Seventy-seven-year-old Chey Teng finds little to admire in contemporary society and often looks back fondly on the past.
“As far as cultural changes are concerned, people now seem to be cold, whereas before people were friendly,” he said.
Like many older citizens, Chey Teng was referring not only to the loss of community spirit that followed the brutal four-year reign of the Pol Pot regime, but also to the reduced status of senior citizens today.
On Monday, the native of Battambang province joined hundreds of other senior citizens at Olympic Stadium to mark this year’s celebration of Elderly Day.
In a two-hour ceremony that included speeches by prominent figures, the singing of traditional songs and a physical exercise demonstration by more than 400 senior citizens, a clear message was sent: Elderly people do have a vital role to play in society.
Queen Norodom Monineath, who presided over the event, also stressed the important contributions of the elderly in the nation’s history.
“Since the beginning of the Cambodian nation, previous generations have worked very hard to create a historic heritage for [the] next generation and preserve the heritage from generation to generation,” Queen Monineath said.
The ceremony was the country’s sixth annual tribute to the elderly. But this year’s celebration also launched the International Year for Older People, in accordance with a 1998 UN resolution.
The event Monday also marked the fourth anniversary of King Norodom Sihanouk’s physical exercise program for senior citizens, which has been implemented in senior centers across the country under the sponsorship of the Cambodian Association for the Elderly.
The association’s president, Dr Khun Ngeth, said his organization now is represented in 16 of the country’s provinces.
For those who attended Monday, the ceremony also offered a rare chance for fellowship. Scores of senior citizens sat and chatted in the stadium bleachers, shared picnic lunches and spoke their minds.
Chao Huon from Kompong Chhnang province extolled to others the benefits of his daily fitness plan. “Physical exercise can help me from some kind of disease, such as high blood pressure.”
Others lamented what they termed the decline of moral values, traditional culture and respect for the elderly in the country.
Assessing the changes that have occurred in her country over the past few decades, 61-year-old Sophal Kun of Battambang said: “I see only devastation and destruction. And the government is corrupt at all levels.”
Chey Teng, who said he worked for the Ministry of Education in the 1950s, now lives in a pagoda in Battambang province and depends on charity “for the very clothes on my back.
“Frankly, I was very happy [before the Khmer Rouge] because during that time, people respected laws and regulations,” he said.
Many senior citizens interviewed complained of rudeness and insensitivity on the part of younger Cambodians. Forty-three percent of Cambodia’s population is younger than 15.
“Of course elderly people aren’t getting the respect they deserve, because young children [are not even learning] manners in school,” said Sao Mai, a cashier with the Cambodian Association of the Elderly in Battambang.
“Sometimes, students have problems with class monitors and even use guns to threaten them. To put it bluntly, they are gangsters. So, what will happen to elderly people if young people behave this way at school?”
Sao Mai added that he thinks traditional culture is deteriorating, if not disappearing altogether.
“Thai culture is engulfing Cambodia—through music, film, fashion, everything,” she said. “We need to modernize our traditional culture so it can be adapted to changing times; otherwise we’ll lose everything. If the relevant authorities don’t find a formula to update our culture, we will simply imitate the cultures that are more prosperous.”
Sao Mai said that organizations such as Cambodian Association for the Elderly will work toward reinforcing traditional culture. But he stressed: “For this goal to be achieved, the rights of the elderly should be respected.”
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