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

Though Brinkley only touches on this point at the end of his book, developing nations like Cambodia now have new models of development that mix successful capitalism with undemocratic rule. They can copy the example of China—and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam or the United Arab Emirates—and delink prosperous free-market capitalism from democratization. It is noteworthy that China has, in recent years, become far more powerful in Cambodia, surpassing the influence of the Western nations. It is now the largest donor and investor in the country, and Chinese companies have been buying up large swaths of land for a kind of plantation agriculture, often in collaboration with Cambodian tycoons who are close to Hun Sen. Cambodian peasants living on the land are unceremoniously kicked off, with minimal compensation. Chinese schools have proliferated across Phnom Penh, and China has begun training Cambodian military officers—one reason why the Pentagon, despite its concerns about Cambodia’s atrocious human rights record, has been upgrading its defense ties with the country.

Two decades ago, Hun Sen castigated the People’s Republic of China as an enemy of Cambodia for backing the murderous Khmer Rouge. Today, he lavishes praise on his Chinese counterparts, clearly understanding that China provides him leverage over Western donors. China is “a long-lasting close friend,” Hun Sen declared earlier this year as he presided over the opening of a rural bridge financed by the People’s Republic. China, of course, says little about Hun Sen’s tough approach to politics while his government has complied with China’s demands: when a group of Uighur refugees, the embattled ethnic minority from western China, arrived in Cambodia in late 2009, seeking sanctuary from China’s oppression, the Cambodian government promptly deported them back to China, over the objections of UN agencies.

In the concluding section of his book, after hundreds of pages of examples of the Cambodian leadership’s failure to address the problems of poverty, environmental destruction, and political thuggishness, Brinkley offers a thin gruel of hope. As Cambodia begins to open up to the world, he says, a Cambodian middle class, more forceful and demanding than their parents and grandparents, eventually will push harder for real change, finally leading the country to throw off the yoke of tyranny.

I am not that optimistic. Hun Sen is only sixty years old, and easily could stay in office for another decade or more. He faces no real opposition now, and whatever global ferment has been created by the uprisings this spring in the Arab world, it has not resonated in Cambodia. Meanwhile, the major Western donors seem totally unwilling to cut off aid in order to push for democratic governance. And as China becomes more powerful, and the U.S., Japan, and other democratic donors slash their foreign aid, Beijing will only gain more leverage over Cambodia, making it even less likely that any outside forces will push for real democratic change. Reversing years of criticism of Hun Sen, Washington has increasingly built ties with his government, worried about losing out to China for strategic influence in the region. Despite all the country’s problems, at the most recent donor-pledging conference on Cambodia, last June, Western democracies gave the country $1.1 billion, a record amount. And so, ruined by both its own rulers and its overindulgent “friends,” Cambodia’s curse continues.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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


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