Reporting in Cambodia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I often ended my day at one of the many restaurants or bars in the capital city of Phnom Penh along the slow-moving, chocolaty Mekong River. There, aid workers and journalists gathered to drink Tiger beer over ice and snack on bowls of sliced chicken flavored with slivers of piquant ginger and tiny, powerful chilies. In the run-up to the local elections in 1999, Cambodian human rights groups and opposition parties had been reporting numerous instances of intimidation, from beatings of opposition campaigners to money being handed out to village chiefs to convince people to vote for the ruling party. This type of intimidation had become common in Cambodia during the 1990s: the crime pages of the local newspapers read like horror-movie scripts, with stories of villagers beating to death petty thieves whom they’d caught, or people handling disputes by taking an ax to the other person.

Cambodia’s Curse:
The Modern History of a
Troubled Land

by Joel Brinkley
Public Affairs, 416 pp.

All of the aid workers, many of whom had lived in Cambodia since the beginning of the massive United Nations assistance program in the early 1990s, had heard about the intimidation; some had traveled to villages and seen the effects in person. Only two years earlier, in 1997, a group of Americans working for the International Republican Institute, a democracy-promoting NGO, had attended a rally of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, along with around 200 party supporters. In what seemed to be a well-planned attack, someone tossed four grenades into the crowd, killing at least sixteen people, maiming at least 100, and leaving limbs and other body parts scattered around on the street. The leader of the IRI mission in Cambodia was seriously wounded in the attack.

But whenever I brought up the problems with the elections, and the general chaos, intimidation, and thuggery that was coming to characterize all of Cambodian politics, my expat acquaintances responded as if I’d committed some terrible social solecism. Turning the conversation to the unpleasant, even brutal nature of Cambodian politics forced people to put down beers or stop talking about the latest affairs in Phnom Penh’s incestuous expat community—and, more important, it deflated the promise of the UN aid effort, the largest in history. “Look at how far the Cambodians have come since the Khmer Rouge era,” one aid worker told me. “You have to admit it’s impressive—even if there are problems with the election, they are having an election, one generation after a genocide.” Another aid worker, who had spent considerable time in villages where opposing the ruling party was once tantamount to a death sentence, said, “Sure, there are some problems. But they’re still holding an election.”

I nodded my head—of course, after one of the most genocidal regimes in history, elections where people campaigning are only sometimes beaten up or killed were a step forward. But how long should the country be measured against that low standard? And how would any free elections be preserved if Cambodia’s political culture became more and more violent and repressive? By the time I could ask those questions, most of my dining companions had moved on, returning to stories of a European official’s torrid affair with the wife of a friend.

Ten years after that evening, Cambodia—back then the site of the largest and most far-reaching UN reconstruction program ever—has not made much more progress. Cambodians have fallen into what democracy experts like Larry Diamond call “the fallacy of electoralism”—they have focused almost exclusively on holding elections as a sign of progress, all but ignoring the other, more important foundations of a free society. In that vacuum, Cambodia’s long-ruling, ironfisted prime minister, Hun Sen, and his cronies, have robbed the country blind, selling off much of its valuable land to China and using unfair laws and outright intimidation to crush any opposition.

In his new book, Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, veteran journalist Joel Brinkley chronicles the travails of modern-day Cambodia and the unprecedented UN effort to get the nation back on its feet. Brinkley was a cub reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1979 when he visited the devastated country shortly after the genocidal Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh. During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge killed as many as two million Cambodians, out of a total population of just under eight million—proportionally the worst genocide of the twentieth century. They wiped out the country’s entire industrial and commercial base in their attempt to create an agrarian society that they believed would become a communist utopia.

During the 1980s, fighting persisted, a civil war between a Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh and a coalition of rebels, including the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. (In a particularly low point in American foreign policy, the U.S. supported the rebel alliance, which included the Khmer Rouge, as a way to fight back against enemy Vietnam, which controlled the government in Phnom Penh.) But in 1991, with the Cold War over, a peace deal inked in Paris brought an end to the Cambodian civil war and offered a promise of freedom and peace for its people.

After the truce, the UN, invigorated by post-Cold War unity, embarked upon its grandest mission. Thousands of UN advisers, aid officials, and peacekeeping troops descended on Cambodia. Over the next decade, the UN would spend more than $3 billion on Cambodia’s reconstruction. Even after the UN formally ended its assistance in the late 1990s, Western donors like the United States, Australia, France, and Japan would continue subsidizing much of the country’s budget, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Western advisers helped set up new media outlets, human rights groups, and political parties, demined roads and rebuilt water systems, wrote textbooks and other school curricula, and helped set up new phone, Internet, and other communications systems.

