On Political Books

July/August 2011 No Holiday in Cambodia

How the United Nations foots the bill for a state ruled by thugs.

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land
by Joel Brinkley
Public Affairs, 416 pp.

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.

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.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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