The Modern History of a Troubled Land
by Joel Brinkley
PublicAffairs, 2011, 386 pp., $27.99
“Keeping (you) is no gain, losing (you) is no loss.” On the basis of this formula the ruling Khmer Rouge angkar (organization) justified killing a third of the Cambodian population between 1975 and 1979. To build their Maoist utopia, Pol Pot’s auto-genocidal revolutionary regime saw the population as class “strata” rather than human beings. The monstrous consequences of this straitened ideological thinking define the troubled legacy that Joel Brinkley discloses in this compelling history of modern Cambodia.
Cambodia, where post-traumatic stress continues to disturb the majority of the population, remains a profoundly troubled state. Riddled with corruption and ruled by a kleptocratic elite, “among the South East Asian countries”, Brinkley observes, “only Burma is poorer, on a per capita basis. . . . Even North Koreans are more prosperous.” Although thirty years have passed since the end of Democratic Kampuchea’s utopian experiment and the country abounds in natural and agricultural resources, the majority of Cambodia’s seven million people live in grinding poverty.
Why, Brinkley asks, despite $18 billion worth of aid dispensed by international donor agencies since 1992 and the active engagement of the World Bank and the World Health Organization supervising the country’s health and welfare, does Cambodia still achieve one of the lowest standards of living on the planet? A whole host of NGOs have fallen over themselves to promote human rights, even as the United Nations briefly administered the country and oversaw its first democratic election, so why is the country’s politics still so authoritarian and corrupt, and its human rights record so abysmal? What has gone so very wrong?
Brinkley first travelled to Cambodia in 1979 as neighboring Vietnam was overthrowing the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime and inserting Heng Samrin as its puppet. In 1985, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge district commander, replaced Heng Samrin and began cementing his tenacious grip on power. As a journalist for the Louisville Courier Journal, Brinkley covered the misery of the Cambodian refugee camps along the Thai border from 1979–80. He won a Pulitzer for that work, and in 1983 he began a 23-year career with the New York Times. In 2008, two years after leaving the Times for a professorship in journalism at Stanford, he returned to assess what had happened in the interim.
The interim initially saw a byzantine diplomatic effort to eject Vietnam and its proxies from Cambodia. This was the Cold War, and its unyielding logic decreed that, instead of welcoming the removal of Pol Pot’s regime, the West, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China all condemned the Soviet-backed Vietnamese invasion. The Khmer Rouge, together with the royalist forces of former King Sihanouk, who had been dethroned in a U.S.-supported coup in 1970,1 and led by Sihanouk’s son, Prince Ranaridh, received international support for their resistance to the Vietnamese invaders. Somewhat problematically for the Western liberal conscience, the Khmer Rouge represented Cambodia at the United Nations until 1990. “Cambodia”, as Brinkley explains, “was stuck in a mire, occupied by its mortal enemy, represented before the United Nations by its former genocidal government, governed by Communist dictators, despised in the West (and) locked out of any significant assistance or aid.”
This surreal situation only resolved itself when the decaying Soviet Union abandoned its support for Vietnam in the late 1980s. China, together with the United States and France, the former colonial power, eventually agreed in Paris in 1990 to oppose the return of the Khmer Rouge regime. Instead, the United Nations would administer the failed state as a transitional authority until a new, somehow genuinely defined Cambodian government could be put in place. The peace of Paris, French President François Mitterand declared, had turned “a dark page in history.”
Yet from the outset, the United Nations Transitional Authority Cambodia (UNTAC) demonstrated what became a depressingly familiar feature of the UN’s post-Cold War intervention track record in failed and failing states: an inability to impose any coherent authority. Thus in May 1992 the recently installed civilian director of UNTAC, Yasushi Akashi, and the mission’s Australian military commander, John Sandilands, arrived at an illegitimate Khmer Rouge check point (actually a bamboo pole wedged in a rock) manned by one young Khmer soldier in western Cambodia. The soldier refused them passage. The rebuffed administrator meekly withdrew to Phnom Penh, imprecating darkly, “The Security Council will hear about this.”
The incident neatly captures the UN’s impotence, if not also its fecklessness, in dealing with competing political factions in Cambodia. The UN banned Khmer Rouge participation in national elections held in 1992, but they lingered as a political, economic and military presence in western Cambodia anyway until the death of Brother No. 1, Pol Pot himself, in 1998. Even then, and after the aging remnant of the Khmer leadership struck a deal with the government, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) showed little interest in prosecuting those responsible for the mass murder of the 1970s.
Meanwhile, in May 1993, after ratification of a UN-designed constitution, 90 percent of the eligible electorate went to the polls to elect a government. King Sihanouk, reinstated as the ceremonial head of state, looked on enigmatically. He had good reason to do so. Despite intimidation by both the Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), Sihanouk’s son, Prince Ranaridh, and his royalist FUNCINPEC party, won 58 of the new parliament’s 120-seat chamber.2 That was not good enough, according to the new constitution, to form a government. To achieve the necessary two-thirds majority, Ranaridh needed a junior coalition partner or two.
