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Missionaries in Ratanakiri: An Opposing View

I received the following e-mail on November 9, 2002. In the interests of offering a balanced approach to Cambodia, I'm reprinting it, with the author's permission, in its entirety.

Dear Sir, It was with great interest that I read your account of your three memorable visits to Ratanakiri province in Cambodia. The main reason that your reports sparked my interest is that Ratanakiri is my home. My family has lived there for about nine years now, and I have been there for seven. I am currently attending college here in the States while my parents and siblings remain in Cambodia. It was enjoyable to hear you describe places so familiar and loved--like the American restaurant situated near the airport. Their hamburgers, by the way, were instituted by a group of US marines who entered the province in 1995 to search for MIA's near the Vietnamese border. Other American Resturant delicacies were instituted by my own family over the years. Ratanakiri truly is a wonderful province with much potential, and my heart will always be there. It was with great disappointment and agigation, however, that I read a part of your account from your second trip which read: "The Cambodian government speaks often about this new Rule of Law thing that will make Cambodia a functioning, efficient, modern, law-abiding land (or something like that). Do you think they could start with the eviction of all the missionaries who come to places like Ratanakiri to play head games on people who for centuries have been served quite well by their own beliefs? Beliefs which may be Buddhism, animism, ancestor worship, or some combination thereof. Just a thought." I feel reluctant to continue this for fear you will immediately close out this letter and brush it off an another run-of-the-mill defense of those "missionaries who come...to play head games..." Please, take this seriously as a very heart-felt explanation of a situation that I think you may not have totally sensed. I love Ratanakiri. I love the people, the culture, the food, the weird customs--for the most part. You mentioned seeing several weddings during your excursion. I love weddings--all the festivities and dressing up and taking pictures of the bride with the long face, as you mentioned. I love watching birthing ceremonies--watching them tie the string to the baby's heel and celebrating a new life born into the world. There is the opposite, though, which I don't recall hearing you mention experiencing. Have you ever attended a tribal funeral? It is not an easily forgotten experience. The sick child becomes worse--the family sacrifices, from their pitiful funds, first a chicken, then a pig...the child worsens, and the family sacrifices a water buffalo to those benevolent spirits that fill their lives with fear. And then the child dies--often from a very treatable condition that could have been prevented with proper help. And the funeral begins. The wailings and sobs of utter despair will never cease to haunt me. I've sat through too many tribal funerals to be able to forget the anguish and hopelessness of the families involved. But why bother them? They are happy as they are. They live an ideal life--free from restraints, easy, carefree. Certainly, an outsider may perceive their lives as such. But in reality, they live in fear--fear of starvation, fear of sickness and death, fear of the spirits who rule their lives and soak up their small supplies of rice and animals for ritual and futile sacrifices. Would you deny them change if they desire it? Put yourself in their place: near-starvation year after year. Malaria, cholera, whooping cough, measles. Fear of angering the spirits or an ancestor who has gone on before. Daily toil from dawn to dusk to grow enough rice to carry your family through for another year. Do you ever fear starving to death? Dying of malaria? And yet you would deny them freedom from their bondage. They may smile for your camera as they did for mine when I lived with them--but I lived with them--you saw only the surface. I experienced their despair and their longing for something different. I remember the faces of my friends who died during the cholera epidemic that terrible year. Many of them died without hope or peace. The last sounds they heard were the demonic chants and the pounding drums as their fellow villagers called out to their deaf gods for mercy--to no avail. Sir, I understand that you and I have differing beliefs. I believe in God eternal and His Son Jesus Christ who died to save the souls of Americans and Ratanakiri tribals alike. My parents are dedicated to reaching these unsaved and fearful groups to bring them to the Savior. I know you do not agree with our beliefs and you condemn us for trying to change these people. But if you are so concerned for their welfare, you would be concerned for allowing them peace in whatever form they may find it. We do not convert "rice Christians." The people we disciple are not bribed into Christianity with hopes of food or medicine. We preach the gospel of Christ to save souls from eternally dying. There are no "head games" involved. Buddhism, animism, and other religions have not served them so well. They have no peace and it is peace that they seek. They are not happy in their ways. We do not seek to change their whole culture and bring in TV's and computers and western clothes and macaroni and cheese. We seek to give them that which they search for while preserving their unique and very beautiful customs and culture. The government has seen our work for nearly nine years. They like what they see, and they encourage it. We teach unity and loyalty to Cambodia while retaining the tribal sense of loyalty to fellow villagers. And our work is not just religion-related. We have linguistic programs to teach these people to read for the very first time--in their own language! My father recently got the Tampuan alphabet approved in Phnom Pehn--the culmination of five years of work. Once they learn to read Tampuan, the tribals can easily convert to reading Khmer using the similar alphabet. Would you deny them the chance to read? Imagine yourself in a world without reading. This is not taking away their culture. This is expanding it in a wonderful way. We provide medicine for simple ailments--malaria medicine and aspirin for their many fevers, and other simple drugs. You yourself realized the danger from cholera during your time there. Is helping them with basic medical needs defined as changing their culture? I have always had a great burden for these people, and more recently, that burden has been to help these tribal groups medically. I am now in my second year at a very fine nursing school, and when I graduate in two years I will be continuing in a nurse practitioner course, with the ulitmate goal of returning to Ratanakiri in four or five years to minister to these people that I love. What wonders basic immunizations could work! Thousands of children a year die from easily-preventable conditions such as measles and whooping cough. Would you deny them the chance to live if it comes by the hand of an outsider who is not part of their culture? Your motodop driver to whom you directed a lecture on culture-changing was probably from the Banlung church where my family attends and my father preaches occasionly when he is not out in the villages teaching. The nationals of Cambodia are included in our work as well. Your second trip (in 2002, I believe?) would have found, if you had searched, three or four missionary families and upwards of thirty humanitarian workers and relief-aid workers. They help us in our projects and we help them in theirs--to preserve culture and to give these people peace. During your first trip, the "ten" expatriates you estimated would have been comprised of my family of eight, another family of four, another of three, and about 20 UN workers--all approved and welcomed by the government. I have lived there--I have seen the changes and have rejoiced and some and cried over others. Ratanakiri is my home--I would not have it changed too much. Maybe some day you will come to visit this gem of a province again and maybe you will see the tribals in a different light. Maybe you will come across me working there once I graduate. If you are willing, I will show you personally what we do and why. I will show you that we love these people and have given our lives to give them life. You can experience the freedom they have from spiritual bondage while appreciating their intact culture. I speak this from my heart with many tears. It is not a head game--it is life. People from outside say, "They are happy! Leave them be! They are fine they way they are!" And the tribals in turn are saying, "Help us. We are sick and dying and in fear of the demons who make our lives a living hell. Why will no one help us? We are not happy." I can only hope that this plea will touch you and bring you to understand at least of little of our part of the story. Thank you for reading and considering this. I know Ratanakiri holds a special place in your heart by how you write about it. Rest assured, it holds my whole heart. I would love to hear from you about how you feel about this, and I would love to answer any questions or receive any comments you may have about my parent's work in Banlung. Please don't hesitate to write back. Sincerely, Charis Crowley


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