A decade after the UN formally withdrew from Cambodia, Brinkley, who by then had moved to the New York Times and then to Stanford University, arrived in the country again, with a mission of assessing the results. Unlike many writers, he took the time to travel the whole country, leaving built-up Phnom Penh, where most Westerners stay, for the remotest and poorest regions of Cambodia. He demanded, and often got, sit-downs with the country’s most powerful leaders, and frequently obtained insightful, revealing answers from them about how badly Cambodia today has failed.

And failed it has. For a visitor who stops only in Phnom Penh or Siam Reap, the tourist town near the gargantuan ruins of the twelfth-century Angkor Wat temples, Cambodia might seem like a prospering developing nation. Espresso bars and French hotels have popped up, and Cambodians with money can move into high-end serviced apartments fronting the Mekong. In recent years, growth rates often have topped 6 percent annually. But this sheen of development conceals a much harsher reality. Nearly all the wealth has gone to a tiny circle of elites around the prime minister, while, as Brinkley shows, the rest of the country suffers from poverty and hunger. The per capita income is one-third that of North Korea, and half the population goes to school for fewer than three years. Malnutrition rates are rising even as they fall nearly everywhere else in Asia, and most hospitals are nothing but disease-ridden shacks where patients come to lie down and die.

The country’s politics, too, are miserable. The opposition parties that existed in the 1990s have crumbled in the face of persistent pressure from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, which now dominates the legislature as a one-party giant. Grenade attacks, shootings, and beatings of opposition activists are common, and the vibrant civil society that emerged in the early 1990s is dying, with union leaders and NGO heads fleeing into exile. Other opposition politicians are simply bought off. Brinkley describes a common stratagem in which opposition politicians who agree to throw in their lot with the ruling party are given control of parts of certain ministries, which allows them to loot public coffers to help themselves and their families.

Meanwhile, politically powerful men and women can act with total impunity— they can grab land, steal from the public treasury, or even kill peasants, without repercussions. The tribunal designed to try former Khmer Rouge leaders has focused on only a handful of the top cadres, leaving hundreds of ex-Khmer Rouge to wander free across the country. In the kind of incident that is all too common, a nephew of the prime minister ran down a man on a motorcycle with his Escalade SUV, tearing off the other man’s arm and leg and leaving him bleeding to death in the middle of a crowded street in the capital. As the motorcycle driver died, Hun Sen’s nephew was greeted by military police, who comforted him—and then took the license plates off of his car, making it harder for anyone to report the crime.

How did such a massive, and in many ways idealistic, UN operation fail so miserably? Brinkley too often resorts to cultural essentialism, blaming what he sees as traits inherent in Cambodian psychology and culture for the country’s problems. He claims that Buddhism has made Cambodians passive, willing to accept tyrants since the time of the Angkor Empire a millennium ago. There have in fact been multiple uprisings against oppressive rulers in Cambodia, including against the former French colonists and the Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s. I have personally seen any number of passionate demonstrations in Phnom Penh and other parts of the country, protesting, among other things, illegal land grabs, discrimination against HIV sufferers, and political graft. Brinkley argues that Cambodian customs basically have not changed since the autocratic Angkorian era, ignoring the fact that the country’s urban areas today are wired, its opposition activists have deep relationships with other Asian nations, and its years of war and foreign occupation greatly changed traditional customs and mind-sets.

In fact, the real explanation for Cambodia’s misery can be found in the decisions made by the country’s top leaders, and UN complicity in them. Cambodian rulers used the power of the state primarily to enrich a few elites and their allies. The UN, for its part, was mostly focused on holding elections, the most visible way to claim success. Inspired by the belief that they would finally have a chance to determine their own destiny, in 1993 Cambodians turned out in overwhelming numbers for a national election, which was won by the royalist party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh. But Hun Sen, who in the 1980s had served as prime minister in the Vietnamese-installed government, refused to concede the election, and threatened a return to civil war. In an unconscionable decision, the international community went along with the installment of Hun Sen as co-prime minister. From that point on, Brinkley notes, Cambodians lost the trust that their votes would really matter.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s political leaders have morphed into a kind of elected autocracy, an increasingly common situation in the developing world. For Hun Sen, and even for opposition leaders like Ranariddh, all of whom grew up in the winner-take-all climate of civil war-era Cambodia, politics have remained a zero-sum game. The concept of a loyal opposition does not exist. And Hun Sen, by far the savviest and most ruthless of the country’s politicians, has played this game the hardest. After 1993, he built up his personal bodyguard corps, whom he could deploy during campaigns to harass or kill opposition politicians. He also recruited the country’s most prominent businesspeople to his side, giving them access to the government, control of valuable natural resources, and ceremonial titles as they allegedly kicked back money to him and his family. (The prime minister now lives in a lavish estate on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, despite making a modest official salary.) He eventually even bought off his biggest rival, Ranariddh, by giving him control of enough ministries to ensure that the opposition leader could himself become fabulously wealthy.

