CWS in Cambodia: A History

Nao Sok and Jacqui Collis | June 25, 2013

Dr. Kirk G. Alliman, former director of the CWS Asia Program and his wife Jean visited the CWS staff at the Phnom Penh office. Photo: CWS

Dr. Kirk G. Alliman, former director of the CWS Asia Program and his wife Jean visited the CWS staff at the Phnom Penh office. Photo: CWS

During their recent visit to Cambodia, Dr. Kirk G. Alliman, former executive director of CWS’ Asia Program and his wife, Jean, visited the CWS staff at the Phnom Penh office.

Alliman last stepped foot in Cambodia 34 years ago, during the aftermath of the fall of the Khmer Rouge that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. This was a regime which was responsible for the death of 2 million Cambodian people from disease, starvation, overwork and repression.

Alliman recalled a Cambodia that at the time was “devastated, traumatized and on the peak of starvation.  It was not only a matter of physical hunger and pain, it was also a matter of deep emotional and spiritual pain”. By contrast, the changes he now sees he describes as a “miracle.” Having not visited the capital of Phnom Penh since 1981 – a city once described as “a ghost city” – Alliman said “it is unbelievable that Phnom Penh has become so big, busy, developed, upbeat, and stable in this time.”

“CWS Cambodia has come out of tragedies and continued its development work to help the poor.  The work accomplished during the years since 1979 is testimony to the heartfelt compassion, outstanding skills, incredible commitment and wonderful effort of CWS staff. You have accomplished things that no one thought possible in 1979.  It’s truly impressive and heart-warming.  We thank you for making a huge difference in the lives of so many Cambodians,” Alliman said.

For those who forget or who were not yet born at the time, the late 1970s was a brutal time in Cambodia’s history. When Alliman recently spoke to the 12 current CWS staff members in Phnom Penh – most of whom were either very young in 1979 or not yet born – he recalled some shocking and traumatic scenes. Among the sights Alliman recalled: a pile of skulls near a swimming pool at the hotel where he stayed, and the fresh blood at Toul Sleng prison where thousands of Cambodian were detained and later killed. There was also the emptiness of Phnom Penh itself, where nobody was to be seen or heard. Alliman told CWS staffers of one memory that portrays the magnitude of loss affecting Cambodia. In his first meeting with Cambodia’s minister of social affairs, Alliman asked, “How can CWS help?”

“You can start by getting me a pencil and paper” the minister replied. There was just nothing.

Why and how did Alliman and his team get to war-torn Cambodia in the first place?

In late 1979, CWS initiated what it called “Friendshipment,” a shipment of wheat contributed by American farmers and donors to Vietnam – an act to show friendship toward Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War.

To symbolically hand over the CWS shipment of wheat, CWS sent three representatives to Vietnam; Alliman was among them. In their meeting with the Vietnamese prime minister, the minister thanked them for the humanitarian assistance but suggested that the wheat be sent to Cambodia, given its horrendous humanitarian crisis.

When Kirk Alliman first arrived in Phnom Penh, he was shocked at what he saw and knew there was much work to be done.  This was how CWS began its work in Cambodia. CWS arrived in Cambodia at a time when the country was in great need of assistance and CWS was acknowledged and credited as one of the first agencies coming to work in Cambodia after the fall of Khmer Rouge. Alliman recalled what he described as “the heartfelt thanks and gratitude expressed by Cambodian high-ranking officials including Prime Minister Hun Sen for CWS post-war rehabilitation efforts. This gratitude is still expressed by the Cambodian government today.”

During CWS’s 34-year presence in Cambodia, the agency has gone through many changes – from providing Cambodian people with humanitarian and emergency response through the Cambodian government to enhancing the quality of rural poor life by engaging and working with civil society, local government bodies and communities in the process of development, emergency response and rehabilitation.

After hearing a presentation by CWS staff members about CWS accomplishments and current development work in Cambodia, Alliman said this: “Being with you today makes me very grateful for CWS, its staff and program in Cambodia, and the magnificent work that is being done in 2013 to improve the quality of life, peace and justice that the Cambodian people are now able to experience.”

Nao Sok and Jacqui Collis are CWS staffers in Cambodia.

In his story, Kirk also acknowledged other individuals who were significantly involved in beginning the CWS program in Cambodia in 1979. These include Doug Beane, who hitch-hiked on a military plane from Bangkok to Phnom Penh and obtained permission for the first CWS office in Cambodia, and Perry Smith, who was the first CWS representative in Cambodia. There were also many others significantly involved, including individuals in support positions in the United States and the Bangkok regional office. CWS Cambodia expresses its thanks to all these individuals for their life-changing humanitarian work in bringing CWS to Cambodia.