Cambodia After Year Zero

June 28, 2011


Cambodia After Year Zero

By Joel Whitney
Published: June 24, 2011

In the preface to “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land,” Joel Brink­ley recalls his first encounter with Cambodia. Brinkley was reporting for The Louisville Courier-Journal from a refugee camp near the Thai border in 1979, in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s reign.

“As they tell of years of horror and misery,” Brinkley wrote, “their faces are expressionless and dull . . . as if they’re talking about a dull day of work. Their tales end with a nodding acknowledgment of the death of their nation and culture.” Brinkley, who later worked for The New York Times, finds little has changed in the 32 years since then.

As the title suggests, his book is an unabashed plea to refocus international aid and diplomacy on a suffering people. It is also an attempt to hold some of those responsible for that suffering accountable — but not all.Cambodia lost a quarter of its population under the Khmer Rouge. For many, survival meant 14-hour days of backbreaking work, often on little more than a cupful of rice or a smattering of gruel. You could be killed on the least suspicion you sympathized with the Vietnamese. The effects of this period have proven hard to shake.

Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries. “Among Southeast Asian nations,” Brinkley writes, “only Burma is poorer, on a per capita basis.” At least 30 percent of Cambodians live on less than a dollar a day. About 40 percent of children suffer from stunting (failure to develop because of poor nutrition). In 2010 only 30 percent of Cambodian middle-school-age students were enrolled in school. Asia’s self-described “longest ruling prime minister,” Hun Sen, is a murderous kleptocrat, Brinkley shows. Corruption is rife. The sick may die waiting for treatment if they cannot pay doctors’ bribes in hospitals.

Statistics of suffering aside, “Cambodia’s Curse,” when it is at its most thorough, acknowledges the role of rich countries in this disaster. Every year for more than a decade, Brinkley recounts, donor organizations and states made toothless pleas that Hun Sen pass an anti-corruption law. But once money was pledged, the law would stall another year. As a result of this annual pas de deux, donors had given Hun Sen $18 billion by 2010, essentially with no strings, before the law was enacted. And when it finally did pass last year, it had been gutted into meaninglessness.

“Some Cambodians and others remained astounded by the donors’ behavior,” Brinkley writes. Why didn’t they withhold aid? Echoing the economist Dambisa Moyo, Brinkley suggests that the corruption is symbiotic. “If they cut off aid to the government, as the human rights groups were demanding, many donors would lose their jobs.”

Cambodians also suffer from widespread post-traumatic stress disorder. A study by the Cambodian psychiatrist Muny Sothara found PTSD “in 47 percent of the population”; another study, of Cambodian refugees in Massachusetts, found that 60 percent of PTSD victims there suffered from sleep paralysis, a half-conscious state of catatonia. Even Hun Sen shows signs of the malady. One official, describing his own PTSD, relives his experience of starvation: “I would like to inform you that I am very, very hungry.” Social scientists are finding that PTSD is being passed from one generation to the next. Has this become Cambodia’s curse?

Or is impunity the curse? In the aftermath of Pol Pot’s death in 1998, the United Nations partnered with Cambodia’s judges to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Brinkley explains the logic of the costly proceedings. “If nothing else, Ieng Sary fed the state’s omnipresent culture of impunity,” he writes of one Khmer Rouge leader. “If he, with the blood of two million people on his hands, faced no penalty, no censure, no retribution, how hard was it to accept the killing of a journalist here, a trade-union official there?” On June 27, three Khmer Rouge leaders will face trial. Last July, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was sentenced to 19 years.

Americans too frequently seem to enable monsters abroad, then recommend policies to reverse the damage. The United States did not directly foist the Khmer Rouge on Cambodia. But Brink­ley describes how Lon Nol, who was friendly to Washington, overthrew Prince Sihanouk in a 1970 coup, and how the prince, in frustration, implored Cambodians to join the Khmer Rouge.

Brinkley disputes any further American complicity, even though the United States continued a secret carpet bombing campaign until 1973. But two scholars, Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, have seized on data on the bombing released by President Bill Clinton; beginning under Lyndon Johnson, the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia than the Allies dropped in all of World War II.

Brinkley seems to dismiss the argument that the extensive bombing, with its tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, might have added urgency to Sihanouk’s plea to join the Khmer Rouge. Yet Owen and Kiernan report that former C.I.A. and Khmer Rouge officers affirmed the American bombing helped the Khmer Rouge win support.It seems clear that “Cambodia’s Curse,” apart from providing a portrait of a “troubled land,” holds implications for other American interventions that are worth serious debate.

Brinkley portrays Cambodia from what some may see as a post partisan humanitarian standpoint. But given Washington’s role today in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it might have been braver if he had chosen to hold Americans, and not just Cambodians, accountable for the suffering he so movingly describes.

Joel Whitney is an editor of Guernica: A Magazine of Art& Politics.

A version of this review appeared in print on June 26, 2011, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: After Year Zero.

16 thoughts on “Cambodia After Year Zero

  1. That’s right. Stay off the hot button issues of domestic politics. A good product mix will be less of a threat. The rest is just good labelling and a new marketing strategy. The doctrine may be that of caveat emptor but remember, the consumer is still king. Get my drift?

  2. Being prudent, Mongkut Bean. Sure, I got your drift. BERSIH2.0 remains an issue and my message has not changed. Najib should exercise leadership on the issue.

