Monday, February 10, 2014

Book review: Cambodia's Curse

Joel Brinkley's book of recent history in Southeast Asia, Cambodia's Curse, is an arduous read. Not because of its density, nor its length, nor its obscurity. In fact, the book is neither dense, nor lengthy, nor obscure. What makes this book a difficult read is the subject matter and the depressing picture it paints.

Brinkley is a veteran foreign journalist who made his name reporting on Cambodia at the time of the fall from power of Pol Pott's murderous Khmer Rouge regime. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnamese invasion that occurred in 1979.

Cambodia's Curse, however, deals with the post-Khmer Rouge years of Cambodia. Mercifully, Brinkley does not dwell on the abuses that occurred during the Pol Pott days. They're mentioned, but I expect he deemed that enough has already been written about that. And what he does write about is bad enough.

After a brief historical synopsis, Brinkley launches into an exposition of the state of Cambodia in the immediate aftermath of the genocidal years. Cambodia became a laboratory for high-minded United Nations experimentation. The UN and its constituent members found a state in utter chaos and poverty and responded with a generous attempt (to the tune of $3 billion) to create a modern nation-state ready to join the community of nations. The UN attempted to introduce notions of self-determination and good government to the traumatized Cambodia people. But, Brinkley reports, Cambodia wasn't ready for it. Cambodians were mostly illiterate and uneducated and their history, since the days of the great Angkhor kings in the 8th century, was of a land governed by feudalism.

Brinkley chronicles how the well-intentioned efforts of the global community fell victim to the  Cambodian curse of government nepotism and corruption. He relates how the people, downtrodden and despondent, have learned to accept their condition.

Cambodia is a nation that will not face its past. For example, Khmer Rouge war criminals live among the people they once wantonly killed without fear of being held to account for their crimes. Mental health experts estimate that much of the population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Remember, Pol Pott and his gang murdered nearly one quarter of the nation's entire population.)

Cambodian government is little more than organized crime. Government leaders, among them crafty strongman Hun Sen, jealous princeling Norodom Ranariddh, and Sam Rainsy, the clownish opposition leader, spend tremendous energies vying against one another, playing to foreign governments, maneuvering for political position, and generally ignoring the needs of their desperate people. As foreign aid money pour into the country, the cancer of corruption metastasizes.

Brinkley also describes the plight of everyday Cambodians: survivors of the notorious Killing Fields, impoverished farmers, people displaced by aribtrary and corrupt government policies. Cambodian children often grow stunted from the effects of malnutrition. There are precious few doctors and educators and other professionals in the country. No one is free from the effects of corruption. Those children lucky enough to attend school are expected to provide bribes for their teachers who, in turn, pass a portion of their cut up to the principal. Government services are pay-to-play. Poor sanitation, nationwide, lead to regular outbreaks of sanitary-related diseases.

This is why Cambodia's Curse is an arduous read. It is a depressing and near-hopeless portrait. When I got to the end, I didn't see any reason to expect anything better for Cambodians in the foreseeable future. Quite sad, really.

Brinkley has a matter-of-fact delivery. His language is plain. His assessment of politics is thorough. One nit I had with the book was that I could have used more instruction on the pronunciation of Cambodian words.

Cambodia's Curse is informative and factual. I can't say I enjoyed it. But I learned from it. That's enough to make it worthwhile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The book is rife with factual mistakes. I am Cambodian myself and I have lost respect for Mr. Brinkley (RIP to him, though) as a credible journalist (starting from page 247-314 alone). I hate to say it but the man doesn't know real Cambodian history and tradition. But I do agree with his perceptions about the people's attitudes and behavior today.