From 1965 to 1975, under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson and then during Richard Nixon's "secret war," Cambodia was bombed as part of an effort to destabilize the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and the rurally based communist Khmer Rouge. However, the U.S. bombing campaign actually strengthened the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement and weakened King Sihanouk, and later the government of General Lon Nol, a U.S. ally (Shawcross 1979). Lon Nol's government collapsed on April 17, 1975, after a sixteen-year-long civil war against the Khmer Rouge. On that day, victorious Khmer Rouge troops entered the capital city, Phnom Penh, with the goal of rebuilding the country's broken rural economy and creating an immediate "classless" society based on rural life.
In Cambodia, Pol Pot's ultra-Maoist peasant-communist government lasted from 1975 to 1979. During this time, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge embarked on a bloody crusade against its own people and the Vietnamese minorities living in the country, dislocating the entire population and moving all urban dwellers to the rural countryside where people's individual identity and many cultural values were stripped away. The murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge resulted in the deaths of a minimum of 1.5 million people (Vickery 2000). Most of the country's intelligentsia and skilled labor force perished. Because Cambodia's entire population was uprooted and displaced around the country, the national agriculture, industry, and service sectors, including textiles and fashion production, were either destroyed or abandoned. Vietnamese troops put an end to the destruction by ousting Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in 1979. In 1991 the Paris Peace Agreement finally brought a cease-fire in the continuing civil war. [End Page 131] The agreement and the subsequent establishment of the United Nations Transitional Authority in 1992, followed by national elections in 1993, opened Cambodia to international investment and aid, which claimed to rebuild the nation and spur economic growth. As part of this, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Blue Mekong, which operates within the Stung Treng Women's Development Center have become important catalysts in creating socially and economically sustainable employment opportunities for Cambodian women in fashion production.
NGO Involvement in Fashion Production in Cambodia
The Paris Peace Agreement authorized the arrival of many international NGOs, and allowed for the establishment of a few Cambodian NGOs to help rebuild the country. Today, there are close to two thousand NGOs in Cambodia (Rassumen 2010). Many of these were set up by large international donors like the U.N. or UNESCO, while others were created by individuals and small organizations that moved to Cambodia to provide humanitarian aid, or champion a cause or in hopes of fostering economic viability. Because of the prolonged civil war, during which Cambodia's economy collapsed, the country was fertile ground for any investments or causes, including religious ones. The NGOs have been enjoying the support of the international donor community because of their ostensible democratic modus operandi; because they claim to champion strategic social, cultural, environmental, health, gender, and economic causes; and because they were established, at least on paper, to empower local citizens. But Cambodia's autocratic and corrupt government also puts up with them because they allow the country's leadership to delegate the responsibility for solving a series of pressing social and economic problems to NGOs. In essence, as in other developing countries, privately- and internationally- funded NGOs have replaced government services in certain areas; however, "NGOs not dependent on state aid are the exception rather than the rule" (Robbins 2002, 129).
While it is not the intention of the authors to discuss the complexities surrounding NGOs, the following quote puts the latter's operations in context:
Although the state may welcome charities and welfare bodies providing for the homeless, elderly and sick, not least because this reduces state [End Page 132] expenditure, it may take less kindly to advocacy groups that promote causes contrary to government policy or organizations that challenge the legitimacy of the state. . . . Similarly, businesses may sponsor community development, but they may be less...