I recently watched the film First They Killed My Father on Netflix and was so effected by the story of Luong Ung and her harrowing escape from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I'm in no position to analyze the why or how this period in Cambodia's history occurred, but I do understand the effects of this war continue to impact the people and economy of Cambodia today.
A VERY Short Overview
The Khmer Rouge took root in Cambodia's northeastern jungles as early as the 1960s, a guerrilla group driven by communist ideals that nipped the periphery of government-controlled areas. The flash point came when Cambodia's leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was deposed in a military coup in 1970 and leaned on the Khmer Rouge for support. The prince's imprimatur lent the movement legitimacy, although while he would nominally serve as head of state, he spent much of the Khmer Rouge's rule under house arrest. As the country descended into civil war, the Khmer Rouge presented themselves as a party for peace and succeeded in mobilizing support in the countryside.
The Khmer Rouge killed nearly two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979, spreading like a virus from the jungles until they controlled the entire country, only to systematically dismantle and destroy it in the name of a Communist agrarian ideal.
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Weaving a New Future for Cambodian Women
It is oftentimes after horrific events in a culture's history when we witness inspiring acts of humanity and it is also the driving reason many of our partners began their socially conscious cooperatives - to help the people most impacted by the negative after effects of war. Our partner La Vie Devant Soie (LVDS) began such a journey when they started their cooperative in Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh in 2003. Sandy Blain, founder of LVDS and then a Financial Engineer on a humanitarian mission in Cambodia, was working in partnership with the Ministry of Health to set up a micro-health insurance program. During her journey, she met women seamstresses and silk weavers without employment.
Silk weaving has been part of Cambodia's culture for centuries. Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex built in the early 12th century, is adorned with images of women wearing traditional silk garments. Raw silk was one of Cambodia’s main exports until the political and civil war of the Khmer Rouge. As part of their cultural crackdown, they destroyed a majority of Cambodia's mulberry trees where the silk worm lived killing off one of the country's main sources of employment and richest traditions. Today through the support of many non-government organizations the mulberry tree is being replanted throughout the country and cooperatives such as LVDS are working to empower women living in Phnom Penh with skilled training and dignified employment utilizing the silk weaving skills that were devalued during the Khmer's rule.
LVDS is one of the first fashion brands of French creation to promote social and environmental ethics. The craftsmanship of each piece is handmade by victims of anti-personnel mines, poliomyelitis, acid attacks, or deaf individuals. Their mission is essential in this country where disabled persons have no support or opportunities to train themselves and forced to live in poverty, separate from the general population.
Besides allowing Cambodian women in precarious situations to gain independence, LVDS has engaged in an ecological approach by the revaluation of flecked fabric across the country. Each bag uses repurposed silk materials found in local markets alongside handwoven textiles of wild silk, silk taffeta, satin, velvet, cotton, and rice bags. Artists weave the textiles on traditional looms and sew each bag by hand creating colorful and harmonious pieces that represent the artistry and beauty of each woman.
The women at LVDS and their mission are part of the foundation why I started AMERICAN NOMAD. Far too often as consumers we focus on the pure aesthetic, or cost, of an item without pausing to consider how an item is made impacts the lives of others. It is our mission at AMERICAN NOMAD to curate items that impact people, our planet and other cultures in positive ways through fair trade and social change.
"My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style."
- Maya Angelou