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

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.

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

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