Cambodia, formerly Kampuchea, emerged from the intense suffering of the 1970s with a shattered economy and a vulnerable church. From the 1990s Christians brought the good news of the gospel together with aid and development work and today the Cambodian Church is gradually growing and maturing.
[Statistics: CIA World Factbook]
Cambodia’s population was reduced by between two and three million in the 1975-79 holocaust and accompanying wars, famines and flight of refuges.
[Statistics: Operation World]
Buddhism has been the national religion since the 15th century. The Khmer Rouge sought to eradicate all religion; 90 per cent of Christians and most Buddhist monks perished. Since 1979 there has been increasing tolerance. Christians have been allowed to worship openly since 1990.
The official national language is Khmer, or Cambodian, which has been influenced by ancient Indian languages. French was, formerly an important second language, but English is now in great demand. Only 35 per cent of the population is fully literate.
Cambodia is on the Mekong River in south-west Indochina, covering a total area of 181,040 square kilometres. It is an extremely fertile, alluvial plain. Logging has reduced the rainforests which once covered much of the country.
Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate. Average temperatures are 22-35°C. A rainy season extends from May to November.
From the seventh to 15th centuries, the Angkor priest-kings built up the country, built great temples and controlled much of South-East Asia. Cambodians today are nostalgic for this golden age when they were an independent and powerful people.
There followed 500 years of regional and global conflicts with Thai, Vietnamese, French, Japanese and US invasions or occupations, before the Vietnam War spilled over to Cambodia in 1970-75. This opened the way for the extreme Marxist Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. The Khmer Rouge tried to isolate Cambodia from all foreign influence. In bloody raids on neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, they also tried to restore it to the glory and size of the Angkor Period.
The Vietnamese army ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, but civil war between four contending armies raged with superpower support until 1991. UN–supervised elections in 1993 were held despite opposition by the Khmer Rouge.
Since the election of July 1998, a form of democratic government has been established, though its work is hampered by corruption, civil service over-manning, low wages and lawlessness. Millions of land mines remain, killing and maiming every day.
In 2004, King Sihamoni succeeded his father, King Sihanouk.
Since 2004, garments, construction, agriculture, and tourism have driven Cambodia’s growth. GDP climbed more than 6% per year between 2010 and 2012. The garment industry currently employs more about 400,000 people and accounts for about 70% of Cambodia’s total exports. In 2005, exploitable oil deposits were found beneath Cambodia’s territorial waters, representing a potential revenue stream for the government, if commercial extraction becomes feasible. Mining also is attracting some investor interest and the Government has touted opportunities for mining bauxite, gold, iron and gems.
The tourism industry has continued to grow rapidly with foreign arrivals exceeding 2 million per year since 2007 and reaching over 3 million visitors in 2012. Cambodia, nevertheless, remains one of the poorest countries in Asia andlong-term economic development remains a daunting challenge, inhibited by endemic corruption, limited educational opportunities, high income inequality, and poor job prospects.
Approximately 4 million people live on less than $1.25 per day, and 37% of Cambodian children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. More than 50% of the population is less than 25 years old. The population lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the impoverished countryside, which also lacks basic infrastructure. The Cambodian Government is working with bilateral and multilateral donors, including the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and IMF, to address the country’s many pressing needs; more than 50% of the Government budget comes from donor assistance.
The major economic challenge for Cambodia over the next decade will be fashioning an economic environment in which the private sector can create enough jobs to handle Cambodia’s demographic imbalance.
[CIA World Factbook]
The gospel came late to Cambodia. The first Protestant missionary arrived in 1923, translated the New Testament in 1933 and published the whole Bible in 1953. Its message was not welcome and few believed or obeyed it.
In 1965 the Government’s anti-American crusade forced foreign missionaries to withdraw. After 40 years of work they left the Khmer Evangelical Church with less than one thousand members.
In 1970, with the rise of pro-American regime, and the return of missionaries, there was freedom and growth for the Church. Many turned to God. There were large evangelistic crusades and Christians laboured with a sense of urgency as the Khmer Rouge advanced. When war broke out there were three congregations in Phnom Penh. By 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh this had increased to 30.
In response to urgent requests, OMF sent five members to Phnom Penh in 1974 to work alongside the Church. But a year later all missionaries were forced to make a ‘reluctant exodus’, leaving a Church of around 10,000 members. The persecution was savage; 90 per cent of Christians and all Christian leaders were martyred or fled the country.
From 1975, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled to Thailand, where they were housed in refugee camps. OMF workers previously expelled from the country went to the camps with the message of hope, and over the following years several thousand more Cambodians were baptised.
Despite Pol Pot’s attempt to crush the Church and the pressures on it during the next decades, the small remnant has grown from a few hundred Christians to approximately 250,000 today. There are now around 750 churches.
By 1991 OMF and other missions once again had members resident in Cambodia. In 1994 the Ministry of Cults and Religions gave permission for OMF to work in Cambodia as a religious and humanitarian organisation. Since that time we have worked in a wide range of areas from church planting, education and health to communicty development and social work. The OMF team now numbers around 80 and there are many more opportunities to serve the Cambodian Church and society.
As the Cambodian Church grows and matures, an increasing number of our team are working in partnership with national believers in church planting, local communities or in the workplace. Alongside this there remain areas of ministry which still call for a pioneer spirit. OMF is privileged to have played a part in bringing the good news of Jesus to Cambodia’s peoples for over 40 years.