Hun Sen had clearly lost the election, but what he did not get in votes he made up for through the advent of other means. Controlling the media and the armed forces and conducting a campaign based on what became an irresistible political formula of, in Brinkley’s apt description, “murders, maimings, threats and bribes”, the CPP soon acquired 51 seats despite winning only a fraction of that number in the election proper. This compelled Ranaridh, via his father’s elusive deal-making, into a problematic power-sharing arrangement with the loser. Alas, this is the sort of thing that can happen when one conducts democratic elections in the absence of solid democratic political institutions of any kind.
As Hun Sen presciently remarked during the Paris peace negotiations, “You can talk about sharing power in Paris, but not in Cambodia.” The period between 1992 and 1998 witnessed an inexorable and occasionally violent struggle for total political control between Cambodia’s divided elite players: the aging Sihanouk; his increasingly estranged son Ranaridh, and the implacable Hun Sen. Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy, the somewhat capricious darling of the international human rights lobby, also played an intermittently significant political role. In 1997, Rainsy’s Khmer National Party organized a demonstration in Phnom Penh against government venality. The peaceful demonstration culminated in a grenade attack that left 16 dead. The international community expressed outrage, and even the FBI got involved in the subsequent criminal investigation. But this was Cambodia, so no one was prosecuted.
The 1997 attack, however, dramatically illustrated Hun Sen’s approach to power sharing and electoral democracy. As the country again prepared to go to the polls, Ranaridh tried to preempt Hun Sen’s inexorable rise, launching a coup against his ostensible co-Prime Minister. It was easily thwarted. Subsequently, occasional drive-by shootings, grenade throwing and the odd eye-gouging of FUNCINPEC activists characterized the 1998 election campaign. The result saw the CPP achieve 41 percent of the vote and 53 percent of the seats in parliament. Ranaridh and Rainsy’s parties, which together received 46 percent of the vote, were progressively marginalized. Intimidation and brutality during the subsequent 2003 and 2008 election campaigns enabled Hun Sen to remove all opposition and consolidate single-party rule.
Though increasingly regarded as a villain in Washington, Hun Sen still received the plaudits of international observers. Despite the questionable conduct of the 1998 and 2003 elections, the UN, World Bank and a host of NGOs presented the developing autocracy as a success story. Aid agencies continued to pour millions of dollars into “the miracle on the Mekong.”
It was far from it. Brinkley describes how Hun Sen and his CPP acolytes siphoned the aid money to extend their grip on the developing state, enriching themselves at the expense of the Cambodian population. Their conduct curiously resembled that of the God King-ruled slave society of Jayavarmen VII (1181–1218), which was responsible for the formidable 12th-century temple site at Angkor Wat. It is perhaps fitting, albeit in an altogether depressing way, that Angkor Wat now functions as a source of revenue for what amounts to a UN-sanctioned 21st-century predator state.
Growing dissonance between the international community’s commitment to rebuilding the failed Cambodian state and the actual experience of the Cambodian people had reached epic dimensions by the time Brinkley composed his study. In health, education, access to the rule of law, property rights, or the husbanding of agriculture, mineral and forestry resources, the tale is one of abuse, corruption, exploitation, extra judicial execution and casual brutality.
Courtesy of a curious mixture of delusion and naivety, the World Bank, the UN aid agencies and various NGOs colluded in this predation. Thus while the World Bank country director could blandly announce that Cambodia’s government had developed “sustainable forestry management plans”, the reality was that the regime made a practice of granting contracts to favored businessmen, or oknya, who clear-felled the land and evicted the peasants who were subsisting on it. In 2006, World Bank investigators somewhat belatedly observed that their officers in Phnom Penh had so myopically pursued “phony regulations that they ignored what was really going on. If they had bothered to lift their eyes from their desks and look out the window”, Brinkley writes, letting the facts understatedly convey his outrage, “they would have seen that the government had authorized an estimated three to four million cubic meters of illegal logging.” Yet all the while, the Bank’s office director lauded the enactment of new regulations.
An analogous combination of phony regulation concealing public- and private-sector cupidity characterized the treatment of peasant land rights. The 2001 Land Law, ostensibly designed to secure those rights, gave “anyone who lived on a piece of land for at least five years ownership and the right to legal title.” The World Bank disbursed $24.3 million supporting a program to register land title.
However, the government “never wrote the enabling regulations and chose not to enforce” the land law. As property values rose after 2007, land seizures by government-connected oknya reached epidemic proportions. Somewhat predictably, in 2009, World Bank investigators observed “a disconnect between institutional legal and policy achievements and insecurity of land tenure for the poor, especially in urban areas and for indigenous people.” Or as one peasant landholder kicked off her title in the downtown put it:
The police, 300 or 400 of them (came). They said if we refuse to leave they would bulldoze down our homes. They put us on trucks and took us out here and dumped us. There’s no business out here except picking bamboo and other wild things from the forest.
As Brinkley comments, “bank officials set up a program and allowed it to run for years, boasted about the number of titles granted—and ignored the egregious land seizures.”