    I will be reading this book, Cambodia’s Curse, soon. Cambodia is a reminder of what can go wrong with ideology-based politics and myopia. The Khmer Rouge operatives are one screwed up bunch, and their leaders like Khieu Samphan and former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary are now on trial for crimes against the Cambodian people. It does not pay to abuse power. Retribution comes sooner or later. This is a historical fact. Mobutu and Uganda’s Idi Amin suffered for their dictatorial ways, and Marcos and Suharto, nearer home, paid their price. Pol Pot of Cambodia too met his fate as he was poisoned by his associates to prevent Hun Sen’s forces from getting to him in Anlong Veng, Northwestern Cambodia in 1998. Herr Hitler the Fuhrer committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.

    Semper Fi’s associate, Mike Rice (pictures above at Toul Sleng) and I spent some time touring the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum during our recent visit to Phnom Penh, but Semper Fi who was with us was not comfortable to join us. Man’s cruelty to man is too gruesome and too much for him. We understood and respected the feelings of our ex-Marine. –Din Merican

  3. Originally posted on another thread:

    To suggest a parallel between Malaysia under the oppressive UMNO regime and Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge would be a bridge too far. But one cannot fail to miss the similarity. Both regimes are steeped into social engineering. Kampuchea under Pol Pot obliterated an entire class of intellectuals. Be that as it may, nobody is suggesting that the UMNO led government is about to embark on the same journey and murder some 1.4 million of its people. The message to the members of the Malay intelligentsia in particular is that they should hunker down for a long, drawn out trench warfare, a one-sided battle between a resourceful enemy and a depleting line of renegades who don’t know whether they are coming or going.

    Dato’s regular visits to Phnom Penh may be about to take on a sinister motive.

  4. Yes Bean, that is what i was referring to.
    The death of intellectualism and professionalism.
    No more independent thinking or individuality.
    I was just talking to a PAS functionary who will in the Bersih 2.0 rally with my son, and reminded him that he’s fighting for ‘pantun’, besides the what is obvious. My kid was mightily offended, when his varsity warned the students against taking part.

    When it comes to “Killing Fields” – it can be taken allegorically too. Nothing is sacred for Tyrants. The point to remember is that the ones who rule by fear and intimidation are perverse in logic too. Their temporal authority is inviolate and they cannot imagine themselves sitting on the dock.
    In the case of FLOM, there is also a matter of “Manifest Destiny” and “Mandate of Heaven”, besides mere ‘Expediency’.

  5. The fault of our leaders and that of many Third World despots is that they think they are destined to rule and lord over the rakyat.

    Al Kutty felt he was doing fine with his many ground-braking policies until power got into his head. He soon assumed that his Midas touch could turn anything and everything into gold by merely touching them.

    The one “good turn” he had done for Umno was to turn the country upside down so his successors could continue with his legacy unhindered. I don’t think Sleepy Head and Pinkie Lips would have dared to do what Al Kutty had done. This guy is the epitome of evil.

  6. FLOM is fiercely loyal to her man. This is what Najib needs at this time when he cannot trust his UMNO colleagues who have ambitions of their own and could be after his job.

  7. FLOM can also mean First ‘L’elaki or ‘L’anun.. etc, muthu.
    At the moment, i’m not quite sure what it stands for as confusion reigns.

    As far as i see it, Tok, a Leader must lead. We can hem and haw about all the evil Octo had done, but he’s not in charge. Although he wields significant influence with his adoring die-hard fans, he can only ‘main belakang’. Dopey too had his day in the clouded sky, praying to a strange Superstition. That’s in the past.

    This FLOM however, is marching in place – neither forwards in which he has to challenge his political opponents from PR in a general election; nor backwards to shore up his position within his party by elections. He is not only ‘lembek’ but is seen as hypocritical, inane, incompetent, hesitant, procrastinating, crass, witless and lacking principles. You may want to add in other epithet. In short, he is very Dangerous and behaving like a drowning rat. No matter, we should have complete confidence that gravity always does it’s work.

  8. Dato Din
    Toul Sleng is gruesome. Imagine torturing and killing innocent men, women and children? The pictures of the victims and their dazed looks should melt anyone’s heart. Animals kill to eat but men kill for what?

    Over here cats and dogs are treated better. You read the news everyday how the fire department rescues puppies and kittens from drains and holes in the ground and other domestic animals are saved from flood waters or wild fires.

    Toul Sleng serves as a reminders to all visitors about the sufferings of 1.4 million Khmers at the hands of the Khmer Rogue. Ibrahim Ali and Perkasa if left unchecked will resort to such actions. Time that the government of Malaysia take swift action to snip Perkasa. Or else our children and grand children will one day set up a Malaysian Toul Sleng.

  9. Mr Fi,

    Ideology and ideologues. Ibrahim Ali is an ideologue, albeit not a clever one. He is dangerous because he is stupid and his followers are even more stupid. Their activities must be checked and not used to serve a political purpose. It calls for bold leadership of our country.I do not see how Najib can be such a leader. He is nothing more than just a petty politician, not a national leader. That fact is now clear. 17 months plus of talk, but zero action.

  10. It’s better to be the Sun than as Berita Hairan or Utusan Meloya. Anyway you have a choice of not visiting this site. Visit at your detriment.

  11. Yes, anon, if so please read the Sun. When I put up articles on this blog, I expect intelligent comments on issues, be they civil society matters, economics, politics, history, or international affairs.–Din Merican

  12. To follow up on confidence and belligerence that arises from ignorance (pointed out by Muthu): why would you want to dominate, subjugate and conquer if you had any inkling of the complexities of even normal social interaction or enterprise?

    “Ironically, the person whose goals are most narrow and whose awareness of side effects is most rudimentary can be defined as most powerful.” – David Brin

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