By Gea Wijers
Special to Khmerican
Amsterdam, the Netherlands – The Cambodian French returnee Doctor Tim (born in 1948) has nearly 30 years of experience in legal issues, socio-economic development, institutional organization and capacity building in both Cambodia and France. In his work he has become intimately familiar with the institutional and organizational structure of the Royal Government of Cambodia. Since 2004, he has been the deputy team leader for a major development bank and a French development agency. He worked on projects supporting the agriculture and water sectors of Cambodia. Also, Dr. Tim is a member of the Cambodian Bar Association and one of the independent directors of the Cambodian Stock Exchange. On top of all this, for a long time, Dr. Tim was a lecturer in the Faculty of Law and Economic Science at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) and is familiar with formal and alternative dispute mechanisms, in particular as they relate to current land law. His illustrious credentials make him akin to a large fish in a small pond.
Some 40 years ago, the Khmer Rouge take-over found Dr. Tim in France, where he went in 1973 to finish the studies he had started in Phnom Penh. Suddenly everything changed. Despite the loss of his scholarship financed by the Cambodian government, he managed to finance the rest of his studies through odd jobs. He graduated from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Montpellier in 1978 on a subject related to the development of Cambodia. Like the others, this issue has remained close to his heart throughout his career.
As there was nowhere else to go, he then continued his studies and also obtained a master’s in accountancy from the World University in 1981. Meanwhile, his only remaining close relative, with him in France, was his mother. As he would find out after the situation in Cambodia had stabilized, all other close relatives, including his wife and child, perished under the Khmer Rouge regime.
In 1995 Dr. Tim returned to Cambodia for the first time on a vacation, to visit the remaining more distant family members. As he explains, even though he had no intention to return and live in Phnom Penh forever, the choice was made for him when he arrived: “La choix est fait quand on arrive.”
He explains how the decision to return left him in a difficult situation, as there was nothing in particular for him to do. At the time, unless a person agreed to join one of the big political parties, it was impossible to find a job that would earn a proper living. While he felt very welcome as part of a group of educated returnees, and the government in power made it clear that the country needed them in its reconstruction, there were no salaries to be expected. The most well-educated returnees from France, speaking multiple languages, were clearly at an advantage over other returnees, as they had more skills to apply in order to remain neutral and had more opportunity to use them, as their French background fit them into the system well. Those with little education and funding were quickly forced into a partisan position and patronage dependency in order to survive.
In the end, with his qualifications Dr. Tim could work as a teacher, remaining unnoticed and make his small-scale contributions to rebuilding Cambodia. There was no need to become a hero and look for fame and fortune, as far as he was concerned. He just tried to fit in. Nevertheless, people continued to approach him as a ‘foreigner.’ Laughing, he says, “We had our shirts tucked into our trousers! People immediately saw that we were different.” Dr. Tim believes this low-profile and slow progress have paid off for him in the long term and have earned him the prestigious positions he now holds.
He has little contact now with his former social network in France. Those relations have all slowly eroded as he built his life in Cambodia. He remembers that every visit home to France would usually lead to some of his friends also returning to Cambodia, seeing that he could make a living in the former homeland. Not all of them have succeeded, as they could not all be so lucky and make the most of their human and social capital under the restrictive government. He does believe he was lucky, as he says: “At least I did not have to remain ‘a stranger in a strange land,’ like many of the returnees these days.”