A similar pattern of peculation informs the Cambodian approach to health and education. International agencies fund public schools and their teachers, but most families do not send their children because “they simply cannot afford to pay the bribes” the teachers demand to supplement their pay. Cambodians quickly learn that schooling is an education in bribery.
Similarly, it’s not a good idea to be poor and sick since doctors and nurses require payment in advance. As the Swiss physician Dr. Beat Richner explains, “Corruption is a killer, it takes thousands of lives. If you show up (at a hospital) and can’t pay, no one will help you.” Not surprisingly, despite the presence of the Red Cross and World Health Organization, infant mortality remains high, a quarter of the population faces “food insecurity”, and incidences of both tuberculosis and malnutrition are rising. Meanwhile, when the World Bank gave $11.9 million for several sanitation projects, it subsequently found that, as Brinkley tells us, “the money was being squandered in a typically Cambodian festival of corruption.”
Indeed, a 2003 USAID report revealed Cambodian government corruption on a scale so grand as to put most African vampire regimes to shame. Officials “stole up to $500 million each and every year—about half the state’s annual budget.” Brinkley adds that the other half of their state’s budget consisted of donations from NGOs: “In effect, the government’s chieftains left the care of the people to foreign donors while using the state’s money to care for themselves.”
This “grand corruption” has built a social pyramid that, as Brinkley describes it, has “petty exactions meeting the survival needs of policemen, teachers and health workers, but also officials higher in the system.” In this way, a hierarchy of patronage and mutual obligations form the core of a gravity-defying “all embracing system” whose beneficiaries are those at the top of the structure.
Corruption in Cambodia is thus systemic. This is the curse that Brinkley exposes in all its nauseating detail. Its ultimate causes, however, he finds perplexing. They lie, he avers, to some extent in a Cambodian political culture of face saving and nepotism, adumbrated by ingrained habits of Buddhist fatalism that render the masses of people passive and resistant to change. “Hun Sen’s hold on power”, we are told, “drew on many strengths and strategies, among them nepotism and inter marriage.” In fact, government is a “network of marital and professional nepotism.” For Brinkley this demonstrates the fact that “in a nation where no one trusted anyone else . . . the family stood as the only social grouping” in which people exhibit confidence.
This is undoubtedly accurate, but why it should be puzzling is itself rather puzzling. Nepotism and crony business-government linkages are the norm throughout Southeast Asia, from the military junta in Burma to the sophisticated controls the People’s Action Party (PAP) exercises over the Singaporean state. In no country in the region has the state, as we define it according to standard sociological criteria, fully overcome patrimonialism. What makes Cambodia different, however, is the role of the so-called international community, which has aided and abetted the corruption curse with such myopic abandon that it has allowed it to grow into a hydrocephalic monster.
The expat NGO community, together with sex tourists of every predilection, live and play along the fashionable Phnom Penh riverside districts of Sisiwath Quay and Beung Keng Kang. They no doubt enjoy the fact that, as one tourist guide explains, the capital “is a surprisingly good little party town offering a dusk till dawn nightlife.” The NGO community, it seems, doesn’t want to spoil the aid party. In the process they have created a parallel universe of internationally approved norms and regulations that look great on paper but are unenforceable in practice. It has also become something of a convention for international observers to argue that they have to work with Hun Sen because he has given the country stability and the prospect of something termed “good governance.”
Brinkley’s is a revealing tale of delusion and corruption told with considerable panache. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, that he concludes his exposé on a provisionally upbeat note. The UN occupation, despite its faults, has left “an enduring gift” to Cambodia. The gift takes the form not of a functioning health or education system but of “a true democratic style of government” that affords “a breath of hope.” In the right hands, Brinkley believes, Hun Sen’s “one-party job protection racket could be undone.” Brinkley does not speculate about whose hands those might be.
In his epilogue, Brinkley also notes, somewhat confusingly, that a former Cambodian government official thinks Cambodia is “moving to the Myanmar model.” Aside from the fact that it is by no means clear which model is worse, the statement is misleading. Myanmar increasingly looks to the Cambodian model for political guidance. What the Burmese military junta admires in Cambodia is its successful adaptation of the ASEAN way in politics, where a potent mix of money politics, crony capitalism, media and judicial control guarantees favorable electoral outcomes, ensuring the continued rule of a nepotistic elite. This is the arrangement Cambodia has all but perfected with a degree of thuggery not practiced elsewhere.
Moreover, now that China has emerged as the largest aid donor to the mendicant Cambodian state, this style of governance is unlikely to change. The CPP elite, like the Khmer Rouge and the God Kings of Angkor Wat before them, will continue to treat the people as strata meant to enrich the party state. In the fullness of time we will need to ask ourselves a very difficult question: Just how much of an aberration was the Khmer Rouge, after all?
1See William Shawcross, “The Coup”, in Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (Hogarth Press, 1986), pp. 112–27.
2FUNCINPEC, the Front Uni National Pour un Cambodge Independent, Neutre, Pacifique et Cooperatif (United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative, Cambodia), was founded by Sihanouk in 1981.