Reporting from: Bavet, Cambodia
I’ve always found borders to be an interesting thing. As an eight year old, I would stand in my bedroom and stare at the large world map my mother hung on the wall, wondering “why is that country so much smaller than that one?”
Understanding history is an essential part of finding freedom. It also explains why Cambodia is a set of borders with few rich natural resources, while Russia has infinitely larger borders and oil gushing out of the ground.
Governments and government-like tribes, in their lust for more power, have gone to war with each other for thousands of years for the sole purpose of having more people to enslave, and in turn, more money to lavish on their cronies in the ruling class.
Looking for a little adventure, I decided to take the six-hour “luxury” bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. Cost: all of $10. I could have opted for a 35-minute flight, but I’m not a fan of patronizing monopolies (only Vietnam Airlines services that route, and boy do they take advantage). That bus ride includes a passport checkpoint here in Bavet.
Bavet is one of the poorest cities of Cambodia. The Khmer government tried to encourage textile companies to set up shop here, but the only thing that really seems to be going on here is gambling. A mini-strip of casinos – which look more like those strip clubs after they’ve been shuttered by the FBI – brings in wealthier Vietnamese tourists to try their luck.
It’s only fitting that the casinos of Bavet get to take money from Vietnamese tourists. The prevailing view in Vietnam seems to be that Cambodia is really theres.
And for a time, it was. Like many parts of southeast Asia, Cambodia has been run over or colonized by forces from every corner of the globe.
The glory days of Cambodia were in full swing 1,000 years ago. The Khmer Empire from which Cambodia got its name ruled over vast swaths of territory in this region. It ruled over much of modern day Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and even parts of China.
Like all empires, it didn’t take more than a few centuries for the sun to set on the Khmers. Thinking they could keep the party going forever, they ignored the upkeep on their rather advanced irrigation system and went from a nation of feast to one of relative famine almost overnight.
It was all downhill from there.
In the 1500s, Iberian explorers and missionaries began to build bases in modern day Cambodia.
Not long after, the neighboring Siam empire – which the Khmer Empire had subjugated a few hundred years earlier – started capturing Cambodia, one piece at a time. Cambodia had become the weak link between strong Siamese and Vietnamese neighbors, and eventually became a Siamese territory.
Not long thereafter, the Vietnamese decided to begin settling neighboring territories and claimed lands west of the Mekong Delta. Vietnam would eventually assert its authority over the country.
By the 1800s, the Cambodian King was desperate. Still a pawn between two strong kingdoms, he sought protectorate status from France, beginning a history of French colonialism that brought about French Indochina.
And by World War II, France’s war with the Thais left their territories in Southeast Asia vulnerable. Their agreement to allow Japan to use Cambodia as a military facility led to Japanese control of parts of the region.
Like many other parts of the world, Cambodia has a storied history. Its borders have been defined, re-defined, and re-defined yet again as its emperors sought greater territory… and lost territory at the hands of rival forces.
Old rivalries remain fresh in the minds of some of its former adversaries – including Vietnam.
It causes on the think: just what is a border? It’s the result of years of militarism and decisions made by one or two monarchs in power only thanks to a genetic abnormality.
Hundreds of years later, they define these things we call “countries”.
In the United States, a principle called Manifest Destiny caused settlers to move further and further west, conquering new lands for their young nation. The idea was that they were the most entitled to control those lands.
Thanks to a handful of people who believed themselves to be genetically superior to the previous occupants of their lands, the borders of many countries are entirely different than what they once were.
It goes to show how big of an impact the ruling class has on history, freedom, and opportunity. Hundreds of millions of people over the years – including recently here in Cambodia – have died because of these things called borders and the people who thrust their vision of the world on the rest of us.