explained how, due to the political dynamics of the U.S. and Cambodia, many of the Khmer Rouge leaders did not receive charges for their crimes. The sentencing of Nuon Chea by a U.N. court in 2018 – 40 years after the crimes – exemplifies the uneven justice delivered to the Khmer Rouge perpetrators. Even the head of the Khmer Rouge regime, Pol Pot, never received a sentence and died of natural causes in his home in 1998.

In an effort to fix its past mistakes, Cambodia established a court in the first part of the 21st century to bring justice to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Pou reminded The Borgen Project that legal justice is only the first step to the real justice that needs to be felt in the hearts of Cambodians. The peace between mainstream Cambodians and ex-Khmer Rouge members, like those living in Anlong Veng, is the next step in the journey to justice. This is why the Anlong Veng Peace Center and Friends of R2P are promoting education, historic preservation and communication between ex-Khmer Rouge members and the families of victims.

While 2019 marks the 40-year anniversary of the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power, reconciliation in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia continues. What is most hopeful, however, is the willingness for reconciliation among Khmer Rouge victims. People, like Sovachana Pou, who narrowly escaped Cambodia and saw the deaths of their family have offered forgiveness for the sake of rebuilding Cambodia. The key is to recognize that there are victims on both sides of the Khmer Rouge. Friends of Responsibility to Protect’s work is beautifully acknowledging the stories of all Cambodians to rebuild social trust.

Olivia Heale
Photo: Flickr

Throughout history, there has been a problem in classifying mass killings as genocides.  The term “genocide” carries a lot of weight because it implies that there was a deliberate extermination of a certain group of people.  Would natural disasters deliberately ignored by the government qualify as genocides?  Can colonization be considered a form of genocide?  Was the North Atlantic Slave Trade genocide?  Since the definition and characteristics of genocide are subjective, this post considers a broad definition of genocide, as in, organized mass murders that are politically, racially, religiously or ethnically fuelled.  The following list is by no means ranking the genocides in any terms, nor is this a comprehensive list of world genocides 

The Nazi Holocaust

Nazi Germany, led by Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s, sought to exterminate the Jewish population.  The Jews were used as a scapegoat for Germany’s economic crisis.  Over the course of WWII, close to 8 million Jewish people were slaughtered by the Nazi regime.  Close to 2/3 of all Jews living in Europe were killed, including 1.1 million children.  Furthermore, some 300,000 members of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe were displaced.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

The slave trade to North America killed many Africans as they were uprooted and shipped across the Atlantic.  Over 12 million Africans were transported to the Americas and sold into slavery from the 16th to the 19th century.  The trans-Atlantic slave trade is considered one of history’s greatest tragedies in terms of scale and duration.

Holodomor (Soviet famine of 1932-1933)

Often called the “Terror-Famine” in Ukraine, this genocide was responsible for the deaths of 2.5 to 7.5 million Ukrainians.  From 1932 to 1933, Stalin withheld aid, restricted migration and confiscated food from Ukrainian peasants.  Holodomor, essentially means “extermination by hunger.”  Scholars believe that Stalin was attempting to quell the Ukrainian nationalism that threatened the USSR’s hold over the country.  Due to shoddy record-keeping and government corruption, the details concerning this genocide are largely unknown.

China’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution

China’s movement towards a utopian communist society from the 1940s to the 1970s failed miserably. Some 40-70 million people died due to starvation as well as the targeted killing of “rightists” and elites by the Red Guard, a communist youth organization that led the Cultural Revolution.  The promotion of a “class struggle” prompted young people to fight against society’s elites, such as professors, landowners and businessmen.

Pol Pot’s Cambodia

From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot’s regime targeted intellectuals, foreigners and elites in an attempt to create an agrarian utopia reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.  Over 2 million people were killed in a period of 4 years.  Any foreign economic or medical aid was suspended, media was censored, outside contact was forbidden and the country’s currency was eliminated.  People were forced to work all day in the fields, but were forbidden from eating the food they produced.  Those who were not targeted by the government often died of starvation or disease.

Stephanie Lamm

Photo: Alan Hart
Union County College,,, UNESCO, The History Place

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime is known for the most extreme case of genocide in modern history.  The ultra-communist regime killed teachers, intellectuals, foreigners, business owners, and almost anyone who did not adhere to the Pol Pot ideology.  Nearly two thirds of Cambodia’s population was slaughtered from 1975 to 1979.

In 1994 the Khmer Rouge party was outlawed.  In 1997, Pol Pot was arrested by one of his own colleagues, Ta Mok.  A year later, Ta Mok was arrested by Cambodian officials for his crimes during the Khmer Rouge years.  Mok, “the Butcher,” was notorious for his cruelty as one of the top regime members. Kaing Guek Eav, known by his nickname Duch, was arrested in 1999.  Duch was a prison chief at S-21 prison, where 17,000 Cambodians died.

The UN recommended an international tribunal and truth commission try the Khmer Rouge leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The trials began in the early 2000s and are ongoing.  Pol Pot died the night the Khmer Rouge agreed to turn him over to an international tribune.  Whether his death was a suicide or due to natural causes remains debated.

Few major regime members were arrested, and many, including Ta Mok, died before reaching trial.  The most recent trial is of “big brother number two” and former president Khieu Samphan.  Both men are aging and ill, leading many to doubt these criminals will ever face justice.  While the judicial system is ‘fair,’ their trials raise questions over whether the punishment fits the crime.

The leaders of the Cambodian genocide have gone largely unpunished.  A combination of international bureaucracy, corrupt Cambodian government, and residual fears of the regime have prevented justice.  Cambodia remains an unstable country, and some fear that continuing the war crimes trials will only stir up political unrest.

– Stephanie Lamm

Sources: Peoples of the World, Reuters, PBS
Photo: World Without Genocide

In May of 2012, the Daily Mail posted an article regarding author Matthew White’s book, “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things” which ranks the worst atrocities in history. The rank lists World War II as number one, the regime of Genghis Khan as number two, Mao Zedong’s regime as number three, British India famines as number four, and the fall of the Ming Dynasty as number five. The Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin ranked as number seven, and the Atlantic slave trade as number ten. (The list of all ten is available on Daily Mail.) On another source, the worst atrocities are ranked based on death tolls marking WWII as number one, the regime of China’s Mao Zedong as number two, Soviet Union’s Stalin regime as number three, WWI as number four, and the Russian Civil War as number five.

For the purpose of objectivity, it is important to note that all atrocities are significant and that these calculations seem mostly based on numerical and statistical measures. The presented list below will rank the top five photos of atrocity based on a combination of measures: timeliness (1945-present), death tolls, and global-scale emotional significance.

1) WWII led to approximately 55 million deaths (including the Holocaust)


(the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki)

2) (1949-1987) During China’s Mao Zedong regime, approximately 40 million lives were lost


(Famine during the Great Leap Forward)

3) (1975-1979) Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot regime caused approximately between 1.7 to 2 million deaths.


4) (1994) Rwanda’s genocide led to approximately 800,000 deaths


5) (1980-1989) The Soviet-Afghani War which led to approximately 1, 500,000 deaths


Leen Abdallah

Sources: The Hemoclysm, Religious Tolerance
Photos: Daily Mail, Google, Google, Google, Google