Diaspora culture

Made in India

Cambodia's small but influential Indian community feels comfortable in a country that shares its history and maybe its future with their motherland.

Jude Mak and Charlie Lancaster
March 1, 2010
Made in India
Cambodian students smile as they hold portrait photos of Indian President Pratibha Patil (R) and her husband Devisingh Ramsingh Shekhawat (L) near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on September 14, 2010. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodia’s small but influential Indian community feels comfortable in a country that shares its history and maybe its future with their motherland.
The history between India and Cambodia goes back to ancient times. The influence of the world’s second most populous country on the Kingdom is visible from the Hindu-style temples of Angkor Wat to written Khmer, which is a derivative of Sanskrit and Pali script from southern India. Today the community of Indians in Phnom Penh, although small in number, plays a prominent role in most sectors of commercial life.

The first Indians in modern times to settle in Cambodia arrived in the 1960s and 1970s. Primarily coming from the northern province of Punjab, they worked as jewellers, moneylenders and traders around Central Market, but sensibly left the country once the Khmer Rouge arrived. After Pol Pot’s regime collapsed, the Indians returned to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Alex Thomas moved to Siem Reap in 1994 and for two years he was, to his knowledge, the only Indian expat in the city. Sixteen years later he is far from alone. It is estimated that there are about 1,200-1,500 Indians in Cambodia – one-third of whom are in the capital. However, while the numbers have increased, Thomas says the average Indian profile hasn’t changed much. “As was the case when I first arrived, many Indians are involved in pharmaceuticals, the UN and start-up businesses such as restaurants,” he says. Opportunities have always existed. However, now they are more prevalent and easier to access.

Saurav Raj, the first secretary at the Indian embassy in Phnom Penh agrees, adding that the growing economy is attracting more opportunity seekers from his country. With flourishing economies in both countries and strengthening diplomatic relations, it is no surprise that trade between the two is improving. While India mainly imports non-ferrous metals from Cambodia, its exports include pharmaceutical products, transport equipment and machinery, cotton and rubber articles.

One market where the Indians are traditionally strong is pharmaceuticals. “India is known to produce high-quality medicine at affordable prices. This is especially attractive and useful for developing countries like Cambodia,” says Mahesh Yadav, country manager of Mega Lifescience. He arrived five years ago to take the helm of the Cambodian branch of the Thai-based pharmaceutical company. He says there are dozens of firms like his doing business here.

Meanwhile Debasish Pattinaik, chief executive office of D&D Group, a consultant firm for Indian investors in Cambodia, says the hospitality, agriculture and mining industries are expected to attract $500m in Indian investment in the coming years.
The Oberoi Group and construction firm Kirloskar are rumoured to be looking closely at the Kingdom’s high-end hospitality sector. While Shri Lal Mahal, a trading house for cash crops, has set its sights on the European market as a profitable importer of rice from Cambodia.

Indians like to invest in countries with established networks, says Manoj Mehra, chief executive officer of Vital Supplies. “Indians have started to invest outside of their country, but they are not going to go somewhere where they don’t know anyone.” Strong ties between the two governments suggest the future looks promising.

Currently, the Indian government is offering more than $30m in credit to four development projects in Cambodia, but it’s not all business. In the past few years, the Indian government has offered scholarships to Cambodian students and last year, the council for cultural relations gave nine of them an opportunity to study at universities in India.

The similarities between the Cambodian and Indian cultures have fostered relations, explains Rajiv Sharma, president of the Indian Association of Cambodia (IAC), a non-profit community development organisation. “The term ‘Indian’ provokes a positive image among the people. It’s not a feeling of hate. If you believe that the local people are feeling jealous or competitive, you don’t feel comfortable and you would think twice about doing business,” he says. He arrived in 2006 and says he is “very comfortable here because the culture is like India”. He finds the people “very friendly, co-operative and polite”.

Mohan Gunti, CATA advisor (Nicolas Axelrod)Now 14 years old, the IAC serves as a networking platform for expatriates as well as the local community. It currently has about 100-plus members. In addition to promoting investment and trade between the two countries, the IAC encourages expatriate Indians to get involved in the local community and play a part in the development of Cambodia, says Mohan Gunti, an adviser to the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents.

For Kaliya Perumal Rameraj, a manager at Annam restaurant, the festivals hosted by the IAC are the highlights of his year. “In Cambodia, we celebrate all the Indian festivals like Diwali and Holi just as we would at home. In fact at times, it feels as if we are in India,” says the 27-year-old, who sends 70% of his salary back to his family in Tamil Nadu.

While he hasn’t participated in the IAC annual cricket tournament, which raises money for local charities, many of his friends have. “We have a vibrant expat social scene and it’s a good way to meet other foreigners and Cambodians,” he adds. It is a sentiment shared by Deep Johari, general secretary of the IAC and country manager of Zifam-Sudima Pharmaceutical, who says that everyone is welcome to take part in the IAC’s activities, regardless of nationality.

Unlike communities in Bangkok or Singapore, the Indian population in Phnom Penh is too small to support a Little India quarter, but it remains an intimate and close-knit group that has integrated well into local society, Johari says.

Shiva Kumar, PE teacher (Nicolas Axelrod)This has been particularly true for Shiva Kumar, a physical education teacher at an international school in Phnom Penh. A resident in the capital for 18 months, he is about to marry his Cambodian fiancée. “Her family accepted me without hesitation because they are familiar with India’s influence on Cambodia and they like Indian people,” he says.

Nowadays, the internet and TV makes staying in touch with family and Indian culture much easier than before, Thomas says. Thanks to satellite television, popular Indian soap operas can be watched daily while a small selection of Indian restaurants hosts weekly showings of the latest Bollywood films. Indian DVDs can be bought throughout the capital, and expats can peruse a number of Indian-based websites for the latest news, views and entertainment. A glimpse into some Indian restaurants during the mid-afternoon lull will show staff following ‘the men in blue’ in international cricket matches.

Perhaps most importantly, three spice distributors in the capital ensure the specialised culinary needs of the subcontinental population are met.
While relations remain strong between the two nations, Gunti feels tourism is as yet an untapped and potentially lucrative market. “Indians love their religious heritage and visiting temples since it plays such an important role in their lives. If Angkor Wat and Prasat Preah Vihear, the two Unesco World Heritage Sites, were advertised properly in India, believe me, there will be a huge boom in Indian tourists arriving here,” he says, adding that investment would be quick to follow. “Vice versa, India should also promote its Buddhist destinations to Cambodians.”

For D&D’s Pattinaik, however, the key to the future is investment. “What is missing here is critical mass,” he says. “The number of Indians here is small. Investment will bring in more people, and direct flights between the two countries can only happen if investment comes in.”

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