Cambodia's Curse

Cambodia's Curse: the Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley

Ready for another fascinating, but grim, book about 20th century history and politics?  I hope so.

Joel Brinkley has been reporting on the Cambodia beat for decades; he won a Pulitzer for his coverage in 1979, at the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  For the past 20 years or so, we've mostly been ignoring Cambodia, and Brinkley figures it's time somebody paid a little attention.  Here, he offers a quick run-down of Khmer history, followed by a much more detailed analysis of the past 30 years or so.  It's not good.  Cambodia today is still stuck in a paralyzing mire of corruption, brutality, and ignorance, and Brinkley calls them "the most abused people in the world."  (And he's counting North Korea and Darfur.)

First we have the historical run-down, which starts over a thousand years ago with the glories of Angkor Wat.  All this glory was built upon the backs of ordinary Cambodians, who, as far as the rulers were concerned, existed to grow rice to build wealth for them.  The entire governmental system was geared towards moving wealth from the countryside to the capital.  As Angkor Wat declined and Khmer kings became vassals of other emperors, the same system held, but with the addition of funds from outside; all of which went to enrich elites.

And, Brinkley theorizes, ideas about how to govern pretty much stopped there.  Millions of Cambodians still grow rice (only one crop a year, as opposed to the possible two or three), live in huts, and 'live from nature.' 

At no time has Cambodia ever had anybody in the government who did anything but grab as much money as possible. That is pretty much the sole function of government up to the present day--to make officials rich. Nothing else. Not schools, not hospitals, not clean water or infrastructure.  What infrastructure and education was starting to be developed before the Khmer Rouge took power was destroyed, and has never really recovered.  All the massive world aid that has poured in for decades has gone straight to personal bank accounts.
The majority of Cambodian people are extremely poor, suffer from malnutrition and disease, and are barely literate (even teachers aren't very educated).  Domestic violence, child assault, and all sorts of violence and abuse are common.

The entire system runs on graft, so there is no justice--bribes are the only way to get anything. The court system is run by lawyers and judges who bribed their way through school and don't actually understand the concept of laws.  Cambodia once had dense forests of valuable trees, but they've nearly all been clear-cut and not replanted.  The only thing left is the land itself, which is now being sold out from under the legal owners.

Brinkley tries to end on a note of hope, citing young urban Cambodians with education and more will to change the status quo.  It's a pretty small hope right now, but it's something.

It's a really depressing book, because it's relentless.  Every chapter is a new sad thing.


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