As Hun Sen consolidated his power (this year, he will celebrate some twenty-six years in control), Western donors began to accept that they would have to work with him. Until recently, these donors provided the bulk of Cambodia’s budget, but they never used their leverage to demand real reform. For more than a decade, for example, Cambodia’s parliament has promised donors such as the U.S., France, and Japan that it would enact a tough anticorruption law. But for years, the parliament has held up the bill, citing one ridiculous excuse after another. Nonetheless, each year the donors pledge more large sums after hearing promises that this will be the year the anticorruption bill will finally pass.

One of the most devastating sections of Brinkley’s book is about this Western toleration of Hun Sen’s thuggery. Compared to many other major aid recipients, Cambodia is a pretty cushy place for foreigners to work. With its legacy of French colonialism, quick air links to Bangkok, new French bars and restaurants, and beautiful homes—all at discount prices—Phnom Penh is a very attractive place to live. Despite the crime and poverty that afflicts Cambodian society, foreigners are rarely attacked. Aid workers who live in Cambodia thus seem to have no incentive to push their bosses to withhold assistance. “For a lot of these aid workers, they are happy in Phnom Penh—it’s really a pretty nice place for them to live. So they don’t want to cut off aid,” says Brinkley.

Though Brinkley only touches on this point at the end of his book, developing nations like Cambodia now have new models of development that mix successful capitalism with undemocratic rule. They can copy the example of China—and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam or the United Arab Emirates—and delink prosperous free-market capitalism from democratization. It is noteworthy that China has, in recent years, become far more powerful in Cambodia, surpassing the influence of the Western nations. It is now the largest donor and investor in the country, and Chinese companies have been buying up large swaths of land for a kind of plantation agriculture, often in collaboration with Cambodian tycoons who are close to Hun Sen. Cambodian peasants living on the land are unceremoniously kicked off, with minimal compensation. Chinese schools have proliferated across Phnom Penh, and China has begun training Cambodian military officers—one reason why the Pentagon, despite its concerns about Cambodia’s atrocious human rights record, has been upgrading its defense ties with the country.

Two decades ago, Hun Sen castigated the People’s Republic of China as an enemy of Cambodia for backing the murderous Khmer Rouge. Today, he lavishes praise on his Chinese counterparts, clearly understanding that China provides him leverage over Western donors. China is “a long-lasting close friend,” Hun Sen declared earlier this year as he presided over the opening of a rural bridge financed by the People’s Republic. China, of course, says little about Hun Sen’s tough approach to politics while his government has complied with China’s demands: when a group of Uighur refugees, the embattled ethnic minority from western China, arrived in Cambodia in late 2009, seeking sanctuary from China’s oppression, the Cambodian government promptly deported them back to China, over the objections of UN agencies.

In the concluding section of his book, after hundreds of pages of examples of the Cambodian leadership’s failure to address the problems of poverty, environmental destruction, and political thuggishness, Brinkley offers a thin gruel of hope. As Cambodia begins to open up to the world, he says, a Cambodian middle class, more forceful and demanding than their parents and grandparents, eventually will push harder for real change, finally leading the country to throw off the yoke of tyranny.

I am not that optimistic. Hun Sen is only sixty years old, and easily could stay in office for another decade or more. He faces no real opposition now, and whatever global ferment has been created by the uprisings this spring in the Arab world, it has not resonated in Cambodia. Meanwhile, the major Western donors seem totally unwilling to cut off aid in order to push for democratic governance. And as China becomes more powerful, and the U.S., Japan, and other democratic donors slash their foreign aid, Beijing will only gain more leverage over Cambodia, making it even less likely that any outside forces will push for real democratic change. Reversing years of criticism of Hun Sen, Washington has increasingly built ties with his government, worried about losing out to China for strategic influence in the region. Despite all the country’s problems, at the most recent donor-pledging conference on Cambodia, last June, Western democracies gave the country $1.1 billion, a record amount. And so, ruined by both its own rulers and its overindulgent “friends,” Cambodia’s curse continues.

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